Orrin Keepnews obituary

Record producer who boosted the careers of jazz musicians including Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins

It was with no unusually great expectations that the record producer Orrin Keepnews arranged to tape the trio of the pianist Bill Evans at a basement jazz club in Greenwich Village, New York, one Sunday in June 1961. Keepnews, who has died aged 91, had already supervised several albums by Evans, each earning praise from the critics but only moderate interest from the public.

Less than a fortnight later, the group’s brilliant 25-year-old bassist, Scott LaFaro, was killed in a car crash, and the shock induced Evans to retire from performance for several months. But when Keepnews edited the tapes and released them later in the year on his Riverside Records label, as an album titled Sunday at the Village Vanguard, it could be seen that here was music that, in the intimacy of its virtuosic three-way invention, transformed approaches to the piano trio, jazz’s equivalent of the string quartet.

Keepnews had co-founded Riverside with Bill Grauer, a college friend, in 1953, initially reissuing classic recordings from earlier eras. Once they had changed tack and begun recording new music, he would become one of the most prolific and respected producers of his era, responsible for significantly boosting the careers of the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, the saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, and the guitarist Wes Montgomery, as well as Evans.

Born in the Bronx, the son of a social worker and a schoolteacher, Keepnews studied English at Columbia University, intending to become a journalist. He was a regular in the jazz clubs of 52nd Street before enlisting in the US air force, with which he flew as a navigator on bombing missions over Japan. After the war he earned his living as a junior editor at Simon & Schuster, the New York publishing house; he was also helping to run the Record Changer, a small-circulation monthly jazz magazine, when he and Grauer started their company.

“There was no place you could go and learn to be a record producer,” Keepnews said. “You just did it.” His instinctive grasp of the role led to such important recordings as Monk’s Brilliant Corners, Rollins’s The Sound of Sonny, Montgomery’s Incredible Jazz Guitar and a series of albums by the sextet and septet of the pianist-composer George Russell.

The brilliant but eccentric Monk, Riverside’s second signing in 1955, had been caricatured as a freak until Keepnews’s sympathetic curatorship brought him the status he deserved. When Keepnews recorded Adderley’s quintet in front of an audience at Jazz Workshop in San Francisco in 1959, the album’s huge success created a fashion for live recordings.

While Grauer took care of the business side, Keepnews looked after the music and its presentation, in which Riverside maintained high standards. The imaginative art direction of Paul Bacon and Ken Deardoff (who used the young Nico as the cover girl for Evans’s Moon Beams in 1962) ensured that almost every one of Riverside’s 300 releases was a handsome object.

Gradually, however, the label was undermined by its own success when its leading artists were tempted away by lucrative offers from big companies. Monk went to Columbia, Adderley to Capitol, Evans and Montgomery to Verve. Grauer’s death from a heart attack in 1963 preceded the company’s bankruptcy the following year.

Keepnews bounced back with a new label, Milestone, on which he supervised recordings by McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson and others. In 1972 he sold it to Fantasy Records, which had also acquired Riverside’s catalogue, and moved to San Francisco, Fantasy’s location, to take part in a reissue programme. Through another new label, Landmark, he issued the Kronos Quartet’s recasting of pieces by Monk and Evans.

His four Grammy awards, for sleeve notes and repackages, may have been less important to Keepnews than Evans’s decision in 1962 to title one of his compositions Re: Person I Knew – an anagram of the producer’s name. In 1988 Keepnews published a collection of his writings on jazz over four decades, The View from Within.

His first wife, Lucile Kaufman, died in 1989. He is survived by their two sons, Peter – an editor and jazz critic with the New York Times – and David, and by his second wife, Martha Egan.

• Orrin Keepnews, record producer, born 2 March 1923; died 1 March 2015 


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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