Orrin Keepnews' Milestones

How one of the the most trusted jazz producers snatched Thelonious Monk, gave Wes Montgomery a shot, stayed friends with Sony Rollins and made Fantasy a haven for the classics

Orrin Keepnews,1970 Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Entering the office of Orrin Keepnews, Fantasy Records' vice-president and director of jazz activities, you can't help noticing a slightly yellowed letter that's framed and hanging on a wall by the door.

In 1955, Prestige was possibly the world's leading independent jazz label, with Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet among the up-and-coming stars on its roster. It could easily afford to dismiss Thelonious Monk as, in Keepnews' pithy but probably accurate view of the company's assessment, "a nonselling eccentric." But Keepnews and a college friend, Bill Grauer, had started their own Riverside label in 1953 on a shoestring, and once Prestige released Monk, Riverside was free to record him. With Keepnews producing, Monk's late-Fifties Riverside albums — Brilliant Corners, Monk's Music, 5 x Monk x 5 and other classics—finally established him as one of the few authentic geniuses of jazz.

As Riverside expanded, Keepnews was the first to make successful recordings with guitarist Wes Montgomery (who did the bulk of his serious jazz playing for Riverside), tenor saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and pianist Bill Evans. He also produced Yusef Lateef, Johnny Griffin, Barry Harris and Mongo Santamaria's hit recording of "Watermelon Man," among many other projects. Prestige was perhaps his major rival, and he did his best to keep ahead, even nabbing Sonny Rollins, a longtime Prestige artist, for two albums during the late Fifties.

Now here's Keepnews — sitting behind his cluttered desk in sunny Berkeley while a blizzard howls back in his native New York, dressed in jeans and a blue-and-white-striped T-shirt, a burly man with an occasionally gruff exterior and graceful, delicate hands—presiding over a jazz empire. Not only does Fantasy now control the incredibly rich Riverside catalog, which was almost entirely produced by Keepnews, but also the Prestige catalog — Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and much more. And while he's been assembling the twofer jazz reissue packages pioneered by Fantasy, Keepnews has also been busy recording some of his favorite contemporary artists—Rollins, of course, and McCoy Tyner, among others. Then there are all the Fantasy jazz-fusion artists, and Galaxy, a new Fantasy label primarily devoted to acoustic mainstream jazz. Most of these activities draw on outside producers, but all come under Keepnews' jurisdiction.

As he talks, I become aware of a framed sign on the wall behind his head: IMPORTANT TO WHOM? "Well," he says, by way of answering that question, "this is the thing about jazz. The audience may be comparatively small, but it's knowledgeable and dedicated, an audience that buys records over a longer period of time than the pop-record audience. And that's where reissues come in. Having all this jazz from the Fifties and Sixties available makes for a more knowledgeable, more dedicated listening Keepnews audience. It's an extremely valuable underpinning for what's going on in jazz right now."

Fantasy's extensive series of twofer reissues — double albums of historic performances that sell for a little more than a single LP — is almost wholly responsible for the flood of classic jazz that now deluges the marketplace. Before the Fantasy program, reissues were a hit-or-miss proposition. Major companies would start a reissue series with the best intentions, a few albums of vintage material would appear in any one of a number of formats, someone in the accounting department would notice that these reissues were not making the company rich, and the series would be discontinued. Fantasy decided in the early Seventies to completely restructure the marketing of classic jazz. Ralph Kaffel, who was then executive vice-president under Saul Zaentz and has since become president, came up with a revolutionary concept: the final reissue.

First, though, Fantasy had to have something more than its own good but limited catalog to reissue. At the beginning of the Seventies, Keepnews hadn't yet entered the picture, and Zaentz and Kaffel were running the small but prospering pop-record company, with Creedence Clearwater Revival as its phenomenally successful leading act. But Creedence's string of hit records was winding down, and, as Kaffel says, "We were beginning to get the idea that platinum rock groups don't grow on trees."

Kaffel had been a distributor in Los Angeles for a number of years, working with independent jazz labels. One thing he'd noticed was that while jazz albums might move slowly, they kept moving. You could make a living selling them, even during the dark days of the mid-Sixties when the folk revival and the English rock monolith threatened to reduce the media visibility of jazz to just about zero. So Kaffel was very interested to learn that Prestige's owner. Bob Weinstock, might be willing to sell. At the same time, ABC Records was ready to unload the Riverside catalog, which it had acquired and repackaged as a series of single albums with new liner notes and covers. Two years after Riverside went bankrupt in 1964, Orrin Keepnews had started a new company called Milestone. Working with little capital but a reputation for square dealing among musicians, he had built it into a small but viable label, with Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner leading its roster. By the end of 1972, egged on by Ralph J. Gleason, Fantasy's director of press and public relations, Zaentz and Kaffel had taken on Prestige, Riverside, Milestone and Orrin Keepnews.

