As producer for Riverside (1953-1964), Milestone (1966-1973) and Landmark Records (1985-1993), Orrin Keepnews has presided over some of the most important recordings in jazz history. The 81-year-old has lived in his circa-1920s home in San Francisco’s Richmond District since 1972. The five Grammys he’s won are on a shelf near the fireplace, and lining the walls are LPs, box sets, sculptures and paintings. A grinning picture of Thelonious Monk in his smoking jacket and Chinese cap overlooks the room.
Keepnews was born March 2, 1923, in New York City, and he graduated from Columbia University. He cofounded Riverside in 1953 with his college buddy Bill Grauer. The two had come into the record business doing reissue work for RCA Victor’s X label, and they initially envisioned their label focusing on resurrecting out-of-print jazz. But post-WWII jazz proved too vibrant to ignore, and Keepnews and Grauer made the commitment to record current artists. Independent jazz labels such as Riverside, Blue Note and Prestige, among others, proved to be a flashpoint for modern jazz, recording the likes of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis and exposing them to a wider public.
In 2004 NARAS gave Keepnews a Trustees Award for lifetime contributions and achievements.
What did you learn as a producer during the early Riverside sessions?
I never felt that I was supposed to play the date. The musicians are supposed to play the date. I’m not supposed to be a musician or engineer and never make the mistake of trying to be either. My job is to make it happen as well as it possibly can. It’s supposed to proceed so that all the players have to worry about is creativity; I’m supposed to worry about everything else.
What was your process in the studio?
You got your musicians and material together, and then hopefully a good balance between the instruments, and you recorded it. It was necessary along the way to have an awful lot of tricks of the trade. First of all, you just can’t take any bunch of people and put them together and get results. The chemistry between the musicians, and their ability to work together, had to be what dictated who you used and how you used them.
I never felt that it was a good or effective idea for me to stand there and say, “You’re going to record and you’re going to use so and so [on the session].” It has to be a collaborative thing. You can’t impose-but remember, I’m only talking about jazz. Other areas of recording-where producers are kingmakers who get together and create this thing and insert the star into it-that’s somebody else’s line of work. It’s not what I do or ever have done.
Riverside sessions always featured great arranging, by folks like Jimmy Heath. He was unknown when he got to you, but he’s a perfect example of a stellar sideman, just like Blue Mitchell, Bobby Timmons and so many others, whose profile was raised by his association with Riverside.
I’ve known Jimmy Heath since 1960. Kenny Dorham told me that Little Bird was coming to New York and I had to sign him! He wasn’t asking me, he was telling me. It turned out that Jimmy, whose reputation back then was that he was a damn good writer, had the ability to write quick charts for small groups. I put him right up there in this ability with Benny Golson.
Most jazz recordings feature a quintet or sextet. If you just go in there and everybody blows, that’s OK, but that can get a little dull. The ability to do charts and have the ensembles mean something, with backgrounds behind solos and other things like that going on, was a terribly important part of the supposedly very loose small-group jazz scene around New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But a certain amount of organization was important.
In some cases it was taken care of by the fact that there were a lot of regular working bands in those days. You get the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, and they just came in off the road with a whole book’s worth of stuff they haven’t recorded yet, and here we go. One of the things you got to remember about the recordings in the early years-how we preferred to work, and how we had to work. It was all done quickly. There were an awful lot of jazz dates of that period done in one day in the studio. In New York the saying was the way you could distinguish between Riverside, Blue Note and Prestige was that Blue Note had paid rehearsals and recorded in one day; Riverside usually didn’t have rehearsals and recorded in two days; and Prestige had no rehearsals and recorded in one day. It’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not too far off. There wasn’t that much of a difference between us.
You found a compatible bunch of musicians who contributed to the Riverside sound.
There were a lot of albums done on Riverside that used certain combinations often. My first-call rhythm section in those days was Wynton Kelly [piano], Sam Jones [bass] and Philly Joe Jones [drums]. Whenever I could use that combination I did so. You’re not taking any chances; these are all absolutely first-class players.
There are a lot of damn good working musicians who are not easy to work with in the studio for one reason or another. Whether it is technique, personality or levels of ability, who knows what the hell it is. So when I say Philly Joe was unquestionably the best recording drummer I’ve ever worked with I’m not saying he was the best drummer. I hate making comparisons like that. If you give me a list of names that’s got Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Kenny Clarke on it, I am not even going to want to say who’s the best or second best. They were all in their own way tremendous.
But in the specific job of being adaptable to the requirements of the recording studio I’ve never known anybody as effective as Philly Joe Jones. He and I, for whatever reasons, had a damn good working relationship. He cooperated with me in ways that he didn’t with everybody. He was frequently a pain in the ass, as he was to everybody, but we’re talking music.
