Orrin Keepnews: Hero for America’s Music

Orrin Keepnews frequently talked about jazz the way war veterans will talk about experiences on the front lines. There were at least two reasons for this. One, it was never strictly business with him; it was always personal. More importantly, it was necessary.

See, Keepnews didn’t gravitate toward a career in jazz — as producer, writer and battle-scarred raconteur — because it was fashionable or profitable. He immersed himself in the idiom for the same reasons any of us who make the music and those who become enchanted, then obsessed by it do: because there is no choice in the matter. Once you get in, as a fan but especially as an artist or producer, you don’t get out easily. You don’t want to. In Keepnews’s case, he didn’t know how to.

To get a handle on the debt we owe him, it must be adequately understood that Keepnews didn’t merely oversee some of the seminal sessions in jazz history (e.g., American history); he did not just encourage some of jazz music’s (e.g., American music’s) most significant players; he was hands on, sleeves rolled up and directly involved in ensuring the tunes came out the way they did.

Exhibit A, and it’s one for all-time: the perfectly titled composition by Thelonious Monk, one of music’s most sublime iconoclasts, “Brilliant Corners”. This masterwork, the recording of which confounded two of the most adept and astute men who ever walked into a studio, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, was ultimately spliced together from multiple takes by Keepnews.

That Keepnews was one of the foremost ambassadors for jazz is common knowledge to anyone who knows anything. His street cred dates back to the great old days when giants roamed the earth, when he produced and championed geniuses like Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Wes Montgomery. He was properly lauded by people who had a handle on jazz, history and — most importantly — propriety. That he wasn’t remunerated or revered in a fashion commensurate with his achievements underscores a truth almost frivolous in its familiarity: like the artists he advocated, the riches attained were rare, obscurity was all but inevitable and disappointment often the reward for a lifetime dedicated to stalking an increasingly unappreciated sort of brilliance.

As such, Keepnews could talk about racism. He could comment on an industry where banality flourishes and genius is ill-understood, if it’s recognized at all. He could tell stories from a very unique period in American history where, when it came to the intersection of art and culture, it was at once the best and worst of times. What Keepnews eventually grasped, and what historians will confirm, is that as challenging and confrontational as the scene could be in the ’50s and ’60s, it was as good as it would ever get, and jazz will never have that type of audience again.

Almost a decade before the Summer of Love, Keepnews produced, and wrote the epic liner notes, for Sonny Rollins’s tour-de-force The Freedom Suite. In other words, Keepnews was literally on the front line of the struggles inherent in everything that came to the fore during America’s Civil Rights movement. This was music as statement, and it was not fashionable or facile; it was in almost every sense, a matter of life and death, as livelihood and a way of living. Jazz was music with a social conscience before it was cool.

Keepnews took the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll personally. More than once he correctly claimed that the Beatles and everything that came after changed things, forever. When I had the opportunity to chat with him, we agreed to disagree that music changed, for the worse. Yes, the rise of rock certainly didn’t bolster the prospects for jazz (music or musicians), but the artistic and societal shifts were, in many ways, attributable to the doors of perception that rock and the attitude it embraced blew open.

While I was young and more foolish than I apprehended, I realize now, more than I did in my mid-’20s, that Keepnews was not just lamenting a cultural revolution that dumbed down the discourse, even as it elevated consciousness in many non-clichéd ways. Rock, and the eruption of talent, including both listeners and players who may otherwise have gravitated toward jazz, inexorably sucked oxygen out of an already tiny space. Jazz could not compete, which meant the music didn’t get to flourish at the same rate, for the same-sized audience. As a result, many of these men and women would have a harder time making a living. It wasn’t just business; it was personal for all involved.

Keepnews never retired and he never went away. Active, interested and engaged until the end, he continued doing what all great producers do: discovering new talent and celebrating the old masters. What Keepnews did for jazz music was a form of dedication that bordered on the heroic, but it’s a mistake to view his life’s work through this narrow if elemental lens. Rather, we should acknowledge the ways he held himself to a relentless standard of excellence. He accepted the challenges, embraced the lack of easy solutions and, in the process, advanced the music. He is a rare example of what we hope to emulate when we invoke the best American tradition of invention, discovery and improvement. He is a model for how to follow one’s purpose, with a lack of fear and passion that only death can extinguish.

He lives on, of course, in our memories and always, forever, in the miraculous sounds that, without his guidance and collaboration, we may otherwise never have heard.