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.