Orrin Keepnews, an NEA Jazz Master, Thelonious Monk producer, record exec and four-time Grammy winner, passed away today at his home in El Cerrito, California at the age of 91, one day shy of his 92nd birthday. Keepnews’ son Peter, an editor for the New York Times, confirmed his father’s death to the newspaper. No cause of death was given.
After starting out his career as a journalist and editor while moonlighting as the head of the jazz magazine The Record Changer, Keepnews teamed with Bill Grauer to form Riverside Records in 1953. Jazz legend Thelonious Monk, one of the musicians that Keepnews profiled while at Record Changer, soon joined the label in 1955.
It was on Riverside that Monk, with Keepnews serving as producer, crafted some of his most revered albums like 1956’s Brilliant Corners and 1957’s Monk’s Music and Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane. Ironically, trumpeter Clark Terry, one of the two surviving musicians (Sonny Rollins being the other) to appear on the Grammy Hall of Fame-inducted and Keepnews-produced Brilliant Corners, also passed away last week.
Keepnews’ Riverside Records would also be home to essential jazz recordings from the Bill Evans Trio, Cannonball Adderley, Randy Weston and Charlie Byrd. Following Riverside’s bankruptcy midway through the Sixties, Keepnews was briefly the head of Milestone Records before he segued into an A&R position at Fantasy Records. He would later found Landmark Records, home to artists like Kronos Quartet, Buddy Montgomery and Yusef Lateef.
Keepnews frequently returned to his writing roots, penning album notes for some of the LPs he had worked on; the compilation Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Collection earned Keepnews a pair of Grammys – Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album. Keepnews would win another Best Historical Album Grammy in 1999 for The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973)
In 2011, Keepnews was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts for his “significant contributions” to the field of jazz. He also received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2004.