Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Call it a Landmark or a Milestone, but Orrin Keepnews Crossed Over to the Riverside

You may not recognize his name, but Orrin Keepnews was a mover and a shaker in jazz. Unfortunately, Keepnews passed away on Sunday – one day before his 92nd birthday. In 1953, Keepnews and Bill Grauer founded one of the premier jazz record labels of the decade: Riverside A label that soon gave its rivals, Prestige and Blue Note, a run for the money. At Riverside, Keepnews handled record production while Grauer was in charge of business operations. When Grauer died in 1963, the label quickly folded.

Although Riverside ended in 1964, the label was a jumping off point for artists such as Cannonball Adderley, Theolonious Monk, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, and others. Although Riverside had dried up, Keepnews returned to the music business in 1966 with yet another new label: Milestone. By 1972, Fantasy Records acquired Milestone and the masters from Riverside, and Keepnews became Fantasy’s jazz A&R man.

Beginning in 1985, Keepnews launched yet another label: Landmark Records, which eventually was acquired by the Muse in 1993. Over the years, Keepnews was awarded four Grammys: two for production and two for the best liner notes.

In Orrin Keepnews’ honor, we’ll feature a cut from Wes Montgomery’s first album with Riverside. Although Montgomery had recorded two albums for Pacific Jazz, he was not under an exclusive contract with the label. Having heard Montgomery play in an Indianapolis club, Cannonball Adderley insisted that Keepnews sign him to Riverside. Keepnews flew from New York to Indianapolis where he eventually landed at the Missile Blues Club where Montgomery was playing his unique octave runs on the guitar.

In the wee hours of that morning in 1959, Keepnews signed Montgomery to an exclusive contract with Riverside – and the rest is history. Our featured selection is from the “Wes Montgomery Trio” LP: Montgomery’s interpretation of Theolonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” – the first cut on the album – an album produced by Orrin Keepnews.

While Keepnews has crossed over, his impact on jazz will remain indefinitely. Rest in peace.

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