Orrin Keepnews: Hero for America’s Music (Revisited)

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Orrin Keepnews frequently talked about jazz the way war veterans will talk about experiences on the front lines. There were at least two reasons for this. One, it was never strictly business with him; it was always personal. More importantly, it was necessary.

See, Keepnews didn’t gravitate toward a career in jazz—as producer, writer and battle-scarred raconteur—because it was fashionable or profitable. He immersed himself in the idiom for the same reasons any of us who make the music and those who become enchanted, then obsessed by it do: because there is no choice in the matter. Once you get in, as a fan but especially as an artist or producer, you don’t get out easily. You don’t want to. In Keepnews’s case, he didn’t know how to.

To get a handle on the debt we owe him, it must be adequately understood that Keepnews didn’t merely oversee some of the seminal sessions in jazz history (e.g., American history); he did not just encourage some of jazz music’s (e.g., American music’s) most significant players; he was hands on, sleeves rolled up and directly involved in ensuring the tunes came out the way they did.

Exhibit A, and it’s one for all-time: the perfectly titled composition by Thelonious Monk, one of music’s most sublime iconoclasts, “Brilliant Corners”. This masterwork, the recording of which confounded two of the most adept and astute men who ever walked into a studio, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, was ultimately spliced together from multiple takes by Keepnews.

That Keepnews was one of the foremost ambassadors for jazz is common knowledge to anyone who knows anything. His street cred dates back to the great old days when giants roamed the earth, when he produced and championed geniuses like Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Wes Montgomery. He was properly lauded by people who had a handle on jazz, history and—most importantly—propriety. That he wasn’t remunerated or revered in a fashion commensurate with his achievements underscores a truth almost frivolous in its familiarity: like the artists he advocated, the riches attained were rare, obscurity was all but inevitable and disappointment often the reward for a lifetime dedicated to stalking an increasingly unappreciated sort of brilliance.

As such, Keepnews could talk about racism. He could comment on an industry where banality flourishes and genius is ill-understood, if it’s recognized at all. He could tell stories from a very unique period in American history where, when it came to the intersection of art and culture, it was at once the best and worst of times. What Keepnews eventually grasped, and what historians will confirm, is that as challenging and confrontational as the scene could be in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was as good as it would ever get, and jazz will never have that type of audience again.

Almost a decade before the Summer of Love, Keepnews produced, and wrote the epic liner notes, for Sonny Rollins’s tour-de-force The Freedom Suite. In other words, Keepnews was literally on the front line of the struggles inherent in everything that came to the fore during America’s Civil Rights movement. This was music as statement, and it was not fashionable or facile; it was in almost every sense, a matter of life and death, as livelihood and a way of living. Jazz was music with a social conscience before it was cool.

Keepnews took the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll personally. More than once he correctly claimed that the Beatles and everything that came after changed things, forever. When I had the opportunity to chat with him, we agreed to disagree that music changed, for the worse. Yes, the rise of rock certainly didn’t bolster the prospects for jazz (music or musicians), but the artistic and societal shifts were, in many ways, attributable to the doors of perception that rock and the attitude it embraced blew open.

While I was young and more foolish than I apprehended, I realize now, more than I did in my mid-‘20s, that Keepnews was not just lamenting a cultural revolution that dumbed down the discourse, even as it elevated consciousness in many non-clichéd ways. Rock, and the eruption of talent, including both listeners and players who may otherwise have gravitated toward jazz, inexorably sucked oxygen out of an already tiny space. Jazz could not compete, which meant the music didn’t get to flourish at the same rate, for the same-sized audience. As a result, many of these men and women would have a harder time making a living. It wasn’t just business; it was personal for all involved.

Keepnews never retired and he never went away. Active, interested and engaged until the end, he continued doing what all great producers do: discovering new talent and celebrating the old masters. What Keepnews did for jazz music was a form of dedication that bordered on the heroic, but it’s a mistake to view his life’s work through this narrow if elemental lens. Rather, we should acknowledge the ways he held himself to a relentless standard of excellence. He accepted the challenges, embraced the lack of easy solutions and, in the process, advanced the music. He is a rare example of what we hope to emulate when we invoke the best American tradition of invention, discovery and improvement. He is a model for how to follow one’s purpose, with a lack of fear and passion that only death can extinguish.

He lives on, of course, in our memories and always, forever, in the miraculous sounds that, without his guidance and collaboration, we may otherwise never have heard.

Originally published at PopMatters, 3/18/2015.

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Orrin Keepnews: Hero for America’s Music

orrinkeepnews_blog_splash650

Orrin Keepnews frequently talked about jazz the way war veterans will talk about experiences on the front lines. There were at least two reasons for this. One, it was never strictly business with him; it was always personal. More importantly, it was necessary.

See, Keepnews didn’t gravitate toward a career in jazz—as producer, writer and battle-scarred raconteur—because it was fashionable or profitable. He immersed himself in the idiom for the same reasons any of us who make the music and those who become enchanted, then obsessed by it do: because there is no choice in the matter. Once you get in, as a fan but especially as an artist or producer, you don’t get out easily. You don’t want to. In Keepnews’s case, he didn’t know how to.

