© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
For a short time in the late 1990’s before he moved to the other side of “The Bay” [San Francisco, of course, is there another one?], Orrin Keepnews and I were neighbors.
On a number of occasions, he graciously consented to meet me over a coffee at a local bistro and answer my many questions for a piece I was preparing on pianist and vibraphonist Victor Feldman. Victor had recorded for Riverside Records in the early 1960s when Orrin co-owned the label with Bill Grauer.
Orrin left a huge footprint on the Jazz landscape of the second half of the 20th century, one that extended into the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st as well. [He died on March 1, 2015 in El Cerrito, CA].]
I was humbled by the time this legendary impresario made available to a novice writer trying to put together a few words in tribute to his former friend and teacher.
I mean this guy literally launched the recording career of dozens of major modern Jazz musicians when he was the co-owner of Riverside Records, including the iconic pianist Bill Evans who was reluctant to even make his first recordings because he thought that “ he had nothing to say!” Thank goodness that Orrin convinced him otherwise.
Invariably, my talks with Orrin eventually turned to his relationship with pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. I say “invariably” because Orrin generally conducted the pace of our “talks” [He talked and I was smart enough to just listen.] and he always closed them with “Monk Musings” - his term.
From 1953 to 1959, Orrin recorded Monk in various settings and because of these sessions [30 in all], he succeeded in rescuing Thelonious from total obscurity and helping him on to “fame and fortune” - although how lasting either one of these were as far as Monk was concerned is pure conjecture.
The full story of Orrin’s relationship with Monk is detailed in Thelonious and Me by Orrin Keepnews, the opening essay in the booklet that accompanies the 15 CD boxed - Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings [RCD] 022-02 which garnered Grammy Awards upon in 1987 for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes.
Central to the reason why Orrin felt so justifiably proud of his achievements on behalf of Monk and his music is the argument contained in the following excerpt from this essay.
“Over the years it has come to be my personal definition of the role of the jazz record producer that above all he should serve as a catalytic agent.In a literal sense, my dictionary refers to this as something that "initiates a chemical reaction and enables it to proceed under different conditions than otherwise possible." In a jazz sense, I mean that the producer's job is to create, in whatever ways he can, a set of circumstances that will allow and encourage the artist to perform at the very highest level. I first attempted to function in this way on my early sessions with Monk, and I do feel that at least some of the work I helped bring into being was truly different and lastingly valuable, and that without my involvement it might not have been quite the same.”
Of the many recordings that Orrin and Monk made together during their six year association, The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall [Riverside Records RLP-1138 and Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-135-2] remains one of my personal favorites.
The following recounting by Orrin as to what went into making it is also drawn from the boxed set booklet to Thelonious and Me by Orrin Keepnews. This annotation is also a reminder of how grateful Jazz fans should be for the “digital revolution” and its related CD reissues because many of these compact discs contained rediscovered additional tracks and/or music that was previously thought lost.
SESSION 2O [out of 30] (February 28,1959) - The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall
"Three decades ago, it must be remembered, a jazz presentation in a major New York concert hall was still most unusual. Even with Monk's newfound popularity, the idea of offering full-band arrangements of his strange music was too daring for any professional promoter — this evening at Town Hall was put on by Monk's close friend Jules Colomby. And there was a full house!
The scores were the work of Hall Overton, in close cooperation with the composer. Six strong horn players were added to the current quartet (Charlie Rouse had just begun his eleven years as Monk's tenor player), and there was an unusual series of long and detailed rehearsals, rigorously supervised by Thelonious. So when we set up to record that night, there was no reason to expect trouble. Actually, we encountered only one problem, but it was a classic:
Staff engineer Ray Fowler and I were working just offstage, using a single tape machine. Accordingly, I asked Monk to glance at me before each number, to see if we needed a momentary delay to load a new reel of tape. He neglected to check only once—but it was during a reel change, so that the first several bars of Little Rootie Tootie were not recorded. At the first opportunity, I explained the problem to Thelonious, whose solution was direct, outlandish, and quite helpful. At the end of the scheduled program, with the audience screaming for an encore, he calmly announced that the recording engineers had "loused up" and proceeded to repeat the entire number. The start of the encore, of course, doubles as the opening of both versions here.
Since the full concert is being presented here exactly in performance sequence, we begin as the evening did, with three quartet numbers. At the time, knowing that there would be enough orchestral material for a full album, we used this first segment only to work on the recording balance. Many years later, I found that the unused quartet reel had survived. The performances were exciting (Monk was clearly full of enthusiasm on this triumphant night), and the sound actually much better than remembered.The material was easily put into shape for belated issuance. [There are frequent rumors about two additional quartet numbers. I do not remember any; I would very much doubt that there could have been as many as five small-group pieces on what was billed as an orchestra concert; and above all what is heard here is everything that was recorded that night]
There has also been some confusion about Thelonious. The original Riverside album begins with a shortened version; Monk was not happy with his chorus (which is the only solo), and we decided to use only the final ensemble chorus, presented as a sort of opening theme. The full version actually turned up on a late-1960s German reissue album; hearing about this finally led me to search for and uncover that tape in the vaults. Apparently it had survived without my being aware of it and had mistakenly been copied for that reissue. A very awkward edit was clearly audible in the piano solo — presumably the result of someone's attempt to repair whatever had initially bothered Thelonious. I don't recall whether it had been a technical recording flaw or a performance error. However, a few years ago I re-edited and basically smoothed over the original problem; the best possible full-length version appears here."