Orrin Keepnews never wrote a jazz standard. He never led a band. He was never a sideman on an influential recording. And yet, Orrin Keepnews was one of the most important figures in jazz, founding multiple record labels, bringing many of the all-time greats into the spotlight, and producing a seemingly infinite quantity of classic jazz records. An influential journalist, producer, and businessman, Keepnews died at the age of 91 on March 1, 2015, at his home in El Cerrito, California.
Keepnews was born in the Bronx, New York, on March 2, 1923. After graduating from Columbia University in 1943 with a degree in English, Keepnews served as an Army pilot during World War II, before returning to Columbia for graduate work in 1946.
Keepnews began his career as an editor for Simon and Schuster, but also wrote for The Record Changer, a small jazz publication run by fellow Columbia graduate (and future co-owner of Riverside Records) Bill Grauer. While writing for The Record Changer, Keepnews became the first journalist for a national publication to profile Thelonious Monk; it was during this interview that Keepnews first established his working relationship with Monk.
In 1949, Keepnews and Grauer co-founded Riverside Records. After paying Monk $130 in cash to terminate his recording contract with Prestige, Keepnews signed Monk to the fledgling Riverside label. In order to help make Monk accessible to the average listener, Keepnews convinced Monk to record an album of Duke Ellington’s music, which Monk readily agreed to do. The result was Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, a classic to this day. From there, Monk’s career took off, and Keepnews produced several more classic Monk records, including Brilliant Corners, Mulligan Meets Monk, and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane.
Through Monk, Keepnews was able to meet (and sign) artists such as Clark Terry, Bill Evans, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Johnny Griffin, and Jimmy Heath to the Riverside label, elevating it from a small label run by two journalists to one of the early “Big Three” jazz labels, alongside Blue Note and Prestige. This heavy influence of Monk on the Riverside label led Keepnews to call Monk the “patron saint” of Riverside.
After Riverside was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1964, Keepnews started Milestone Records in 1966 with pianist Dick Katz. At Milestone, Keepnews produced artists such as Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Lee Konitz, and Gary Bartz. After being acquired by Fantasy Records, Keepnews later founded Landmark Records in 1985, where he worked with the Kronos Quartet as they released albums of music by Bill Evans and Monk.
Keepnews continued to work extensively with reissue compilations, including the Duke Ellington 24-CD RCA Centennial set and Riverside’s Keepnews Edition series. Keepnews has been recognized as an NEA Jazz Master, was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and won four Grammy Awards during his lifetime.
Keepnews is survived by his wife, Martha Egan, and his two sons, Peter and David Keepnews. Please enjoy an interview of Keepnews released by the Concord Music Group commemorating the 60th Anniversary of Riverside Records in 2013.