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Fresh Air Remembers 'Jazz Master' Orrin Keepnews


This is FRESH AIR. The jazz musicians of Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Abbey Lincoln are just a few of the musicians whose seminal work was recorded by Orrin Keepnews. He cofounded two of the most important independent record labels of the '50s and '60s - Riverside and Milestone. Orrin Keepnews died on Sunday, one day before his 92nd birthday. Keepnews was a four-time Grammy award winner, earning two for producing and two for his liner notes. He was recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which administers the Grammys, and was named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts. I spoke with Orrin Keepnews in 1988 after the release of the box set reissue "Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings," which won a Grammy for best historical album. Let's start with a track from it. This is "Just You, Just Me," recorded in 1956.


THELONIOUS MONK: (Playing piano).


GROSS: When you worked with Monk, you were a young producer working with one of the most brilliant and one of the most eccentric musicians in the whole history of jazz. What was he like to record? How did his eccentricities express themselves in the recording studio?

ORRIN KEEPNEWS: Well, first of all, calling me a young producer is really giving me the best of it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KEEPNEWS: I was an absolutely naive, childish, inexperienced producer back then. So I look back on those sessions and the difficulties of this man as being the most important learning experience in my career. He was difficult for a number of reasons, but I think the most important reason he was difficult is this was a completely self-contained man. He knew exactly what he wanted out of his music. And he was every bit as demanding of other people - the other musicians and myself - as he was of himself.

And that was very unfair 'cause he knew what it was all about, and we really didn't. We had to kind of catch on this express train as it went roaring by. He was never a patient man. And I think he legitimately did not understand that it was difficult for other people to appreciate and understand his music and difficult even for very talented musicians to perform it to his satisfaction very quickly.

GROSS: In your liner notes, you write that working on behalf of an artist doesn't mean you have to be a doormat - you know, that working with an artist and trying to be, you know, on their side doesn't mean you just, like, put up with anything. What gave you that realization?

KEEPNEWS: Well, I guess that realization was spurred by these early encounters with Thelonius. And I recall one specific situation where it was the first time - the first of two separate occasions that I did a totally solo album with him - just a solo piano album. And he showed up for a session close to an hour late and really in no condition to go to work. And I somehow or other lost my temper, informed him that I really didn't care whether or not he had respect me, but I had to have respect for me and that in the future, anybody can have, say, 15 minutes or so of leeway, but if he wasn't going to be there within a half an hour of the appointed time, don't bother to show up because I wouldn't be there. We rescheduled this date for a few days later. I got there about 10 or 15 minutes early. And he was sitting in the control room waiting for me with a beautiful, big smile, which he was quite capable of. He said, what kept you?

GROSS: Was that a turning point in your relationship with him?

KEEPNEWS: I think so. I think, you know - not that I - in no way was this deliberate, but I - when I eventually stood up there and said, hey, you know, I'm a human being, too, and get off my back and things like that, it worked. And we had a - for the next several years, I think, had a very good and I think obviously very creative and, to me, very satisfying working relationship.


GROSS: Over the years, how has your idea of what a producer does changed?

KEEPNEWS: Well, I don't know that actually has fundamentally changed, again, because I probably learned my lesson so well at the hands of a master, Thelonious. But I, from the beginning, conceived of the idea of the role of the producer as being a catalytic agent, feeling that my job was to create the circumstances, set the scene in such a way that the artists could behave at his creative best. And although my methods of accomplishing that or my techniques of doing it have undoubtedly changed and developed and become more flexible of the years, that concept, I guess, as I look back on it, has stayed with me for over 30 years.

GROSS: In your liner notes for the Thelonious Monk box set, you say that you really learned that musicians saw both record companies and record producers as the enemy or, at least, the opposition. I'm going to ask you briefly explain why so many musicians feel that way about record producers and what you tried to do what to prove that you didn't want to be the enemy or the opposition.

KEEPNEWS: Well, it's a complex thing in the sense that, well, I guess, obviously, to some extent, I was talking about a racial situation. Most jazz musicians are black. Most record company executives and producers are white. That should be reasonably self-explanatory as an initial attitude. I've always felt that I've lived in a musical world, in an environment that, basically, properly belongs to the black artist - that I have to prove my way in that world. And I also think that it was a matter of the employer and employee relationship, which comes into the picture. These are things that I tried to break down.

GROSS: Orrin Keepnews, recorded in 1988. He died yesterday, one day before his 92nd birthday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will Kim Gordon. She co-founded the band Sonic Youth with Thurston Moore. When the marriage broke up, so did the band. We'll talk about being a woman in the post-punk music scene and about searching for a new identity after the end of her marriage and Sonic Youth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.