NEA Jazz Master Orrin Keepnews

 

Written by Theresa Crushshon

“I was presented with an opportunity to present [Thelonius] Monk to the public and, let’s face it, I’m not saying that I knew what we were doing … we were by no means hotshots at publicity or promotion. But I know what I had was a sincere belief in the validity of this artist. And when you get down to it, that is not a terribly usual thing for a jazz musician of this quality and this rarity and this difficulty to have a cooperative and enthusiastic record company….[I]f I had been in the business a couple of years before getting involved with him, I probably would have developed a hard coating by that time already, but I was full of enthusiasm and I’d like to think that some of it resulted in some very interesting records.”—NEA Jazz Master Orrin Keepnews

National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Orrin Keepnews has won four Grammy Awards: Best Album Notes for Bill Evans’ The Interplay Sessions (1983); Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album for Thelonious Monk’s The Complete Riverside Recordings (1987); and Best Historical Album for The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973) (1999). In 2004, he was awarded a NARAS Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In a conversation with JASSed, NEA Jazz Master Orrin Keepnews shares some highlights of his career as a music producer.

“I was presented with an opportunity to present [Thelonius] Monk to the public and, let’s face it, I’m not saying that I knew what we were doing … we were by no means hotshots at publicity or promotion. But I know what I had was a sincere belief in the validity of this artist. And when you get down to it, that is not a terribly usual thing for a jazz musician of this quality and this rarity and this difficulty to have a cooperative and enthusiastic record company….[I]f I had been in the business a couple of years before getting involved with him, I probably would have developed a hard coating by that time already, but I was full of enthusiasm and I’d like to think that some of it resulted in some very interesting records.”—NEA Jazz Master Orrin Keepnews

National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Orrin Keepnews has won four Grammy Awards: Best Album Notes for Bill Evans’ The Interplay Sessions (1983); Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album for Thelonious Monk’s The Complete Riverside Recordings (1987); and Best Historical Album for The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973) (1999). In 2004, he was awarded a NARAS Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In a conversation with JASSed, NEA Jazz Master Orrin Keepnews shares some highlights of his career as a music producer.

JASSed: How does it feel to be honored with the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Award? 
Keepnews: It feels very good. I am particularly pleased because the first year these Jazz Master Awards were made I was on the advisory committee that selected the nominees. So, I kind of feel that something has gone full circle here.

JASSed: I am sure you get this question a lot. But, you have an amazing history as far as producing. How did you maintain your relationships with jazz musicians? 
Keepnews: The first step in maintaining an effective relationship is to realize that every musician or leader that you are dealing with is an individual with his own tastes. I am not a big believer that the producer is the big boss of the situation. I have always looked upon it as my goal to create a flexible and workable situation in which the leader’s desires are primary. I did not want to go into the studio with a musician with a leader who thinks subsustainally different than I do. You try to keep yourself in compatible situations.

JASSed: If you were to teach a class in jazz producing what elements would you focus on?

Keepnews: I would start… to me the most essential elements are compatibility between the producer and the leader. If you don’t have that to begin with you won’t have anything when you are finished.
Jassed: What about the chemistry of the artists who are working together?
Keepnews: Usually what happens is… Unless the producer feels that he is the kingmaker, it is setting up a flexible and compatible working team. I am much more interested in a drummer and a bass player that I know from experience that work well together, than getting the best on each instrument.

JASSed: Is that the formula you used when working with Art Blakey or Randy Weston?
Keepnews: The situation is not that cut and dry. You threw two names at me and that is very interesting. The first time I ever worked with Art Blakey. It was a situation… It was one of my first dates and it was a Randy Weston album and Randy went and … I did not know Art and I never meet Art… Randy who did know him went and asked him if he would work with him on a trio date. He actually got Art’s approval. Over the years, I worked on many occasions with Art. But, the very first time I worked with him the artist set it up.

