Orrin Keepnews founded Riverside Records with Bill Grauer in the early 1950s. But when Grauer died of a heart attack in 1963, Orrin (right) couldn't save the label from bankruptcy a year later. In 1966, Orrin mounted a comeback, starting the Milestone label, which he sold to Fantasy Records in 1972, becoming its director of jazz A&R. Orrin left Fantasy in 1980, launched Landmark Records in 1985, selling it to Muse Records in 1993. In 2004, Concord Records purchased the Fantasy catalog—which included Riverside. Today Orrin is working with Concord on select remasters known as the "Keepnews Collection" and updating his original liner notes.
From the start, Orrin has been a prolific writer of album liner notes. But unlike most jazz writers, Orrin was behind the controls when the albums were recorded and knew the artists on both a personal and professional basis. In 1988 Orrin won two Grammys—Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes—for Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings, which remains a top seller.
In Part 2 of my interview with Orrin, he talks about the crucial role John Hammond played in helping launch Riverside as a reissue label, the trick Orrin used to reduce the pops and snaps of the Paramount recordings, where pianist Randy Weston was discovered, and the deal that gave Riverside access to the Reeves Sound Studios:
"By 1953, Bill Grauer and I owned the rights to reissue the traditional jazz and blues catalog of Paramount records. But we didn't have any masters. Then an unexpected savior entered the picture—John Hammond, who was well into his long career as both a producer and talent scout. Hammond’s list of talent discoveries began with Billie Holiday, Count Basie and his brother-in-law Benny Goodman. Later, of course, he would also introduce Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen.
Hammond was also a member of a wealthy American family. One afternoon John invited Grauer and me to his Sutton Place apartment for the purpose of lending us vast quantities of Paramount 78rpms in perfect condition—Rainey, Oliver, Dodds, Blind Lemon and others. I don't remember exactly how many records Hammond gave us that day, but I do know we had to borrow a good-sized suitcase to carry them away.
Hammond was simply being helpful. He felt that what we were attempting to do would be good for jazz. When we asked how he had come to own all these recordings, he told us that as a teenage jazz fan, when these records were first being made, he had a standing order at the manufacturing plant. He’d receive three copies of each new Paramount release. Why three? The answer was simple: One to play, one to give away to whomever he chose, and one to keep unplayed for whatever future use might turn up. So John Hammond literally put us in business. We had all of his discs transferred to tape and returned the records to him as quickly as possible. It’s a favor I'll never forget!
One benefit of magnetic tape being such a new medium was that many recording engineers were what I guess you could call “ambidextrous.” They had learned the art of tape-recording while still retaining their skills with old-fashioned wax and metal masters. The biggest remaining problem was noise reduction. There were a great many pops and clicks and crackles on the original records to begin with, and even minimal playing quickly made the sound worse. I have often pointed out over the years that the initial form of noise removal was quite literal: two close-together cuts on a quarter-inch tape with an industrial razor blade, carefully rejoined with adhesive editing tape.
So that’s what we did, and the results were much less than uniform or perfect. But we were helped by the limitations of early recording—there had been very little extreme highs or lows recorded in the early days. So there was some, but not really all that much, loss through compression when the final edited tape was copied and mastered on wax.
But we didn't remain content for very long with just reissuing Paramount's records. We had already come into contact with working jazz musicians in various ways. Grauer knew pianist Dick Hyman (right) through the Columbia University radio station. Through Hyman we met various NBC radio studio musicians—including Mundell Lowe, a young guitarist who in a couple of years would bring Bill Evans to our attention.
And at a New England summer resort called Music Inn, Grauer heard a young piano player named Randy Weston, who was mainly employed there as the assistant chef. Properly impressed by Randy—who remains an important part of the current jazz and World Music scene—we did our first live recording with him. The date was a duo with bassist Sam Gill—and something of a compromise. We felt we couldn’t afford more than a solo album, and Randy had wanted a 'normal' trio date. Gill went on to spend many years with the Denver Symphony.
The record was made one afternoon in April of 1954, at a long-vanished mid-Manhattan recording studio that I don't really remember. I do clearly recall, however, that the recording engineer they provided—a very capable young man named Tom Dowd—soon went on to become a major figure in the development of Atlantic Records.
Not long after that session, we made a long-term deal for a studio that was of great value to us. Through Hyman and others, Grauer had become aware of Reeves Sound Studios in the East 40s. It was a big room—although easily brought down by screens and baffles to the small-group size we basically needed. The studio was used primarily for radio jingles and other advertising agency work. That meant it was rarely in use after daytime working hours. They agreed to give us almost unlimited time for a very low annual flat fee, provided our recording was basically done at night. It was a real meeting of needs.
That low studio rate, and the quite reasonable union scale rates in that far-off deflationary period, made it possible for us to do a lot of recording with very little cash, which was a pretty essential factor in the early growth of Riverside."
Tomorrow, in Part 3 of my five-part interview with Orrin, he talks about his first encounter with Thelonious Monk and the risk he took during that meeting that would lead to an incredible series of albums for Riverside.
JazzWax pages: In 1961, Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer published a book of jazz photos called A Pictorial History of Jazz. Photos ranged from New Orleans honky tonks to contemporary jazz artists of the time. It can be found used, through online sellers.
JazzWax tracks: You can find Randy Weston's 1954 and 1955 recordings for Riverside here, on the CD, Randy Weston: Solo, Duo & Trio.