The company had already begun to implement its program of final reissues. "The precedent for the twofers," says Kaffel, who balances the typical Fantasy tinge of mild bohemianism with a purposeful crispness, "was Vanguard's decision to market its folk catalog that way. I thought it would probably apply better to jazz than to any other kind of music. Classic jazz albums should be available to the public and should continue to be available; they shouldn't have to change packages like chameleons every three or four years. So we decided to put the material out correctly once and for all, and to keep it in the catalog, well, forever. We've been issuing these twofers regularly for seven years now. There are around 150 of them, and we haven't cut out a single one."

There's a praiseworthy musical logic to many of the twofers. For the first time, music cut in a single session but scattered over several albums when originally issued is now available whole (examples are John Coltrane's The Stardust Sessions, Eric Dolphy in Europe and the Prestige twofer repackages of the mid-Fifties Miles Davis Quintet). Most of the other labels now reissuing jazz do not seem as committed as Fantasy; one reason is that they usually have to hire outside consultants to put reissues together, while Kaffel and Keepnews know Prestige and Riverside intimately and do the work themselves. Nevertheless, the twofer concept pioneered by Fantasy — authoritative liner notes, complete personnel and recording information and an enticing price range—has become the industry standard. Arista's Savoy reissues, United Artists' on-again, off-again Blue Note series and Polydor's Verve reissues are fairly obvious twofer clones, and there have been quite a few others. Even RCA and Columbia, which have been reissuing vintage jazz for decades, have flattered Fantasy with numerous twofers of their own.

What all this activity means for jazz is that it is no longer the province of specialist zealots. It has become possible, for the first time in jazz history, for a casual fan or student musician to walk into an average record store, browse through the jazz bins and come away with a cross section of the music's traditions, from Milestone's Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver twofers to Columbia's Lester Young Story to the Savoy and Verve Charlie Parker sets to Prestige's Miles, Monk and Dolphy compilations. As Keepnews notes with some pride, "The work of every artist of importance in the jazz world, and especially works since the beginnings of modern jazz in the Forties, are now available to the public. In the arts business in America, there has always been a great tendency to devour performers, creators, entire styles or genres, so that in just a few years they're used up, over with. I look at what we're doing as some kind of counteractivity to that."

Orrin Keepnews was born and grew up in New York City and attended Columbia University during the Forties, around the same time as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. "A lot of the emotional and intellectual character of Columbia and its surroundings in the wartime and immediate postwar period came from having them around," he says. Although they were never close friends, Keepnews would continue to bump into Kerouac and Ginsberg, whose public lives often intersected with jazz.

"I remember one night much later," Keepnews says, "around 1957, when Monk and Coltrane were at the Five Spot. I was there — as I very frequently was — and Kerouac was there and very drunk, which was also a reasonably commonplace occurrence. He was giving me a very hard time about something, and John Coltrane came walking up just at the tail end of the conversation. I just remember Jack's punch line: 'The trouble with you, Keepnews, is that you don't like jazz.' Now John Coltrane was a very reserved human being, and that's one of the few times I saw him close to really breaking up and falling out from laughter."

The fact is, Keepnews did like jazz. At first it was a hobby, since he worked as an editor at Simon and Schuster. (He was one of the many editors, at many publishing houses, who turned down Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City.) But his school friend Bill Grauer enticed him into doing some writing for The Record Changer, a magazine for collectors of traditional jazz. Even though Grauer, Keepnews and the magazine's readers were mostly interested in prewar, traditional jazz, he began doing pieces on modernists, including the first article ever on Thelonious Monk.

In 1953, Grauer and Keepnews Keepnews started Riverside as a reissue label for early jazz sides. A year later they did their first live recording session, with modern jazz pianist Randy Weston, and in 1955 they wooed Monk away from Prestige, at least partly on the strength of Keepnews' Record Changer article. "Once we signed Monk," he says, "it was like waving a red flag at the jazz community, saying, 'We are serious.' Because if you weren't serious, you wouldn't get involved with this guy."

Keepnews found himself in the new role of record producer, with Monk as his first important project. "I didn't know enough to be afraid," he says, laughing. "You wouldn't be scared by any musician once you'd survived Thelonious, who is most kindly described as vastly eccentric. Would he be at the recording session at all? Would he be prepared to play? Would he be in the mood to play? Would he insist on performing material that the other musicians, regardless of their great aptitude, would find impossible to play?