JASSed: Hmm. Interesting. What were your most memorable experiences?
Keepnews: Well, I guess the most memorable… I can think of two very quickly. Almost any occasion I was in the studio with Thelonious was memorable, aggravating and for the most part rewarding. I think probably the best thing that ever happened to me is that I got involved with working with Monk quite early. It was a matter that if I had been through that experience, I was not going to be afraid of anybody else. And probably the third time I worked with Monk, the first two albums we had agreed that the album would consist of standard tunes to give the audience a break in being able to understand Monk. Then the “Brilliant Corners” album was the third album I worked on with Monk. That’s the one that had Sonny Rollins on it.  It eventually, in the last session, Clark Terry played. That was the first album I did with Monk that involved his original compositions. I look at that as a pretty remarkable thing.

Another highlight to me is the live sessions that we did at the Village Vanguard that we did with Bill Evans and the trio he had briefly that included Scott LaFaro, which of course was the last work that they did together before Scott died.

If I were going to single out spots in my activity those two sessions would be prehonors.

JASSed: Have you had the opportunity to check out Randy Weston’s new CD “The Storyteller?”
Keepnews: No I have not. In the mail just the other day I received a copy of Randy’s autobiography that he had written with Willard Jenkins… It is just out and I have not read it yet. I remain very interested and approving of Randy’s career. I am forced to remind myself that it is the first leader that I worked with.

JASSed: His CD is just amazing!
Keepnews: Well, he has done a lot of amazing work and I think that he probably would have been able to do all of that if he had not started out with me. But, it’s nice anyhow to feel  that the first several times that he went into the studio that I was his producer.

JASSed: Once upon a time you operated a magazine, The Record Changer. Do you view digital technology as good or evil?

Keepnews: Actually, I tend to avoid overemphasizing technology progress. To me the music will always be about the playing of it. How the people are responsible for the basis sounds and are interpreting it. In other words, I know some very good acoustic and non-ethereal albums that are just fine. I feel it is great to take advantage of all of the advances that have come along, but I always feel a little bit weary about situations where the emphasis get to be on the technical end of things. Jazz, as far as I am concerned, is primarily about playing.

JASSed: In 1961 you published “A Pictorial History of Jazz” with Bill Grauer, Jr. This project covered New Orleans to contemporary jazz artists.

Keepnews: Bill Grauer is the man really responsible for getting me into this situation. It was considerably before 1961. That was probably a reprint or reissue. We started Riverside Records in 1953, I guess. Well, it was at some point in the fifties and I don’t mean to sound vague about this, but my life can get jumble up in my memory, from time to time.

JASSed: Mine too, sir. But, where I was going with this is who are some of your favorite jazz photographers?

Keepnews: That’s a very hard question to answer because different people have different strengths. On an overall basis, Bill Claxton was the best jazz photographer that I worked with. There are several. I worked for a number of years at Riverside with jazz photographer Steve Shapiro who is not among your most famous jazz photographers, but had a sense of how to capture of what was going on in the studio. The one who get big credit… there are too many. I don’t want to single out to many individuals because I actually think that there are many highly accomplished in that area.

JASSed: You are 87 years young. Do you feel jazz is more appreciated more in Europe than America?

Keepnews: To give you a one word answer for that… no. I am appreciative that a number of Europeans of the understanding of the fans has it place. But, I think that the performance of jazz, as far as musicians understanding what they are doing, understanding the roots of what they are doing, this is its home and for better or for worse this is where it gets its greatest degree of understanding.

JASSed: Wow! You surprised me with that answer. Are there any musicians that you are listening to that you would like to share with us?

Keepnews: At the moment, I am feeling quite frustrated in that area. I don’t have any particular favorites… There are a few people that feel very strongly about. I have been operating strictly on a freelance basis. I am not all that happy with anybody else’s company and I have been through the rat race of running my own company three different times. There is an excellent tenor player out here, Dave Ellis. I have done a couple of albums with him, but I have not broken him in as of yet and I am constantly trying to hear more new artists. The economy is also playing a part is this. While I am feeling a little frustrated in that area,  I am not about to quit.

