Orrin Keepnews is responsible for producing many of the most innovative and dynamic jazz albums of the 1950s and early 1960s. As co-founder of Riverside Records and the label's artistic conscience, Orrin forged close working relationships with jazz's brightest minds of the day, encouraging and capturing their most brilliant moments.
The classic albums Orrin produced for Riverside some 50 years ago remain taut and exciting. These nonpareils include Monk's Music, Monk's Brilliant Corners, Bill Evans' 1961 Village Vanguard sessions, Sonny Rollins' The Sound of Sonny and Freedom Suite, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco, and so many more.
What you hear on each of these records—in addition to jazz at its creative best—is Orrin's impeccable judgment and musical ear. Orrin knew art, understood the jazz musician's temperament, and had the good sense to stimulate rather than stifle.
If you ask Orrin to tell you how he did it, he'll take you straight to the woodshed. "I don't answer questions like that," he said during our first phone chat. "You can't explain in words how things like this were done."
But at the end of my interview and the editing phase (Orrin and I went back and forth a few times with the content), I realized that I had gone through the same creative process with him as Monk, Rollins, Evans, Kenny Dorham, Art Blakey, Wes Montgomery and so many others. And it felt really good.
In Part 1 of my five-part interview, Orrin talks about how he got started in the record business, the origin of Riverside's name, and how the label initially came to produce reissues of traditional jazz and blues:
"At the beginning of 1953, when Bill Grauer and I started Riverside Records, we were too damn dumb to be scared. As long-time fans and record collectors, we did know a good deal about traditional jazz. And we had been running a quite well-regarded jazz magazine called The Record Changer. We also thought we knew something about the jazz record business, but we were wrong about that. At least we were lucky enough to start the label in a relatively easy way—as a re-issue operation.
The name "Riverside" came to us as a sort of desperate gesture. Grauer and I and our wives had spent a full evening unsuccessfully trying to come up with something as relevant and as catchy as the labels we intended to compete against—Blue Note and Prestige. In frustration, we turned to the telephone book. In those days, telephone exchanges were still identified by names rather than numbers. We decided that there was an excellent choice staring us in the face. Our record company would be sharing the Manhattan office space of our magazine on LaSalle Street—just south of Harlem and north of Columbia College. The area was quite close to Riverside Drive and dominated by Riverside Church, so naturally the local telephone exchange was "Riverside."
The main reason we felt we knew the record business is that we had already begun producing jazz reissues on the side for RCA Victor. Our magazine had made a lot of noise breaking the news that RCA's custom-pressing division had been manufacturing records for a well-known jazz bootlegging company. That company had the rather blatant name "Jolly Roger," which historically had been the flag flown by pirate ships.This led RCA to believe that we wanted to lease and reissue jazz recordings from them. We really hadn't been thinking that way, but when they suggested it, Grauer and I thought it was a great idea!
We named our label "Riverside" and decided not to be completely dependent on RCA for material, which turned out to be a very wise precaution. Soon afterward, RCA changed its corporate mind. Instead of turning the records over to us, they decided to ask us to work for them as independent producers, putting together albums they would reissue on their new Label X subsidiary.
But by this time, Grauer had already turned to a Chicago jazz collector he knew, John Steiner, who owned the rights to Paramount records, a legendary Chicago-based label that had recorded some of the most important classic jazz and blues artists of the 1920s, including Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Blind Lemon Jefferson, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band while Louis Armstrong was a member, and a number of sides by Johnny Dodds, Muggsy Spanier and Jelly Roll Morton.
Grauer set up a low-royalty sweetheart deal with Steiner that gave us the right to re-release Paramount material in the new 33 1/3 long-playing album format. So we decided to launch our own label without having the RCA material. In effect, there would be two legitimate classic-jazz reissue programs in existence, and we would be producing both of them—some for RCA's Label X and others on our own Riverside imprint. But our Paramount-on-Riverside ambitions faced one basic problem—source material. In a perfect world, we would have turned to the metal masters used to manufacture the original 78 rpm records and have them transferred to magnetic tape—the new, quickly emerging universal medium.
But there did not appear to be any original Paramount metal masters in existence! The label had originally been owned by the Wisconsin Chair Company, whose primary interest had been in manufacturing the bulky furniture that held the phonographs playing its shellac records. According to legend, a fire at the company had destroyed the entire stock of metal master recordings. At any rate, Steiner had no metal for us, and we assumed we'd have to begin a long battle to locate, buy, rent, beg or borrow usable shellac Paramount discs."
Tomorrow, in Part 2 of my interview with Orrin Keepnews, he talks about John Hammond's role in helping get Riverside Records started, the discovery of pianist Randy Weston, and the deal that made Reeves Sound Studios available to Riverside Records.
JazzWax pages: Orrin began his career as a jazz writer and journalist. After co-founding Riverside, he wrote the liner notes for many of the recordings he produced. In 1989, he published The View from Within: Jazz Writings, 1948-87, a fabulous book capturing his jazz essays and observations. The writing is brisk and filled with insights about the artists he interviewed and recorded, including up-close portraits of Thelonious Monk. It's out of print, but you can find used copies easily online.
JazzWax tracks: A collection of Paramount's blues recordings can be found at iTunes, under Future Blues: A Celebration of Paramount Records. You also can find many of Riverside's traditional jazz and blues reissues on CDs under the artists' names or on LPs up for auction and sale at eBay.