I remember a date, and I can’t remember all the circumstances, but after a take Joe came up to me in the control room and said, “Am I playing too loud?” I said, “No, I didn’t think so.” But he says, “I think I’m a little too loud. In this next take I am going to maintain eye contact with you and if you feel I am playing too loud just give me a hand signal and I’ll bring it down.” The whole idea of a drummer volunteering to decrease his level, and being able to do it without losing his intensity, without stopping the swing, is pretty incredible. For the hell of it, since he was so insistent on this thing, I gave him a hand signal. The man came down [in volume] but didn’t lose anything in his playing. He was as effective, as strong, and swung every bit as much. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it.
One of your biggest successes was the 1963 single “Watermelon Man” with Mongo Santamaria. How did that come about?
The first time Mongo and I went into the studio it was a moderately successful session, but we didn’t make any plans about what to do next. Then one day I get this excited call from Pete Long, Mongo’s manager. Mongo was playing in Brooklyn, which had a very active music scene back then, at a club called the Blue Coronet. Pete says, “You gotta hear this number-but you have to hear it with an audience to see the effect it has on people.” It turns out the only night I could see Mongo was on the evening of Thanksgiving. After having dinner with my family, Pete came by and grabbed me, and we went out to Brooklyn and listened to Mongo play “Watermelon Man.”
As a result of that experience I literally for the only time in my life went into a studio to produce a single. I can’t over emphasize how unusual that was. I am a man who, all my life, has made albums. I’m in the jazz business, and that’s what we do. But [this record] had to be done.
The vocal effects by La Lupe added a lot to the record. She was starting to sing with the band and was a protege of Mongo. “Watermelon Man” was a fantastically exciting spontaneous record. The drummer on the date, Ray Lucas, was basically an R&B drummer. A very important part of that record.
“Watermelon Man” is a phenomenon. It was unusual but not impossible for a jazz-type instrumental single to get on the pop charts. We had singles of “African Waltz” and “Jive Samba” by Cannonball Adderley that were chart records but nothing like “Watermelon Man.” It got to the Top 10 of the Billboard singles chart. It was the only time I was able to do that, but most important is the lasting influence of a tune, which came from a fair composer named Herbie Hancock.
The story I heard from everybody was that Mongo was doing a gig at a club in the Bronx and doing no business. Herbie was there and showed Mongo the tune; he was hip enough to know that it was perfect for him. It made all the difference in Mongo’s life. I was involved in producing and helping develop that approach to the song. I believe stemming from “Watermelon Man” there is a whole tradition of that combination of Latin, funk and jazz. The idiom that Carlos Santana explored was literally created by Mongo.
Was there anyone you went to for pointers in the studio?
Back then there weren’t any college courses you could take on how to be a record producer. And you couldn’t even learn from the other people doing it because goddamn if they were going to want you to show up and eavesdrop at their sessions. You had to learn what to do by absorbing from the musicians that you were working with. My teachers-though I would go through great pains to keep them from realizing it-were the musicians I was recording.
No doubt Thelonious Monk tops the list.
I owe a tremendous debt to Thelonious. When we started, we were primarily an early-jazz reissue label. That’s what my partner and myself were into; we were students of early jazz. But the fact is by signing Monk everybody in the business realized we were serious or crazy because there’d be no other reasons besides that for getting involved with him.
I had met Monk as far back as 1948. When my partner-to-be, Bill Grauer, took over this esoteric magazine The Record Changer, I was making my living as an editor at a book-publishing business. I was his only literate friend, so in my spare time I doubled as managing editor of The Record Changer. When we took over it was around the time that Alfred Lion had just done his first recording sessions with Monk. Alfred and his then-wife Lorraine, who later became the wife of Max Gordon and today still runs the Village Vanguard in New York, was doing publicity for them. She got the idea to get ahold of these kids who had just taken over this magazine and were claiming they would be open to different kinds of music, not just traditional stuff.
So we were invited to the Lions’ home in Greenwich Village and met Thelonious there. We heard test pressings of his first session. I took him to a corner in this huge living room and interviewed him on the spot and put together a magazine article on Monk. It was very favorable. I was impressed like crazy listening to those first couple of records. I don’t particularly understand, looking back on it for over a half century, exactly why or how it happened, but that music spoke to me. I understood that this man was legitimate, a tremendous talent, creator and innovator.
We ran the article in the magazine, and I guess the thing that impressed him was that I felt that he was in a direct line of succession starting with Jelly Roll Morton and going through to Duke Ellington. He was the inheritor of that tradition. That’s a pretty heavy thing to say about a man, but it turned out Monk was incredibly impressed by Ellington. So my comparing him to Ellington is something that stayed in his mind. Years later, when we started Riverside, we learned that Monk was tremendously unhappy at Prestige and they weren’t particularly happy with him because he wasn’t selling records. They had a lot of heavyweights at the time like Miles Davis, MJQ, Billy Taylor and Red Garland. These were sellers and Monk was not. So he got his release from them.
