Orrin Keepnews: A Certain Integrity

Sonny Rollins remembers the prolific jazz record producer

Orrin Keepnews and Sonny Rollins
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Sonny Rollins and Orrin Keepnews
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I recorded originally with Orrin on Riverside. I was listening to Terry Gross on Fresh Air last night and she had a little tribute to him. She played a record that I forgot I had made-it was so long ago-on Riverside. I forgot how many records I made with Orrin on Riverside, but I made more than a couple.

The issue around [1958’s] Freedom Suite is still universal. [Keepnews co-produced the album with Bill Grauer and wrote its liner notes.] Well, my grandmother was an activist, so when I was a little teeny boy, I would be out with her marching up and down Harlem for the Scottsboro Boys or for Paul Robeson or any kind of racial incident. She was a Garveyite. I was brought up that way. Freedom Suite and the other things that I did in that vein were very much part of my upbringing. It wasn’t a big deal for me to write that. I was well versed in those things as a kid, so Freedom Suite was just one expression of that. Orrin did go for it, which is to his credit. He accepted the short note I wrote for the cover. I know that must have caused him problems with his colleagues after the record was out. I just feel that happened.

We never had any tiffs or anything. We were OK. Orrin always respected the musicians and looked up to them in awe in a way. He had a way with the musicians. He could be a pretty brash guy, but he was OK with us.

When he moved out to Berkeley, I signed a contract with him and Ralph Kaffel at Fantasy and Milestone. Nobody could force me to record, so it was one of those things where, “Oh, you’re due to record,” or “You should have recorded,” so that I still kept a slow schedule. I just did it whenever I could manage to do it. It was less than we had contracted for, and they accepted that. There was a little uncertainty in our contracts at that time because of my always being unwilling to go back into, what was for me, the torture chamber of recording. Eventually, we got it together. I may have recorded about once a year, but I know it was less than they hoped for.

George Avakian and all these other producers would say, “Sonny has his own ideas,” and “It’s hard to produce Sonny because our ideas don’t jibe with his ideas.” But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I fought very hard to produce myself. Orrin understood that and we had a good relationship. He was a straightforward guy.

Orrin was, how should we say, verbose? That was the way he was and it was fine with me. He was quite a guy. I don’t remember getting into many topics with Orrin other than music. The last time I saw Orrin, I was playing out at Davies Hall in San Francisco and he came out with his wife and with Bobby Hutcherson and his wife. They were backstage with me before the show and we were talking and he seemed to be a little lighter in conversation at that time. He seemed to be a little less on.

I think he did some good records. He gave a lot of guys the opportunity to do a lot of things-Cannonball, who was one of his favorites, McCoy, Monk-so I think he was very helpful to a lot of musicians who needed to be recorded. It’s a very positive legacy.

I would put him on the side of the musicians rather than on the side of record executives. There is a divide there. I trusted Orrin and I think a lot of musicians trusted him. We felt there was a certain integrity in the whole communication between us.

The universal truths are what matter. The Golden Rule is something very simple: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you can do that, then that’s the whole of life. If you can live like that, then you’ll have no problem. That’s karma.

[As told to Lee Mergner]