Jazz Producer Orrin Keepnews Passes Away at Age 91

Keepnews’ five Grammy Awards include the prestigious Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement bestowed by the Recording Academy in 2004
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photo of Neil Portnow, Orrin Keepnews

Neil Portnow and Orrin Keepnews are pictured on February 7, 2004, during the 46th Annual Grammy Awards Nominee Reception and Special Awards Ceremony at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Photo: R. Diamond.

Concord Music Group mourns the loss of legendary jazz producer and record executive, Orrin Keepnews, who passed away on March 1, 2015. Keepnews died one day short of his 92nd birthday.

Keepnews was a creative force behind some of the greatest jazz recordings ever produced including such seminal albums as Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard; Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners, Monk’s Music and Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane; Chet Baker’s Chet Baker in New York; Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite, Wes Montgomery’s Boss Guitar; and Clark Terry’s In Orbit.

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1923, Keepnews began his career as a music journalist. As co-founder and producer at Riverside Records in 1953, he would soon become a staple of the modern jazz scene, producing new works by future jazz giants such as Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley and also become credited for discovering famed jazz pianist Bill Evans.

Keepnews went on to found the renowned jazz labels Milestone (1966) and Landmark Records (1985). He was the Director of Jazz A&R at Fantasy Records in 1972 and in more recent years was the producer and annotator of Concord Music Group’s acclaimed reissues series Keepnews Collection beginning in 2007. 

Concord Music Group’s Vice President of Catalog Development/A&R Nick Phillips, a close partner and friend of Keepnews, noted, “Many of my absolute favorite recordings in the history of jazz have one thing in common: they were produced by Orrin Keepnews. What an honor and a privilege it has been to work closely with and learn so much from this musical legend. He will be dearly missed, but the timeless recordings he produced will surely outlive us all.”

“We are grateful for Orrin’s indelible contributions to jazz and our company,” stated Concord Music Group president and CEO, Glen Barros. “Concord’s historic, world-class jazz catalog was cultivated in no small measure by his extraordinary work and pioneering vision.”

Keepnews’ five Grammy Awards include the prestigious Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement bestowed by the Recording Academy in 2004. He also received the distinguished NEA Jazz Masters Lifetime Achievement Award in the field of jazz from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2011.

Neil Portnow, President and CEO of The Recording Academy, issued the following statement on March 2, 2015:

"Four-time Grammy winner and Recording Academy Trustees Award recipient Orrin Keepnews was one of jazz’s greatest advocates whose passion and enthusiasm for the music led him to help create some of the most noteworthy recordings in the genre. A jazz journalist and album notes writer, he ultimately would become a record executive and producer of some of the most quintessential recordings by the likes of Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, and Cannonball Adderley, among others. His attention to detail and his genuine love of jazz music earned him the respect of musicians, and for seven decades he devoted his life to every aspect of the genre—whether in the studio, in the marketplace, or through his writings. Additionally, Orrin’s longstanding service to The Recording Academy as an elected leader was indispensable to our organization. Our creative community has lost an American treasure, and his legacy will serve as a potent reminder of the importance of one of our nation’s most original art forms. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family, his friends, and all those who share his commitment to keep jazz an ever-present and thriving part of our culture."

Watch Orrin Keepnews discuss the 60th anniversary of Riverside on YouTube.