Orrin Keepnews

Born March 2, 1923
The Bronx, New York, U.S.

Died March 1, 2015 (aged 91)
El Cerrito, California, U.S.
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Record producer, writer

Orrin Keepnews (March 2, 1923 – March 1, 2015) was an American jazz writer and record producer known for his work for Riverside Records and other labels.

Keepnews was born in the Bronx on March 2, 1923. He graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English in 1943. Subsequently, he was involved in bombing raids over Japan in the final months of World War II, before returning for graduate studies at Columbia in 1946.

While working as an editor for the book publishers Simon & Schuster, Keepnews moonlighted as editor of The Record Changer, a small jazz magazine, after fellow Columbia graduate Bill Grauer became its owner in 1948. Keepnews wrote one of the earliest profiles of Thelonious Monk, then little known, for the publication.

In 1952 Grauer and Keepnews produced a series of reissues on RCA Victor’s Label “X”.

The following year, in 1953, Grauer and Keepnews founded Riverside Records, which was initially devoted to reissue projects in the traditional and swing jazz idioms. “It was an act of more than moderate lunacy, to start a business on nothing but enthusiasm”, he once said years later. “We had the arrogance of ignorance.”

Pianist Randy Weston was the first modern jazz artist signed by the label as a conscious move into the jazz scene of the day. According to Keepnews, Grauer heard him at the Music Inn in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, in 1953, and persuaded his partner to sign him after Keepnews had heard Weston for himself; he had learnt not to trust Grauer’s musical taste.

Their most significant early move came in 1955, when they were made aware of the availability of Thelonious Monk, who was able to terminate his contract with Prestige Records and sign with Riverside. Monk was not easy for Keepnews to work with: “He was as demanding of other people as he was of himself, but he was self-contained and also impatient. He knew what he wanted, but I didn’t, so I had to catch on to this express train as it went roaring by,

Personal life

Keepnews died at the age of 91 on March 1, 2015, a day before his 92nd birthday. He was married to the former Lucile Kaufman from 1948 until her death in 1989. His second wife, a clothing designer, Martha Egan, survived him. He is also survived by his two sons, Peter Keepnews, an editor at The New York Times and a writer on jazz subjects; and David Keepnews, a nurse, attorney and policy analyst who is Dean of the Harriet Rothkopf Heilbrunn School of Nursing at Long Island University, Brooklyn. He is also survived by daughter-in-law, Irene Trudel; a son-in-law, Peter Tung; a niece, Marya Kraus Wintroub; and a nephew, John Kraus.