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Orrin Keepnews

| October 4, 2014 | 0 Comments

Orrin Keepnews, one of the most respected producers in jazz history, played an integral role in the birth of modern jazz, having worked with such notable performers as Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery and Cannonball Adderley, not to mention contemporary acts such as Kronos Quartet and jazz vibist Bobby Hutcherson, among others. It’s also worth noting that all of these artists recorded for one of Keepnews’ three record labels: Riverside, Milestone and Landmark.

In 1948, the New York native and Columbia University grad worked as managing editor of Manhattan-based record collector/fan magazine The Record Changer, published by longtime friend Bill Grauer. For that magazine, Keepnews wrote the first national profile on the innovative and oft-unpredictable Monk. Five years later, Keepnews and Grauer moved on to launch Riverside Records and signed Monk as their flagship artist, followed by Evans, Montgomery and Adderley.

Although by the mid-’60s mainstream audiences had ended a brief love affair with jazz and switched to folk, rock ’n’ roll, and The Beatles, Keepnews continued to work steadily through the decade as a producer and label owner. After Riverside folded in 1964, Keepnews founded Milestone Records, home to Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner and saxophone great Sonny Rollins. In the early 1970s, Berkeley-based Fantasy Records not only purchased both the Riverside and Milestone catalogs, but also asked Keepnews to head their jazz division. It was a highly active period, involving both new recording and reissues, but as Keepnews now points out, “It was then I discovered there was a limit on how long I could make myself work for somebody else, even in the best of circumstances.” After leaving Fantasy in 1980, he formed Landmark, which dealt both with emerging newcomers such as pianist Mulgrew Miller and resurgent veterans like trumpet great Donald Byrd, in addition to two unique early albums by the contemporary classical chart-topping Kronos Quartet, one featuring the angular compositions of Thelonious Monk, the other the music of Bill Evans.

Keepnews with Cannonball Adderley in the late 1950s

In the years following, Keepnews has worked extensively as a reissue producer, reinstating several albums he produced the first time around. He’s best known for Fantasy Records compilations of his initial work with Monk, Evans, Montgomery and Henderson, as well as Sonny Rollins, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller reissues for RCA Victor, and Miles Davis and John Coltrane reissues for Prestige. He also works extensively with the Columbia and Savoy labels.

In 1983, Keepnews won a Grammy for “Best Album Notes” with his Bill Evans reissue on Riverside, while the 1987 Thelonious Monk reissue, The Complete Riverside Recording, earned “Best Album Notes” and “Best Historical Album” wins. His albums for Artie Shaw (Self Portrait), Charlie Parker (The Complete Savoy And Dial Studio Recordings 1944-1948) and Duke Ellington (The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition – The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, 1927-1973) each received “Best Historical Album” nominations, with the Ellington box taking home the trophy in 2000. This year, Columbia/Legacy will release a Count Basie Orchestra four-CD retrospective produced by Keepnews and engineered by Mark Wilder.

Outside of the studio, Keepnews remains an active member of NARAS, having held past positions as national trustee and vice-chair, and a current co-chairing position on the awards and nominations committee. Both the New York and San Francisco chapters have presented Keepnews with Governor’s Awards for outstanding achievement.

Today, the 80-year-old Keepnews continues to foster new talent, and remains as active as people half his age. This summer he produced two shows at San Francisco’s Plush Room for emerging jazz vocalist Roberta Donnay and tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis, a young player with two Keepnews albums to his credit: In the Long Run and the just-released State of Mind. [Note: Since this interview in 2003, Keepnews, now 87 years old, received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts in June 2010.]

We recently spent an afternoon with Keepnews in his spacious condominium in the Richmond District of San Francisco, where he shared many stories, one-liners and thoughts on the art of producing.


Is there much difference between working in jazz and working in other genres?

When you’re doing a pop album or any mass form, a lot of times a group has been formed. Even if that group is centered on one individual genius or hotshot, the emphasis is still on a group situation. And sometimes they live or die [based] on how clever that group name is. But in jazz you’re dealing much more with an artist than you are with a concept or even with a band. A number of successful jazz recordings are based on recording a working group as such, but inevitably it’s because that’s what the individual leader is into doing right now.

Keepnews with Sonny Rollins circa 1980

In jazz you don’t find nearly as much constructing of an album and developing it around a concept or group—you’re working around an individual. You can look back after a couple decades and say, “Here is an artist who has had a long and varied career, and has even survived not being so much of a hit, but then comes back again and again.”

