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    This Jazz Master Is No Musician

    This Jazz Master Is No MusicianBy MARC MYERS

    Orrin Keepnews can be prickly. The celebrated co-founder of the Riverside, Milestone and Landmark jazz record labels has been known to scare off the uninitiated with his blunt temperament. But when the 87-year-old greeted me at the front door of his ranch-style home here last month, he was borderline cuddly. "Cranky?" he asked, dismissing my description. "Impatient—I'll go along with that, but not cranky."

    On Tuesday, the National Endowment for the Arts will honor the five-time Grammy winner with its Jazz Masters Award. For nearly 60 years Mr. Keepnews has produced a sizable chunk of jazz's most enduring recordings—including classic releases by Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery and Sonny Rollins.

    Mr. Keepnews was the creative force behind Riverside, the influential independent record label where he produced 300-plus LPs between 1954 and 1964. An accidental entrepreneur, he leveraged a simple idea: Find promising jazz musicians and inspire them to be original.

    Today, he is keenly aware of his place in jazz history and role in preserving the music of geniuses at the height of their powers. "I have no musical training, which turned out to be my strong point," he said. "When you subtract what I don't know, you're left with my taste, enthusiasm and respect for what jazz musicians were trying to do."

    Born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1923, Mr. Keepnews moved with his family to the northern tip of Manhattan when he was 4 years old. An only child, Mr. Keepnews was an academic overachiever, skipping two grades and graduating from high school at age 16.

    While attending Columbia University, Mr. Keepnews enrolled in the Air Corps Reserve to postpone the inevitable draft. As graduation neared in the spring of 1943, he was called up, trained as a navigator and radar operator, and sent to Guam.

    There, he flew on B-29s, guiding pilots on 21 bombing missions over Japan in 1945. "As a radar operator, you had to be precise and relay direction with authority," he said. These skills would serve him well years later in recording studios.

    After his discharge in January 1946, Mr. Keepnews returned to Columbia under the G.I. Bill as a graduate student in English. But he soon dropped out to take a full-time job reading unsolicited manuscripts at Simon & Schuster. In 1948, Mr. Keepnews began moonlighting for the Record Changer, a magazine owned by grad-school acquaintance Bill Grauer. By his own admission, he knew little about jazz. "I just wanted to write," he said.

    Once he was named managing editor, Mr. Keepnews expanded the magazine's coverage to modern jazz from older forms. "Widening our scope was the best way to create writing opportunities for myself and to raise the magazine's profile."

    When Blue Note's owner Alfred Lion heard the news that year, he invited Mr. Keepnews to a gathering at his apartment for pianist Thelonious Monk, then relatively unknown to record buyers. "Monk and I hit it off," Mr. Keepnews said, "and I wrote a long essay about him based on our talk. I found his unorthodox approach to music exciting."

    As the Record Changer became increasingly influential, RCA in 1952 asked Grauer and Mr. Keepnews to produce records for one of its budget labels. So they did—which inspired the duo to start their own label later that year. They named it Riverside. Mr. Keepnews soon gave notice at Simon & Schuster.

    At first, the pair released 10-inch LP compilations of out-of-print Paramount 78 rpm singles from the 1920s and '30s. Producer John Hammond had lent them his mint copies. "By the spring of 1954, we wanted to record the new jazz of our time, starting with pianist Randy Weston," Mr. Keepnews said. "I learned to produce on the job."

    A second turning point came in March 1955, when Mr. Keepnews bought out Thelonious Monk's Prestige Records contract for $108.27. The original letter from Prestige to Monk releasing him from his contract sits framed on the wall of Mr. Keepnews's home office. Monk went on to record 14 albums for Riverside, and Mr. Keepnews began writing in-depth liner notes for Riverside's LP jackets.

    Another one of Mr. Keepnews's early discoveries was pianist Bill Evans. "Guitarist Mundell Lowe called me in 1956 and played a tape of Bill over the phone," he said. "I liked what I heard, and we soon recorded Bill's 'New Jazz Conceptions.'"

    But Evans was not eager to record again as the leader of a trio. "He didn't think he had anything new to say and was holding back, preferring to continue working as a sideman," Mr. Keepnews said. It wasn't until 1958, when Evans left the Miles Davis Sextet, that the musician began recording steadily for Riverside. Some of his most revered albums were made during that time, including "Sunday at the Village Vanguard" and "Waltz for Debby." The title of Evans's composition "Re: Person I Knew" is an anagram of Mr. Keepnews's full name.

    Then everything came crashing down. At the end of 1963, Grauer suffered a fatal heart attack; Riverside filed for bankruptcy the following year. "The books Bill kept were a mess," Mr. Keepnews said. "All of a sudden I was unemployable. I even wrote Berry Gordy about running a jazz line at Motown, but he told me I was overqualified."

    Over the next few years, Mr. Keepnews struggled. He worked a variety of record-industry jobs, including consulting for the company selling off Riverside's remaining assets.

    In 1968, Mr. Keepnews and pianist Dick Katz started Milestone and began recording such artists as Lee Konitz, Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins. Four years later, Fantasy bought the label and invited Mr. Keepnews to head up its jazz division. In 1980, he left Fantasy to work as an independent producer, forming Landmark in 1985 with help from Fantasy. Landmark was sold to Muse in 1993.

    How did Mr. Keepnews inspire so many great jazz artists to make their finest recordings? He said he wasn't quite sure—but the secret emerged at the end of a short story:

    "One day in the late '50s, Cannonball Adderley rushed into my office and said, 'We have to sign this guitarist I heard in Indianapolis named Wes Montgomery.' Of course, I signed Wes. But what struck me was that Cannon had said 'we.' I always worked hard to make musicians feel part of the recording process. I guess that has been one of my single greatest strengths."

    Mr. Myers writes about jazz, R&B and rock daily at JazzWax.com.
    The original article can be found on the Wall Street Journal here
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