Except I didn’t know him. This is the title of a Bill Evans piece dedicated to jazz producer Orrin Keepnews, who died last week just shy of his 92nd birthday. It’s an anagram of his name*, and seems an appropriate heading for an obituary.
Keepnews was a contemporary with Jack Kerouac at Columbia, later a journalist, and eventually in ’53 was ambitious enough (or as he himself later put it, amateur and foolish enough) to co-found the record label Riverside.
The label made classic recordings of the greats – Monk, Rollins, Wes, Wyn Kelly, Cannonball, Bill Evans, to name just a few. Riverside soon came to be regarded as “the other Blue Note”. Basically, if you don’t have at least a dozen Riverside recordings, you ain’t got much of a jazz collection…
In ’63 Keepnews’ business partner Bill Grauer dropped dead suddenly and Grauer’s unorthodox approach to accountancy was laid bare. Riverside was underwater. But Keepnews was back a few years later with a new label, Milestones – you really should have a few of those too. The old gang flocked back and were joined by new signings including McCoy Tyner and Joe Henderson. Milestones was later folded into Fantasy and then Concord, with Keepnews retained as Great Jazz Panjandrum. In the ’80s he launched Landmark, and you should have a few of those as well.
Five decades’ worth of top musicians enjoyed working with him, basically because he was practical and organised, but ultimately just provided the space for them to do what they wanted to do. He was a very unproducerly producer.
And his liner notes (sigh, remember those?) displayed a detailed understanding of and passion for the music. None of this “So-and-so has the socks of Brecker, the elbows of Coltrane and the velvety underpants of Coleman Hawkins” idiocy…
He was a wiser penner, OK.
* Evans was fond of anagrams. There was also a piece called NYC’s No Lark, his tribute to the sadly short-lived Sonny Clark.