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[A] Person I Knew

Orrin Keepnews, one of the most influential and respected figures in jazz died at the age of 92 at his home in El Cerrito, California on 1 March.

Keepnews founded the Riverside jazz record label in 1953 with the help of Bill Grauer, an old college friend. As editor of The Record Changer, Orrin was already on first name terms with most of the leading figures in jazz at that time.

Over a 10-year period Riverside recorded many of the important figures in modern jazz, notably Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery and Cannonball Adderley. Over the years Keepnews also founded and ran the Milestone and Landmark labels.

As a long term jazz fan, I jumped at the chance when the opportunity arose to invite Orrin to come to London with his wife Lucile in 1988. The idea of the visit was to help Ace launch a reissue programme for the various jazz labels that we had under license from Fantasy Records in San Francisco.

In the 50s and 60s, Orrin had produced many of my favourite jazz artists, including Bobby Timmons, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Mundell Lowe, Zoot Simms, Herbie Mann, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Golson, Max Roach, Blue Mitchell, Gerry Mulligan as well as those already mentioned above.

At the time, I was trying to drum up interest in Ace’s forthcoming reissue programme of vinyl releases for a bunch of classic Riverside and Prestige albums. I think that it was probably Bill Belmont from Fantasy Records who suggested bringing Orrin to London. “If he can bring his wife and come for a week’s holiday, I’m sure that he’ll be happy to do some interviews,” Bill said.

As it turned out Orrin was very accommodating. However, because of his legendary status, the queue for interviews stretched almost to infinity. In the end, we decided to devote three days to fairly Intensive interviews, leaving another three days for relaxation and sightseeing. Even in his mid-60s, Orrin had boundless energy and swept through a rather punishing schedule with enthusiasm and ease, not bothered by jetlag or anything else that came in his way. 

One thing that fascinated Orrin greatly was the burgeoning acid jazz scene in London, where young people were dancing in clubs to records he had produced or released almost 20 years earlier on his Milestone label. He was delighted to hear that some of the recordings by such artists as McCoy Tyner, Gary Bartz, Phil Upchurch, Bobby Timmons, Ron Carter, Azymuth, Junior Mance, Johnny Lytle and others were enjoying a rebirth in front of a new young and very enthusiastic audience. The acid or club jazz movement had barely reached America at this time and was news to Orrin.

We were amused by the sense of enthusiasm of the young acid jazz fans of the 1980s, as compared with young modern jazz fans of the 50s who adopted almost identical elitist attitudes towards many of their heroes.

Orrin and his wife were delightful people, a joy to work with and not the slightest problem marred their visit. It was such a pleasure to have had the chance to meet someone who was so central to that classic period of American culture.


Ted Carroll 
March 2015