At the meeting we had with Monk, I was quite startled that he not only knew perfectly well who I was, and [that I] had written that piece, but he informed me that was the only piece of writing on him that had ever appeared in a national magazine. He was ready to go. He also probably didn’t have another label to go to after getting away from Prestige. He had already recorded for Blue Note. At any rate, he came to Riverside, and I had the experience of being in the studio with this man at a time when I had done maybe a half dozen things with people like Randy Weston and Mundell Lowe. They were easy. They didn’t give the producer a hard time.
What was your first release with Monk?
The first album we did was Duke Plays Ellington, which is a trio date with Kenny Clarke and Oscar Pettiford. The water was deep when I plunged in. I didn’t have an easy time of it, but I learned by doing. Monk probably could have eaten me up alive and spit me out if he wanted to, but in his own way he clearly wanted to be helpful and he was. I worked with Monk for almost six years, and we did many albums together; it was always a learning experience.
It sounds like Monk liked you and taught you a thing or two.
Monk taught me that if you want other people to respect you, you got to respect yourself. You have to believe in yourself. This is a man who got thoroughly put down by everybody in the early years of his career. I hate to think of how many times people told him he didn’t know how to play the piano. But obviously he believed in himself and was incredibly stubborn in that belief. As it happened I was instrumental in helping him get presented to the public in a way that enabled his music to get through to people. I feel very proud of that but I am not taking any credit. Monk takes the credit.
Monk taught me the importance of standing up for what you believe in and doing things the way you feel they should be done-if you have that confidence you’ve gone a long way right there. By observing this man in action I came a long way in learning how to conduct myself in the studio and live my life.
One of my favorite Monk stories happened around the fourth album I did with him. It was a solo album, Thelonious Himself. I got to the studio for the first session, and Monk wasn’t there. Then phone calls started coming in-he was hanging out with a couple of people, stopping here and there, he’s on his way. He finally got to the studio about an hour late and was in no shape to play. So I got very righteous and said, “We’re not going to work today because we’re not ready to work. Let’s reschedule the date and we’ll start all over again.” And I said to Monk: “I don’t care whether or not you respect me, but I have to respect me so I’m not going to go through this shit anymore of waiting forever for you to show up. If you’re ever more than 30 minutes late don’t bother to come because I won’t be there.”
On the appointed day of the rerecording I got there about 15 minutes before the scheduled time and walk into the control room. There’s Monk sitting there. He had that big smile on his face that he could have when it was appropriate, and all he said to me was, “What kept you?”
From that point on we established a pretty good working understanding between us. Basically what he was saying by being there early-and anybody that knew Thelonious knew that being early was not his thing-was he well damn knew that I had been right and he had been wrong. Nobody apologizes to each other, and we’re not going to have a discussion on the subject, but there he was, early, waiting for me. It was a damn good session.
You guys were living in an era that would turn out to be a golden age, which was fueled by indies. What was that like?
The whole rise of jazz in the 1950s and ’60s was sparked by a number of independent labels. There was Blue Note, which was started earlier, Prestige, Riverside, Savoy, which had been around longer than anybody, and on the West Coast you had Contemporary Jazz with Les Koenig and Pacific Jazz with Dick Bock. What all those labels had in common was they were started by people who were jazz fans who turned into professionals. I’ve said that I ruined a perfectly good hobby by turning it into a profession.
But there were always these chains of events. The fact I was able to start with Monk, then I met a kid named Bill Evans. Then I met Clark Terry at Monk’s Brilliant Corners sessions, and we became good friends. One evening in Greenwich Village, standing in front of a happening jazz spot in those days called Cafe Bohemia, Clark sees me and says, “Hey, I’d like you to meet my friends the Adderley brothers.” I was living in a world where things like that could happen to you. The first I heard about Wes Montgomery was Cannonball telling me about him. Monk went to Chicago solo and picked up local musicians and came back telling me how good Johnny Griffin and Wilbur Ware were. This was the way it went. It was a rich period when everybody was worth paying attention to, or so it seemed.
Another important trend that I felt Riverside gave important attention to was live recordings. The use of live recording as such was rather slow in coming along. I had done one or two live dates before the Cannonball live in San Francisco record in 1959, but that was very much a breakthrough record not only for me and Riverside but in a sense for the whole jazz business. It was a live jazz hit record that put us and Cannonball on the map. It was in many ways the beginning of the whole soul-jazz thing. Talk about doing things that make no sense but worked.
