Friends, Family Remember Producer Orrin Keepnews at Bay Area Memorial Concert


The Orrin Keepnews memorial and benefit concert celebrated the full life and 60 year recording career of the prolific music producer. It was an opportunity for friends and family to share their personal stories and remembrances of the three-time record label owner.

Family, friends and colleagues at the concert included: wife Martha Egan, sons Peter and David Keepnews; saxophonist Dave Ellis, vocalists Wesla Whitfield and Roberta Donnay, the Kronos Quartet and Bobby Hutcherson. Keepnews’ illustrious history covered working with and nurturing jazz giants Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Jimmy Heath, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Mulgrew Miller and many more. Funds from the memorial/benefit were earmarked for a Keepnews scholarship at the Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley.

Facing a full room of friends, family and supporters, Ellis said, “he [Orrin] was my friend”. When Keepnews was asked about being a living legend, he said, “living is the most important part of that.” When he traveled to New York with Keepnews, he was amazed when the producer simply called musicians and they automatically said “yes”. Ellis said he gave them their publishing rights back before a lot of other labels would. When they arrived at the New York hotel, Keepnews was treated extremely well. Ellis remembered the doorman addressed Keepnews by name. When he entered a room, “musicians would light up.” This was rare.

Ellis knew both Keepnews and wife Martha Egan, and watched their romance grow. Egan said, ”We met at a Buddhist group meeting and then carpooled there a few more times. At one point, Orrin suggested we stop off for a drink in North Beach near my shop, and in the course of our conversation, I realized he was trying to get to know me better. Although much had been made to me of his celebrity in jazz, the person I talked to that night was not telling tales of way back when and his Jazz notoriety - but talking to me about real things in his life and insights that were pretty remarkable and heartfelt. I didn’t maybe realize it at the time, but I was very touched and probably hooked already!”

The saxophonist played “Black Narcissus” for the fabled producer because Keepnews liked the song. Respected Bay Area radio personality Dick Conte was the concert host. After the Kronos Quartet performed a classical piece, Ellis told a story about the late John Wasserman, the San Francisco Chronicle’s popular entertainment critic, who was “10 sheets in the wind.” Keepnews asked Ellis to drive the columnist to his Mill Valley home. Wasserman refused the offer and drove off himself. A few months later, he died driving onto a freeway exit ramp.

Ellis mentioned eMusic hired Keepnews to produce records, and he insisted on recording at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin County CA. It was a, “wonderful recording experience” according to Ellis. When Keepnews was asked what he did, “he felt he was a catalyst” and “artists always come first.” He also “adored the American songbook” and Ellis introduced Whitfield who sang The Flamingos’ romantic ballad “I Only Have Eyes For You.” She followed with Mercer/Warren’s cheerful “Jeepers Creepers”. The Kronos Quartet presented Martha Egan with their Hall of Fame Award. The Quartet was, “lucky to do so many recordings with Orrin.”

Whitfield shared one of her Orrin stories. During a recording session, she was not singing well and Keepnews deliberately “pissed her off.” In response, she was perfect on the next take. She performed a heartwarming rendition of, the Young/Washington standard “My Foolish Heart.” The attendees responded with massive applause here and throughout the concert.

It was pointed out one of Keepnews’ favorite artists, Bobby Hutcherson was in the house. The announcement was met with warm applause. There was a moving video tribute to Keepnews with comments from friends and family. When he signed the innovative Thelonius Monk to his Riverside Records, the industry thought the label was ”...serious or crazy or both.” Keepnews “discovered Bill Evans on the telephone,” and he “met the Adderley Brothers (Julian and Nate) in the Village”. Monk was unhappy at his current label at the time and he bought the pianist’s contract for $108. The producer mentioned one of Bill Evans’ records sold only 800 copies. His son said he had a rough exterior and a tender heart. He added his father “loved jazz”. He then asked the question, “How do you make one million dollars in jazz? Start with two million.” People laughed heartily.

Peter Keepnews told the room Orrin was a baseball fan and was not happy when his beloved New York Giants moved West. After moving to the SF Bay Area fifteen years later, the now San Francisco Giants were world champions and this pleased him immensely. He found true love a second time with clothing designer Martha Eagan. “She took such great care of him and he introduced her to jazz. His biggest regret was he didn’t finish his biography. Glad he was my father.” Keepnews introduced his brother David as his “best friend”. “He survived Orrin Keepnews.” He added, “Orrin had two families. Jazz was his second family.” He mentioned answering the phone when Lenny Bruce called. He also learned the lyrics to show tunes at a young age and his father took him to his first antiwar demonstration. He liked science fiction including Frankenstein. He was, “off beat, funny, absurd and always funny.” David said his father loved his husband Peter and accepted him completely.

When he fell in love with Martha, he was happy again according to Ellis. “She gave him additional years and fought hard to make sure he could stay at home. “He passed in dignity and comfort.”

Vocalist Donnay talked about Keepnews’ influence on her career. “Orrin kicked me into jazz” and she segued into Monk’s enduring “Blue Monk” with words by Abbey Lincoln. Ellis said, “Orrin facilitated a lot of music”. His extensive discography spanning decades was a tribute to his life long labor and love of music.

Egan said, “I got to learn a lot about jazz and about life from being married to Orrin Keepnews. I recommend reading his liner notes and his book Jazz, a View from Within or any chance to hear his interviews on YouTube. Listen to the amazing music he helped record.”

“He had an amazing life and a very good way of explaining it.” “I think he understood the way life works and how to go with it. Maybe someday… we’ll write that book he always threatened to finish.

Today was a joyful life celebration where friends, family and associates shared their personal experiences with Keepnews; the legendary record producer and executive, artist advocate, husband and father. Orrin Keepnews left us a rich legacy of producing and encouraging some of the giants of jazz. While doing what he loved, he touched many lives in the process. Martha Egan said, “I just want everyone to appreciate him.”

Today’s memorial benefit was a wonderful indication he will be appreciated for years to come. DB

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