At Riverside's inception, the label was a reissue operation—taking traditional jazz and blues singles recorded for Paramount and packaging them on 10-inch, 33 1/3 Riverside LPs. Thanks to John Hammond's pristine collection of Paramount 78rpms and his overwhelming generosity, Orrin had clean discs from which to make master copies onto tape. With these tapes, Orrin was able to transfer Paramount's singles onto wax masters for Riverside's 10-inch LP record production.
But within a year, Orrin was restless. The New York jazz scene was heating up, and Blue Note and Prestige—the two big jazz record labels at the time—were unable to capture all the emerging talent or keep all of their artists happy. Orrin sensed opportunity to record new artists, not just reissue old material.
In Part 3 of my five-part interview, Orrin reflects on meeting Thelonious Monk for the first time in 1948 and the big risk he took with Monk that later would lead to 14 stunning Riverside albums recorded by the pianist between 1955 and 1961:
"By 1955, the 12-inch LP was introduced and it very quickly became standard, which meant that there was substantially more room available for music. Each side of a 10-inch LP could contain only four 78-rpm singles—or approximately a maximum of 15 minutes of music. The new larger albums could hold up to six reissues on a side, and 20 minutes was considered a safe maximum for newly recorded material.
This expansion fit in rather neatly with the dramatic first results of our decision to get aggressive about being a modern jazz label. What I'm referring to is our signing of Thelonious Monk.
We had actually met Monk a good seven years earlier—right after Grauer took over ownership of The Record Changer magazine and I became its managing editor. Early in 1948, Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records (left), who just made his first records with Monk, decided to make use of the two kids who had published an editorial in their first issue declaring that The Record Changer would no longer be doggedly traditional but would begin paying attention to the new music of bebop.
So Alfred invited us to his home in Greenwich Village to meet Thelonious, listen to test pressings from that first session, and hopefully get us to write about Monk. It was the first time I had met the pianist or even heard his music. I was entirely impressed.
It probably helped that the drummer on Monk’s first Blue Note date was Art Blakey, who was always a great combination with Thelonious and supplied a firm, aggressive beat that made the whole thing more accessible for me.
Immediately, with an approach that I later referred to as 'the arrogance of ignorance,' I dragged Monk off into a corner of Alfred’s huge living room and proceeded to interview him. I should have known that he was a major eccentric, and that he was quite likely to be entirely uncooperative. But somehow it worked. He talked quite freely, and I wrote a long feature article about just how good and interesting and original I felt he was.
And then I had absolutely no contact with him for about seven years."
Tomorrow, in Part 4, Orrin talks about how he convinced Monk to abandon Prestige in 1955 to record for Riverside, what Monk taught him about life and why Orrin abhors polls.
JazzWax pages: If you love the quirky, cool art that appeared on the covers of Record Changer magazine between 1945 and 1950, they have been reproduced in a book, The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove: The Complete Collection of 78rpm Artwork from the Legendary Record Changer Magazine. You can find the book here.
JazzWax tracks: Thelonious Monk's 1948 recordings for Alfred Lion's Blue Note records can be found here and here—or on a variety of CDs that combine the two. They also are available at iTunes. I'm partial to the Blue Note remasters with the original covers.