For example, with a constructed entity such as Elvis, what you wanted out of an Elvis album was the same thing that made the previous one sell so many copies. Whereas with a jazz artist, what you very well might want is not something that sounds like the last thing he did, because he’s changed directions, and he’s doing some interesting new things that his audience wants to hear.

Jazz, as a form, is far more artistically oriented, far less audience oriented and therefore pays a penalty for it—it makes a hell of a lot less money than the other stuff does when it succeeds. But on the other hand, you probably have, even from people who make a modest living, more really long and perhaps creatively satisfying careers in jazz than you do in the pop fields. Also,what you can invest in terms of time, money and energy is seriously different. The average jazz album is apt to have been done in no more than a couple days in the studio for initial recording.

So it’s partly a matter of economic realities and partly a matter of the essential nature of the product that leads you to have this drastically different approach in the studio. Actually, if jazz recordings had ever been rehearsed and constructed to the degree that’s just about automatic in the pop world, chances are all of the juice and creativity would have been sucked out of them in the preparation, and you would have gotten something very formularized.

What are the basic responsibilities of a jazz producer?

You have to know how much control to exercise, because you can’t let the whole thing wander around like it wants to, but you also have to know what’s counterproductive in the way of control. You’re dealing with people whose main attraction is their individuality and, in some cases, their quirkiness. You’ve got to be able to realize that you’re going to have a different answer to “How do I get the most out of this situation?” every time you go into the studio. Among other things, it does keep you from getting bored. That’s why I’ve been doing this for damn close to 50 years and I still find it interesting! My job is to create a working environment in the studio that is designed to make the artist most comfortable, or put them in a position where they are going to produce at their best—what’s going to make them most productive, most creative.

For instance, you have to have a certain amount of organization. I’ve got to be able to substitute for the lack of rehearsal and prep time. I quickly learned the importance of working with cooperative musicians, compatible personalities and, above all, people who had a good deal of experience in working together. I would say that I didn’t need rehearsals as long as I was working with a rhythm section that had spent a lot of time together for the past four or five years. I suspect that, without our knowing it, the jazz producers of the ’50s and ’60s, and Berry Gordy’s producers at Motown, were following much the same guidelines.

At Riverside, I had a first-call rhythm section that consisted of Wynton Kelly on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and Sam Jones on acoustic bass. I knew what I was going to get, and I knew how quickly they could catch on. I also learned that I don’t want to get into a situation where nobody quite knows what the structure of the tune is. It was necessary to have sketches—some form of basic arrangements so that everybody knew what they were supposed to do—but that there was still plenty of blowing room.

Jazz isn’t as loose as it looks. It’s loose, but you have to have those cornerstones there. I have always had a few reliable corners tucked in. When you have reliable parameters you can be loose as hell within those. Also, I’ve tried to establish long-term relationships with musicians and engineers because the better we know each other, and the more in tune we are in working together, the less impossible it becomes.

How did you learn the art of producing jazz?

I don’t know anybody who has been a jazz producer for any length of time who got there in any deliberate way. When I was growing up, it wasn’t something that you could go someplace and learn.You couldn’t even learn by observing other people, because the one person that I would think would be least welcome at any jazz producer’s studio is another producer! You learned on the job, and you learned by trial and error, which is one of the reasons that I say I was tremendously fortunate. The first important artist I was ever involved with—although it didn’t seem fortunate at the time, it seemed frightening at the time—was Thelonious Monk, and I guess that’s known as baptism by fire!

Tell me more about working with the legendary eccentric Thelonious Monk.

The hardest thing about working with this man was that he seriously had no idea of how difficult his music was for people to deal with. And that’s the key to the problem of how hard he was to work with. He understood [his music]; how come you couldn’t? He did not see that it was a big problem; therefore, he was impatient as hell.

We did a Monk album that had two tenor players on it: Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane. It was about 1956, and it wasn’t quite the big deal it may seem now. Coltrane hadn’t happened yet, and Hawkins was generally regarded as a has-been. These are both musicians who had a great deal of respect for Monk, and had worked with him. We were working on a song, and Hawkins was having trouble with it. And at the end of a take, Monk came up to him and said, ‘You’re supposed to be the great Coleman Hawkins! How come you can’t play that?’ It was a wonderfully quiet put-down and a challenge. He played it all right eventually.