JASSed: I hear ya, man. How do define jazz?
Keepnews: I avoid as much as possible doing things like defining it. The best way I have been able to define it is by the last half-century of work that I have put in on it. Jazz is better defined by example than by making any pronouncements about it.

JASSed: If you could do it all over again, what would you change, if anything?
Keepnews: I would love to have a ready-made audience out there that was willing to run out and by huge quantities of anything just because I did it.  But, that has not worked out. My half-century and more in jazz has been a matter of fighting to put certain people across. I am very pleased and proud of a lot of the heavy people that I feel that I have contributed to their success. I think I have accomplished something from Monk. I think I have accomplished something for Cannonball Adderly. I could run a whole string of names, but that is always bad because then there are the ones that you forget and leave out. Take a look at where my name turned up as producer. I am not equally as proud of all of those, but I am quite proud of a number of them.

JASSed: Are there any projects that you are working on now?
Keepnews: Not at the moment, I am sorry to say. There is nothing that is in the stage where I can make a direct statement. I am not there, right now.

JASSed: What was the bebop era like?
Keepnews: We did not necessarily identify it as the bebop area when it was going on.  Some startling talents who had their own way of doing things introduced that period. So it was primarily Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and their followers. It was a great deal of rejecting one kind of music by practioners by another. It really wasn’t as much antagonism as it was made to seem it was. It was simply these two schools of music didn’t have much to say to each other that was moving in very different directions.

JASSed: Colossus?!

Keepnews: Sonny Rollins. I will say an outstanding example, in my life of a man who knew where he was going and a man who knew what he wanted  to be doing and had a great sense of self. That was something that I respected and still respect.

JASSed:  Closing out can you please share with us a good Cannonball Adderly story?
Keepnews: A good Cannonball Adderly story. That is an interesting question. Actually, this is not a good Cannonball Adderly story as such, but I can recall to you the first time I meet Cannonball. This was the final session on the Monk “Brilliant Corners” album, which had Clark Terry on it. It was a very tough session. Primarily, it was a very difficult Monk piece. It took us quite a while to get it straight.

A few days after that session I was walking in Greenwich Village and Clark was standing with a few people outside of the club. He called out to me and I walked over. Clark said to me, I would like for you to meet my friends the Adderly Brothers. The first time I meet Cannonball and Nat was not in a studio, but standing on a street in front of a celebrated club what was known as The Café Bohemia. Cannonball I would say, just looking at my career as a whole was probably one of my first closet friends.  He was responsible for the first hit record that I ever had which was the thing that we did with his quintet, which was “Live at the Jazz Workshop,” which was out here in San Francisco. I worked with him then and that was in 1959, I guess. Or 1958.

When Riverside was going under in 1964, Cannonball was anxious… This is when you know who your friends are. His contract was coming to an end and he said, “Why don’t you announce that you have resigned your best artists and I will go on and stay with you for another year on exactly the same terms that you have now.”

This was not a terribly rich contract for him.

Eventually, I had to tell him no. As long as you are as good as you are it is going to take more than you to save me. This company is not going to make it. Go away. Primarily, he is probably an example of an artist that I had to throw him away. He wouldn’t go on his own free will. He is one of several people I consider to be real friends.

There are people who are still in my life right now like McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson, and Sonny Rollins. Maybe what I am proudest of in the whole situation, I am proud of a number of albums that I have done, but I am mainly proud that I came across a wonderful bunch of people and that I have maintained a human being relationship with a lot of them.

JASSed: I am very grateful for this interview. You have been so sweet.

Keepnews: Well that is not something that I am told very often, so I will favor that. You handle an interview very well indeed.

Photo credit: Martha Egan

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s