Orrin Keepnews’ Milestones
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.”