The fourth album I did with Monk was a solo piano album. The first session never happened. He was on his way, and I was getting phone calls that he would be there. He finally showed up an hour late and in no condition to play. So I made an announcement to him, in front of his friends, and said, ‘Obviously we’re going to cancel and reschedule. So when we come back, I don’t care if you respect me or not, but I gotta respect me. So let’s say from now on if we have a session and you’re going to be more than a half-hour late, don’t bother to come, because I won’t be here.’ We rescheduled, and the day of the session, I got to the studio about 15 minutes before our start time, walked into the control room and Monk is sitting there, waiting for me. And he looks at me with this great big grin he was capable of having and said, ‘What kept you?’ So from there on, we had a very good working relationship. The important thing was that I learned that sometimes there are traps being set out there—sometimes you’ve got to know how to behave. Various people had different ways of testing me, and, by and large, I worked my way through it. In two words, what was it like working with Monk? One of the words is “difficult,” the other, “rewarding.”

When you and Bill Grauer started Riverside, you were one of a handful of people starting what would become very influential jazz labels. How significant was that entrepreneurial spirit to the birth of modern jazz?

There were two separate groups. In New York there was Riverside, Prestige and Blue Note. In California there was Pacific Jazz and Contemporary. We didn’t know each other going in, but we found that there was a great community of interest. We were rivals, and we stayed rivals, but one thing that we did have in common was an enthusiasm for the music in and of itself … but you can find examples of that in a lot of places. It’s a big help to love what you’re doing! The other thing is that we happened to exist in a time that made it possible to function. Today, with all the love and enthusiasm in the world, I’m not even faintly suggesting that anybody try to do what I tried to do. You can’t do it anymore. The period we were talking about was the decade immediately after World War II. We were in a deflationary period where the price of everything was low.

When I began recording, and for several years thereafter, union scale for a sideman for a three-hour session was $41.25. I had to add a lot to that—a lot of ability, patience and growing knowledge—but the fact of the matter is, you could go in [the studio] and do three sessions with a trio for a little less than $500 for musicians. Studio costs were also a lot less, and there were no remix costs, and you certainly weren’t doing any overdubs. In my early days, I was working with mono records. What was on that tape was what you came out with. So it was very possible to put a few bucks together and do a few albums, and you didn’t have to sell that much to get your money back and start over again.

Keepnews with the Bill Evans Trio at the Village Vanguard, 1961

The ’50s into the ’60s was a period of complete change in the nature of jazz. It was a period of great creative ferment; a tremendous number of talented people were working in the field, and I was physically and emotionally able to be a part of that.

I look back on my life sometimes and think, “Did that really happen to me?” So, yeah, I spent a lot of time in the studio with Thelonious Monk. And I paid attention to this skinny kid that had been recommended to me by a still-active, better-than-average guitar player who obviously had very good ears, and finally was able to coax him into the studio, and he turned out to be Bill Evans. He was always a very difficult man to persuade to record. He had this trio, and they were working in the Village Vanguard. I convinced him that doing a live [recording], on the job, with his trio would be of some value. Sunday matinees were commonplace in those days. It happened to be the last day of what had been a three-week engagement at the Vanguard. We went in there, we recorded all afternoon and evening and ended up with enough material for two albums. They never played together again because days later the bass player, Scott LaFaro was killed in an automobile accident. Those two records, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby have become classic records. Sometimes you get luckier than you deserve.

You worked with Evans for at least a couple more years after that.

Yes, but it was almost a year before Bill was emotionally ready to record again. He and Scott had been going in directions that have never been duplicated.

You produce many reissues, a product heavily dependent on digital technology. What’s your opinion of some of this new equipment?

I think reissues would be lost without digital technology. The use of what are basically computer-driven systems—like Sonic Solutions and Cedar—make today’s reissues possible. You can dig in there and get rid of flaws and limitations that were in the original recording, but you have to be very careful. People have a tendency to trash the whole concept of digital improvement because of some rather heavy-handed early attempts, but nobody says that because you heard a lousy Sonic Solutions job five years ago that that equipment today isn’t perfectly good. I’ve worked with Sonic Solutions almost from their very beginning, and I found that, as in most systems, the most important part is the operator. The technology is not all that different, but it’s hard to use effectively. But a lot of times people tend to overuse what they’ve got.

To me, when I think back to the early days of multitrack and overdub, all I seem to recall is a bass player telling me he wants to punch in some right notes. That’s not what it’s supposed to be about at all, but it got to be that way quite a lot. No matter how much your technique advances, and no matter how much you take advantage of various things, the gut of jazz recording is the same as the gut of all jazz performances—it’s got to be about the interaction between people. But on the whole, I believe in progress simply because I know that it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen anyway, so you better be sure that it happens in the right way. Which to me, the basic rule is to do everything you can to use the technology, but don’t let the technology use you. I’m sort of a grand old man at this stage in the game, and if I stand here real hard and say that, maybe some people will pay attention. I think they should.

By Heather Johnson

From Issue 73, November 2003


Category: Producer's Corner

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