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Orrin Keepnews, Prolific Jazz Producer and Writer, Dies at 91

Launched Riverside, Milestone and Landmark labels

Orrin Keepnews and Cannonball Adderley

Orrin Keepnews, a jazz record producer and writer best known for his work with the Riverside and Milestone record labels, died at his home in El Cerrito, Calif., March 1, a day short of his 92nd birthday. His death was confirmed by his son Peter Keepnews, a jazz journalist and editor at The New York Times. The cause of death was not divulged.

Orrin Keepnews, who received an NEA Jazz Masters lifetime achievement award in 2011, was born in The Bronx, N.Y., March 2, 1923. He earned a degree from Columbia University in 1943, did a stint in the military, and returned to college for his graduate degree in 1946. He dropped out and was working as an editor for Simon & Schuster when he began writing about jazz for The Record Changer, where he also served as an editor. In 1952 he began producing recordings for one of RCA Records’ budget labels, then, in 1953, Keepnews and former Columbia classmate Bill Grauer launched Riverside Records. At first they released reissues of earlier jazz recordings originally on Paramount Records, but in 1954 they signed pianist Randy Weston as Riverside’s first new artist. The label’s next signing was pianist Thelonious Monk, about whom Keepnews had written for The Record Changer.

Keepnews began producing records during this period and into the early ’60s, as Riverside continued adding new artists to its roster, among them Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Abbey Lincoln, Johnny Griffin and Jimmy Heath. Grauer died in 1963 and Riverside folded soon after. In all, Keepnews produced more than 300 albums for the label.

In 1966, Keepnews and a new partner, pianist Dick Katz, started Milestone Records, where he continued to release new music by some of the former Riverside artists as well as albums by new signees such as McCoy Tyner.

In 1972, Fantasy Records acquired the catalogs of both Riverside and Milestone, and Keepnews relocated to the Bay Area to serve as the label’s director of jazz A&R and to oversee reissues of the music he had earlier released. Keepnews left Fantasy in 1980; in 1985 he launched another new label, Landmark, where he released music by the Kronos Quartet, Bobby Hutcherson and others.

Muse Records acquired Landmark in 1993 and Keepnews, who also wrote numerous liner notes throughout his career, kept himself in the reissues game as an independent producer and compiler. In 2007, the Concord Music Group, which had acquired Fantasy, launched another series of reissues of his work, which it called “The Keepnews Collection.”

The All Music Guide website lists 1722 credits for Keepnews in the areas of original production, writing and reissue production.

Keepnews was a four-time Grammy winner, for both production and writing, and was given a Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2004. Keepnews was the author of A Pictorial History of Jazz and The View from Within: Jazz Writings, 1948-1987.

In addition to Peter, he is survived by his wife, Martha Egan, and another son, David Keepnews, a teacher. (Keepnews’ first wife, Lucille Kaufman, died in 1989.)

Originally Published