Legendary Jazz Producer Orrin Keepnews Dies

Courtesy of Charles Sykes / AP
Courtesy of Charles Sykes / AP

Four-time Grammy award-winning jazz producer, Orrin Keepnews, died Sunday in his El Cerrito (California) home at the age of ninety-one. He is survived by his wife, Martha, who said he had been in failing health for sometime; his two sons are David and Peter. Keepnews, who produced albums for Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk among others, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2004 and even earned a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2011.

Of Keepnews, Bobby Hutcherson, who was the first artist at Landmark, said, “Orrin was always going like a house fire, coming up with new ideas and recording people so they could be heard.” Landmark was not the first record company that Keepnews owned. In 1953, he and classmate Bill Grauer started Riverside Records, where he produced dozens of albums throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Though Riverside Records was originally founded as a way to reissue projects, soon Randy Weston was signed in an effort to move the label into the modern jazz scene.

It was in 1955 when Thelonius Monk terminated his contract with Prestige and was convinced to sign with Riverside, that one of their most significant early moves was made. As their roster expanded, they rivaled both Prestige and Blue Note Records. Despite the growing talent Riverside Records was obtaining, the label eventually went bankrupt due in part to Grauer’s death. Keepnews soon cofounded a new label, Milestone Records, with pianist Dick Katz.  Unfortunately, the label was eventually sold to Fantasy Records, which also acquired the rights to the Riverside catalog. It was because of that incorporation that Keepnews later founded Landmark Records.

Born in the Bronx, NY on March 2, 1923, Keepnews, who co-produced the biggest box set in jazz history, discovered jazz only after taking a date to one of the bars on 52nd street, because he heard it was a good place to have a cheap evening. He said of that experience, “I got to hear jazz live in my mid-teens because I was illicitly able to hang out in these rooms. There was something that reached out and grabbed me and held on to me.” Aside from the many albums he produced, Keepnews also wrote The View from Within: Jazz Writings and co-wrote A Pictorial History Of Jazz: People and Places from New Orleans to Modern Jazz.

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