To get a handle on the debt we owe him, it must be adequately understood that Keepnews didn’t merely oversee some of the seminal sessions in jazz history (e.g., American history); he did not just encourage some of jazz music’s (e.g., American music’s) most significant players; he was hands on, sleeves rolled up and directly involved in ensuring the tunes came out the way they did.

Exhibit A, and it’s one for all-time: the perfectly titled composition by Thelonious Monk, one of music’s most sublime iconoclasts, “Brilliant Corners”. This masterwork, the recording of which confounded two of the most adept and astute men who ever walked into a studio, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, was ultimately spliced together from multiple takes by Keepnews.

That Keepnews was one of the foremost ambassadors for jazz is common knowledge to anyone who knows anything. His street cred dates back to the great old days when giants roamed the earth, when he produced and championed geniuses like Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Wes Montgomery. He was properly lauded by people who had a handle on jazz, history and—most importantly—propriety. That he wasn’t remunerated or revered in a fashion commensurate with his achievements underscores a truth almost frivolous in its familiarity: like the artists he advocated, the riches attained were rare, obscurity was all but inevitable and disappointment often the reward for a lifetime dedicated to stalking an increasingly unappreciated sort of brilliance.

As such, Keepnews could talk about racism. He could comment on an industry where banality flourishes and genius is ill-understood, if it’s recognized at all. He could tell stories from a very unique period in American history where, when it came to the intersection of art and culture, it was at once the best and worst of times. What Keepnews eventually grasped, and what historians will confirm, is that as challenging and confrontational as the scene could be in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was as good as it would ever get, and jazz will never have that type of audience again.

Almost a decade before the Summer of Love, Keepnews produced, and wrote the epic liner notes, for Sonny Rollins’s tour-de-force The Freedom Suite. In other words, Keepnews was literally on the front line of the struggles inherent in everything that came to the fore during America’s Civil Rights movement. This was music as statement, and it was not fashionable or facile; it was in almost every sense, a matter of life and death, as livelihood and a way of living. Jazz was music with a social conscience before it was cool.

Keepnews took the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll personally. More than once he correctly claimed that the Beatles and everything that came after changed things, forever. When I had the opportunity to chat with him, we agreed to disagree that music changed, for the worse. Yes, the rise of rock certainly didn’t bolster the prospects for jazz (music or musicians), but the artistic and societal shifts were, in many ways, attributable to the doors of perception that rock and the attitude it embraced blew open.

While I was young and more foolish than I apprehended, I realize now, more than I did in my mid-‘20s, that Keepnews was not just lamenting a cultural revolution that dumbed down the discourse, even as it elevated consciousness in many non-clichéd ways. Rock, and the eruption of talent, including both listeners and players who may otherwise have gravitated toward jazz, inexorably sucked oxygen out of an already tiny space. Jazz could not compete, which meant the music didn’t get to flourish at the same rate, for the same-sized audience. As a result, many of these men and women would have a harder time making a living. It wasn’t just business; it was personal for all involved.

Keepnews never retired and he never went away. Active, interested and engaged until the end, he continued doing what all great producers do: discovering new talent and celebrating the old masters. What Keepnews did for jazz music was a form of dedication that bordered on the heroic, but it’s a mistake to view his life’s work through this narrow if elemental lens. Rather, we should acknowledge the ways he held himself to a relentless standard of excellence. He accepted the challenges, embraced the lack of easy solutions and, in the process, advanced the music. He is a rare example of what we hope to emulate when we invoke the best American tradition of invention, discovery and improvement. He is a model for how to follow one’s purpose, with a lack of fear and passion that only death can extinguish.

He lives on, of course, in our memories and always, forever, in the miraculous sounds that, without his guidance and collaboration, we may otherwise never have heard.

Originally published at PopMatters, 3/18/2015.

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Thelonious Monk: Plays Duke Ellington

Thelonious. The name, like the man, is unique, exceptional. We are, thankfully, at a point where the first name will suffice, and it is generally understood that Thelonious Sphere Monk is one of the singular, and important, artists in all jazz, as well as one of the authentic geniuses America can proudly claim as a native son. It wasn’t always thus. Although commonly acknowledged as one of the founding fathers—along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Miles Davis—of bebop, Monk was the quintessential “musician’s musician”, mostly respected, if not entirely understood, by colleagues. Even so, the prevailing judgment—promulgated by many less than perspicacious critics of the time—was that he was too eccentric and his compositions too difficult. Moreover, an inability to easily describe his music diminished the prospect of any type of commercial breakthrough. When, in 1954, he signed on with the upstart label, Riverside Records, his contract with the well-established Prestige label was bought out for $108.27.
This reissue, then, of Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington is significant on a variety of levels. For starters, it is an outstanding album, and tends to exist as an overlooked gem in the Monk discography, sandwiched as it is between his earlier “genius of modern music” stage and the mid ‘50s through mid ‘60s, when he made his most enduring work. It is also important for what it signified, in 1955, to have Monk cover Ellington—already a legend with a capital L—(though he certainly had some major statements of his own yet to make). On the surface, Ellington and Monk could not be more dissimilar; in terms of personality, style, and what might unimaginatively, if accurately, be called “universal appeal”. Of course, understanding that the things Monk did, on his own terms, now attract comparisons with Ellington—at least in terms of influence and signature tunes routinely performed as standards—speaks volumes. Lastly, this release is a most welcome tribute to its producer, Orrin Keepnews, and the new series of reissues fittingly called the “Keepnews Collection”. If these remasters help even a few folks learn who Keepnews is and what he has meant to the music, all the better. For those not in the know, now hear this: Orrin Keepnews is one of the most important producers of the last century, and his innumerable achievements should be appreciatively venerated.