"Brilliant Corners [now reissued as half of the Milestone twofer Brilliance] was the most significant early album I did with Monk," Keepnews continues, "and we spent a whole evening without getting a complete take of the title tune. You remember it: an eight-bar/seven-bar format with tempo changes in every chorus. This was with personnel that included Sonny Rollins, Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach — musicians who are not easily thrown. But we just couldn't get a full take. And of course, working for an independent like Riverside, the amount of time you could spend in the studio was severely limited by the fact that the company had extremely little money to work with. Luckily, the structure of 'Brilliant Corners' is that the theme has an abrupt ending, so I ended up editing; the outchorus on the record is simply an opening chorus from another incomplete take. Now that turned out to be a successful and really quite influential album, and a very important album as far as bringing Monk back into the public eye. It makes you kind of wonder."

Gradually, Keepnews began producing more and more jazz musicians. "It happened naturally," he says. "I got to know about new musicians and new activities on the street level, in small clubs, gossiping with musician friends. On a date with Monk, Clark Terry came in to play trumpet, and he told me about Cannonball and Nat Adderley. I began recording Cannonball, and he told me about Wes Montgomery. Monk came back from Chicago talking about this extraordinary tenor player, Johnny Griffin. A lot of piano players were talking about Bill Evans. Wes Montgomery's and Bill Evan's careers started with my recording them, and Cannonball became a star through the things that we did. I feel good about that. I feel better about the fact that my relationships with most of these musicians have been so long-lasting."

Keepnews became the kind of record producer musicians were willing to trust. "There were many times during my Riverside days when I had to come in and ask Orrin for favors or advances on the next album," says Bill Evans. "A lot of people in this business would use that situation as a means to get on top of you one way or the other, and I'm everlastingly grateful that Orrin was and is a true gentleman. Whenever I came to his office, it was always, 'Sir, what can I do for you?' I remember saying at one time that if Orrin asked me to jump off the George Washington Bridge, I'd have to do it."

In 1963, Bill Grauer died suddenly from a heart attack, leaving Riverside overextended, so much so that in 1964 the company folded. Cannonball Adderley, Mongo Santamaria and the Staple Singers were among the artists who expressed interest in following Keepnews, but the mid-Sixties were grim days for jazz, and a situation for an independent jazz producer didn't present itself. In 1966, having tired of the freelance scuffle, he started from scratch again with Milestone. Sonny Rollins' decision to record for the still-struggling company a few years later, ending a self-imposed recording hiatus of several years, says something about Keepnews' credibility.

"Orrin came to one of my concerts at New York's Whitney Museum," Rollins said over the telephone, "and he never tried to push anything on me. He just seemed to appreciate my playing. I had sort of decided I didn't want to be heard on records anymore; recording is a kind of traumatic experience for me. I much prefer to play live. I sure didn't want to get involved with recording with some of the other people who were around at that time, but since it was Orrin, I stepped back in the water. We had a good relationship in the Fifties, and we still do. I respect him as a person, and that's really important to me."

In 1972, the great pianist McCoy Tyner also wasn't very interested in signing a recording contract. But Keepnews persuaded him to join Milestone's roster. "I'd recorded a lot of things for another company that were just kept in the can," he explained recently, "but I'd met Orrin back in the Fifties and I knew he had a long history of being involved with people like Sonny Rollins; that kind of track record speaks for itself. He has a love for the music, he really cares for it, and he's willing for our relationship to be a give-and-take situation; all our projects have been mutual efforts in terms of suggestions. Also, he has a certain amount of integrity about what he records. We're in an area where you have to maintain artistic integrity and be aware at the same time that an audience out there wants to hear you in different contexts."

Context is a recurring problem for the Seventies jazz producer. Keepnews has now done more than a dozen albums with Tyner, using working bands, expanded working bands, all-star units and Tyner arrangements for brass, voices and strings, among other approaches. And Keepnews seems to be maintaining his own excitement about the music he's producing. He is presently "very excited" about the latest Tyner project, a recently released all-star session titled Together that features Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Bennie Maupin, Bobby Hutcherson, Stanley Clarke, Jack DeJohnette and Bill Summers. "We recorded live, here in one of our studios," he says proudly. (The two-story Fantasy complex in a warehouse district of Berkeley includes three studios, with a fourth, state-of-the-art studio under construction.) "I think it's one of the best things I've ever done."

Undoubtedly, some people will disagree. The multitrack recordings of the Seventies somehow lack the sonic richness of some of those Fifties one-track productions. And in this image-conscious era, the situation that obtained twenty-five years ago, when great musicians would work together for union scale for a small company with little cash but a good reputation, simply no longer holds true. But few people would disagree that in an industry increasingly populated by technocrats, Orrin Keepnews is a real jazz producer, and one of the best. "The most important part of why he's a good jazz producer," says Ed Michel, a younger producer who is responsible for most of the albums in Fantasy's Galaxy series, "is that he really likes jazz."