One evening in 1948, Orrin Keepnews was invited over to the home of Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note records. There, Lion introduced Orrin, a jazz journalist at the time, to Thelonious Monk and played him an advanced test pressing of Monk's first recording for the label. Orrin was astonished by Monk's genius and interviewed him for his Record Changer magazine. (In the photo above, that's Orrin, center, with Monk, right, in the 1950s.)
That early meeting between Orrin and Monk would prove to be crucial to the careers of both men. In 1955, after Orrin started Riverside Records and secured Reeves Recording Studios, he was looking for new jazz artists on the New York scene to record. And Monk wasn't happy at Prestige Records.
In Part 4 of my five-part interview, Orrin talks about how he and his parter Bill Grauer convinced Monk to switch from Prestige Records to Riverside, Monk's first recording for the label, and what Orrin says Monk taught him about life:
"By 1955, Grauer and I decided to move on to the modern jazz scene. We started to work with a few young artists and were looking for some way to gain attention. Then we heard that Prestige records, a competitor we wanted to pick a fight with, was more than willing to unload Monk (right). At the time, Monk was still generally regarded as a flake. He didn't sell records, and the label was concentrating on artists who were selling for them—like Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Grauer and I set up a meeting with Thelonious, although I was convinced that he'd never remember his one past encounter with us. To my great surprise, Monk more than remembered that evening—telling us that my article had been the first piece about him to appear in a national magazine. He also indicated that he would be willing to take a chance on us.
The Prestige problem turned out to be ridiculously easy to solve. The label had somehow figured out that they had advanced him about $108 more than he was entitled to. A letter to Thelonious from the president of Prestige specified that. (I asked Monk to let me have the original letter, and it has been hanging, framed, on one wall of every office I have worked in ever since.)
Grauer and I gave Monk the cash, and he walked two blocks to where Prestige was located, paid them, returned to us and agreed on a contract with Riverside. I eventually produced 14 albums with Monk—undoubtedly the greatest artist I have ever known. The first album—which also was our very first new 12-inch LP—was Monk Plays Ellington. Our first goal was to create a larger audience for Monk by starting to record him without horns and concentrating on standard tunes. Our hope was that this would make things easier for the listener. He had been very pleased by my comparing him to Ellington in my first Record Changer article, which helped us make that recording decision.
Over time, this man taught me a hell of a lot about life—and about being a producer. He taught me to have enormous respect for the music and for jazz artists—and to protect the integrity of creativity at all costs.
And Monk did it in the same way that I know he taught others, like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, who have expressed it in similar ways. Monk didn’t give lessons or lecture on the subject. Instead, he taught by the example of his own stubborn honesty. It took Monk many years to even begin to get the recognition that his talent deserved, and there were many times when he might have sped up the process by compromising or cutting creative corners. But he never seemed to consider any course other than following his own path. (That's Coltrane and Monk, pictured.)
You can't really explain in words what Monk's music is all about. I'm not a great believer in the ability to translate the meaning of jazz into written language. It is, after all, extremely rare and difficult to translate one form of expression into another successfully.
The value of great recordings is in what you hear in them—not what you read in a bunch of articulated sentences. That’s why I find it difficult to accept the 'wisdom' of most—though certainly not all—jazz critics. I guess the most important way to understand Monk's music is to listen to it carefully.
I also have a hard time evaluating music in terms of best or worst. I hate polls—I really don't care who is this year's fourth most popular tenor player. Each album by a significant player should stand on its own as a work of art."
Tomorrow, in the final installment of my five-part interview with Orrin, he reflects on two great Riverside sessions—Sonny Rollins' The Sound of Sonny and Bill Evans' 1961 Village Vanguard recordings—and his biggest career regret.
JazzWax tracks: Here's a listing of Monk's original Riverside Records releases produced by Orrin Keepnews...
- Monk Plays The Music Of Duke Ellington (1955)
- The Unique Thelonious (1956)
- Brilliant Corners (1956)
- Thelonious Monk - Thelonious Himself (1957)
- Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (1957)
- Monk's Music (1957)
- Mulligan Meets Monk (1957)
- Thelonious in Action (1958)
- Misterioso (1958)
- Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (1959)
- Five By Monk by Five (1959)
- Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (1959)
- Thelonious Monk Quartet Plus Two at the Blackhawk (1960)
- Two Hours With Thelonious (1961)