In the expanded liner notes, Keepnews recalls the circumstances under which Monk—largely considered damaged goods, or at best a risky wildcard for any record label—came to Riverside, a relationship that produced subsequent masterpieces such as Brilliant Corners, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Monk’s Music, and 5 By Monk By 5 (arguably Keepnews’ finest hour). His strategy was to have Monk dedicate an entire album to Ellington, not so much to sanitize Monk’s vision, but to ingeniously allow it to fully flower in the context of already classic recordings. Keepnews was one of the first to grasp not only how important Monk was, but how crucial he could (and should) be in the advancement of jazz music: he understood, displaying a judicious acumen that served him well thereafter, that with the appropriate primer, a wider audience would inexorably learn to love Thelonious.
In a move that managed to be both safe and inspired, veteran sidemen Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke were recruited to handle bass and drum duties, respectively. Both of these men, like Monk, were veterans of the nascent bebop scene, their names associated with many seminal early bop recordings. Appropriately, all three have sufficient familiarity with the songs chosen, and with one another, to impart an effortless solidarity of purpose upon these proceedings. The end result contains exactly what one might expect: an abundance of riches packaged as an enticing sampler of Ellingtonia interpreted by a genuine iconoclast.

It only takes the first, familiar notes of the opening selection to make one thing abundantly clear: Monk playing Ellington makes perfect sense. The very calculated placement of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” at the forefront of this set is both a statement and an affirmation: this will be a celebratory affair, and it’s going to swing. Clarke employs laid back brushwork to satisfying effect, while Pettiford establishes a stone solid, swinging (yes, that word again) foundation, freeing Monk to dance circles around the theme. A faithful, if slightly safe rendition of “Sophisticated Lady” follows, which puts to rest any lingering doubts (unfathomable as it is to consider that there ever were any) that Monk, the “irreverent” outsider, had fully absorbed the tradition well before he began incorporating his own innovations. “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” almost implores the presence of a saxophone or trumpet to accentuate the plaintive mood; but then Pettiford accelerates the pace with his irrepressible groove, and once more Monk reconstructs the Duke with his own peerless logic.
“Black and Tan Fantasy” is—or becomes—a composition Monk had to cover, and while it retains Ellington’s elegant imprint, we hear more of that Cheshire Cat who had already spent a decade confounding the imperceptive critics: in under four minutes, it’s possible to experience what is at once so enthralling yet indescribable about Monk’s technique. The tune never ventures anywhere near chaos or affectation; indeed it is simple to nod along without missing a beat. And yet, if one listens again, a bit more closely, the piano is (ever so subtly, ever so slyly) making sounds quite unlike anything before or since: Monk plays it straight, yet stops, circles back, fills in every appropriate space with old school stride that recalls Luckey Roberts, then, on a dime, shifts into syncopated flourishes that incorporate bebop—and beyond. Dissonant, angular, twisting, coruscating: those who attempt to describe Monk’s playing tend to use the same words time and again, partly because it’s inevitable, mostly because they are accurate. Monk, after a while, begins to remind you of a wily raconteur, retelling a funny story that you’ve never heard before.
More of the same follows, with “Mood Indigo” and the exuberant “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart”. Perhaps the most effective, and emotional selection is “Solitude”, which features Monk, appropriately, alone at the piano. Here his unparalleled use of space and silence is exhibited to stunning effect; like any true genius, it sounds almost easy the way he does it, and exactly no one has come close to replicating his style in the fifty-something years since this recording. As the man himself once observed, he used the same notes—just differently. Finally, a righteous romp of “Caravan” closes the set on an exultant note: Clarke lends his most perceptible support, and Pettiford remains unflappably cool in the pocket. Mission accomplished; Monk not only delivers an unadulterated homage to Ellington, he somehow manages to make the master sound even more ahead of his time than he already was.
Implausible, yet easy to believe that only a year later, Monk dropped Brilliant Corners, the title track alone so intricate and demanding that it frustrated the very capable cast of characters assembled to tackle it (notably Sonny Rollins, who was no stranger to the woodshed). A year after that an up and coming saxophonist named John Coltrane joined his group. Nothing was ever the same—for him, or for us—after that.

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