|Orrin Keepnews, in 2002|
March 4, 2015
Orrin Keepnews, 1923-2015
In my 20 years as Director of the Fillius Jazz Archive I have learned of the interconnectedness in the jazz world. It seems there are only one or two degrees of separation between jazz artists and the circle of producers, record executives, journalists and fans that surround the musicians. Orrin Keepnews, record producer and co-owner of Riverside Records, signed Cannonball Adderley to his label. Cannonball employed pianist Junior Mance early in his career. The liner notes to Junior’s LP entitled “Harlem Lullaby” were written by Orrin Keepnews. This record was produced by Joel Dorn, who released Cannonball Adderley live dates on Hyena records as well as archival recordings by Joe Williams. This is the same Joe Williams who sang the lead role in Cannonball Adderley’s musical “Big Man,” released on Fantasy records. Fantasy Records hired Orrin Keepnews in 1972 as Director of Jazz Productions and to oversee reissues of recordings from Riverside Records. And so it goes.
We regularly note the passing of jazz artists who are in their 80s and 90s, and the people who produced them have also reached these golden years. Orrin is recognized as one of the most important producers, writers, and record company owners in the history of jazz, and is responsible for numerous recordings by Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Thelonious Monk, and Cannonball Adderley. He described the role of a producer as he saw it, in our interview recorded in San Francisco in 2002:
MR: I want to congratulate you on the contribution you’ve made to the art form called jazz. It’s really quite amazing the things you’ve been involved in and the careers that you have helped.
OK: Well I must admit that I look back on it with a good deal of satisfaction. I’ve been very fortunate because in this business in particular, a lot of the associations that you form, at least initially, are accidental as hell. If someone tells me that I have been helpful to this or that career, that’s exactly the thing that I want to hear because I have always looked on the role of the producer in a very specific way. Now one of the hardest things, and I’ve been at it, I’m getting perilously close to my fiftieth anniversary in this business, but I still have to pause usually when I’m asked to make some kind of definition of what it is I do. Because for better or worse, I don’t know about other things because I’ve only done this really, but jazz record producers do a little bit of everything, as there is always a shortage of personnel, and to me the most important role is what I have taken to repetitiously referring to as being a catalytic agent. That I am supposed to create the circumstances under which the artist can work most effectively. I’ve finally got it boiled down to that one mantra and that’s what I am, that’s what I do. That statement is generally true, but the details of its implementation are constantly changing. There are almost literally no two artists who can be dealt with in the same way. There are perhaps no two record dates that can be dealt with in the same way. That may be pushing it a little bit, but fundamentally that to me is what the continuing challenge is all about. That’s why I didn’t get bored a long time ago with doing this. My job was to do two things. One is to appreciate and the other is to facilitate. And I usually don’t use such glorious words to describe it, but I’ve always been the guy that was able to get it done, which kind of surprises me sometimes. I don’t think of myself as being firm, as being decision-maker, I certainly do not believe in the auteur theory of jazz direction. I don’t think, and there have been people, and we won’t bother to name names, but there have been other jazz record producers who clearly do think of themselves as king makers. And I never did. It just got to be the point of hey, somebody’s got to make the decision and okay, that’s one of the things that I’m here for. Sometimes you might make decisions because nobody else is even in the position to even be aware of the need for a decision.
Like many men of his generation, Orrin served in the military during the World War II years. I found his recollections to be of particular interest:
MR: Let me go backwards just a little bit. You were in the South Pacific.
OK: I was on Guam. I was a navigator radar operator on B-29s. I did a lot of dropping of bombs on Japan, which I’m resolutely not proud of for the rest of my life.
MR: At that time you were 23?
OK: 22 maybe, around in there.
MR: How did you feel about it at the time?
OK: At the time you didn’t feel about it. I mean I’m no great expert on it but there were two years in my life where I was involved in armed conflict and I think that one of the ways in which some of us emotionally survive was a form of anesthetizing yourself. You did not think about what you were doing. I don’t think, unfortunately at the end of the war, after the war was over, I flew a couple of missions where we were taking a batch of generals up to evaluate what had been done to Tokyo. So we flew in the daytime at pretty low levels over Tokyo, which is something I had never done before, and I was able to see Tokyo. I’ll take a lot of credit for the fact that Tokyo was a modern city that is almost entirely a post-war city. It looked to me to be about 50 percent burned out, I mean put it that way. And that was the first time, the shock of that hit me. Not to turn this into too much of a war memoir but basically between IM flights we didn’t do very much daytime formation bombing which involved demolition bombs. We normally did night flights where you just flew in a single file so basically you were following at a decent interval the plane ahead of you and we were dropping incendiary bombs so that what you did was it was a very lazy form of bombing, you just dropped on the fires that were in front of you. And if the first guy had been way off target, we all were because nobody did anything else but that. But the whole point there was that you could be very detached. You didn’t have to force yourself to think that you really were causing fires to happen in a large metropolitan city that was there. And you could block that out pretty good because hey, you had no alternative. This is what you were doing in the great war and I’ve long since given up figuring out whether this was, in many respects, a good or a bad thing. However, at this time of year as we get around the middle of August every year I am forced to think that in my personal opinion the damn atom bomb never should have been dropped. And let’s not get into the aesthetics or morality of that, but you have led me to this point in time so I make that statement. But you blot it out, the implications of what you were doing, I think because it was pretty necessary.
MR: Right. Were the Japanese putting up a defense against your planes at that time?
OK: In a lot of stages no. There was always a fair amount of antiaircraft fire but there were virtually no fighter planes. I mean the Japanese Air Force was pretty much shot to hell in the last months of the war which is the time I was primarily there.
Orrin saw the proliferation of jazz education programs and the advance of audio technology in an informative light:
MR: Jazz has been elevated to a high state of art these days. Do you think it’s been positive for jazz?
OK: That’s a hard question to answer. I do feel that when I have attended the last few jazz educators conventions I used to frown on jazz education because those God damn stage band so-called which were nothing but tired old big band charts and there were important things like the fact that if it wasn’t for North Texas State how would Woody Herman ever get new players for his band, all those clichés of the past. But the fact is I think that to some degree jazz education has done a wonderful job, it has progressed, there are people learning things on stages of the game where people never were learning before. As long as you recognize there is only one of a series of tools and it is by no means the only way to go. So that I would say on the whole, hey, if you asked me did I think that multi-track recordings was a positive or a negative experience I’d say pretty much the same thing. If you keep it under control it’s just fine. If you use it, if you don’t let it use you, if you use the fact of jazz education, the proliferation of it in so many places, if you use that to the purposes of making good jazz it’s fine. But don’t let it run away with you. I feel that way about technical progress. I mean I love digital recording. I have always been of several minds about multi-track for just that reason, I don’t want the bass player to be able to punch in the right notes, I want it to be important what notes they were playing when they were listening to him while they were playing. So that makes me an anachronism in some ways I know. But so be it.
Orrin passed away on March 1, one day shy of his 92nd birthday. The jazz world was fortunate to have had him as an integral force for over six decades.