Cannonball had another group prior to that quintet-and the band bombed. He was signed to Mercury, and they just didn’t get behind this group. When Cannonball signed with us, he had broken up his band during the year he worked with Miles. He assured me that in no more than a year he would have a band together, but one of the conditions he wanted understood was that we support that band. I said, “As far as that goes I’ll make you a promise right now: When you have your band together, and you go out on the road, just as soon as you feel you’re ready to record, tell me and I’ll come to wherever you are and I’ll record you.” A rash promise-thinking I would get a call from Philadelphia or someplace like that. I get a call from San Francisco. He was doing a three-week gig and he said, “Remember what you told me? It’s happening. We got full houses, and we’re doing Bobby Timmons’ tune ‘Dis Here’ and everybody’s freaking out for it. We’re ready to record.”
It just so happens that at that time San Francisco did not have a decent recording studio. I asked Dick Bock if he could recommend an engineer, realizing I would have to record live. He said he knew an engineer who had done a live date at the Jazz Workshop. He neglected to tell me it was so badly done they never released it.
One of the things that struck me tremendously in the performance was the way Cannonball related to an audience, his talking to the audience. I decided that if I was going to do a realistic live record I ought to include that stuff in it. “Dis Here” was the first tune on the record, and there’s over a minute of Cannonball talking before they go into a long vamp. It was a hit! The all-night disc jockeys across the country, like Symphony Sid in New York and others in Chicago and California, gave the record tremendous airplay. The first track was 12 minutes, and those all-night cats dug the long tracks.
But recording live was pretty damn primitive back then. You go in there with a portable Ampex [tape recorder] and set it up in the kitchen to get a little privacy. The first live date I did was at the old Five Spot [in New York City] with the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet. I still remember when everything went dead on us when a customer kicked the plug we were using for electricity.
I recorded Cannonball live as many times as I possibly could. It was the way to do it. Years later, after Riverside was gone and Cannonball was signed to Capitol, he had just gotten a big hit with “Mercy, Mercy” and he told me, “Hey, I finally got them to record the way we used to.”
What were the economic realities of Riverside?
In New York City at the time union scale for a three-hour session, where you could record up to 15 minutes of music, was $21.25 for a sideman and double for a leader. That meant you could do a trio session date for a total musician cost of $500 dollars. It’s kind of hard to beat that. I won’t say we weren’t there to make money. Among other things, I was trying to support a family. But our primary goal in selling records was to generate enough money to generate the next batch of records.
At Riverside we developed a very extravagant habit. When we got involved with a musician-and felt he was our guy and we were going all the way-we had a tendency to do big band dates, string dates, which we could not afford. My partner was fortunately a very fiscally creative guy and came up with money to do things, but he died quite young. Later we discovered exactly what the pit was that we had been building our bridge over. Eventually Riverside went bankrupt, but we made a lot of things possible that maybe we had no business doing. But when I sit down today and I listen to a Blue Mitchell with strings or a Johnny Griffin big-band date I’m damn glad that I was dumb enough to make records like that if for no other reason than I can sit in my living room and listen to them now.
One minute you’re out there selling records and then it bottoms out?
Jazz did develop a pretty healthy audience in that period of time. I’ve been misinterpreted by people when I said we really got ruined by the Beatles. But in the early ’60s jazz had a substantial audience that I now think of as a disposable audience. They were not people that were intensely committed to this music, as some of us have been. Jazz was big on college radio and campuses. We had their attention. But it began to change with the whole commercial folk scene. It was superficial interest-the next fad came along, and they were gone. By 1964, when the Beatles took over in the U.S. it was the first time I encountered a “jazz is dead” phrase.
Were there ever any sessions you disliked at Riverside?
Anything that had to do with Chet Baker. Signing him was not my idea. We did four albums with him, but it was one of the few times my partner involved himself in the aesthetics of the business. Chet Baker at that time was recording for Pacific Jazz. Baker still owed them four albums, so we were going to take over the balance of the contract and do those albums. When Bill talked to Dick Bock about getting Chet there were only two conditions: One was that it said on the back of the jacket that Baker appeared courtesy of Pacific Jazz, and the other was he no longer called Dick Bock for money.
I’ll say that anybody in those days with a heroin problem was a tough person to deal with. It is a habit that takes over the lives of people. But I have had successful, productive working relationships, and personal friendships, with some of the major junkies of our time. Philly Joe and Bill Evans were people I respected. Chet just happened to be the worst junkie I ever was associated with, the most problems.
With Baker I was in a rare instance where I had to behave like an awful lot of people must behave-where you just go in and do what the job demands rather than what you want to do. Ninety-nine percent of the time I went into the studio with people I wanted to be with. I tried real hard with Chet, and put together some compatible players like Pepper Adams, Zoot Sims, Herbie Mann and Kenny Burrell. I think I was successful on a couple of occasions, but Chet wasn’t playing that strong at the time. I did the best I could but without any personal enthusiasm. Originally Published