Orrin Keepnews, who as a record company executive and producer helped create some of the most celebrated recordings in jazz over a half-century, died on Sunday at his home in El Cerrito, Calif. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his son Peter.
Mr. Keepnews, a four-time Grammy Award winner, was a jazz journalist, essayist and writer of album notes as well as the producer of enduring albums by the likes of the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the pianists Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans.
His attention to detail and sensitive hand as a producer earned him the respect of musicians almost as soon as he started Riverside Records with Bill Grauer, a record collector and former classmate at Columbia University, in 1953. As a tribute, Evans wrote “Re: Person I Knew,” a composition whose title is an anagram of Mr. Keepnews’s name.
Mr. Keepnews began his professional jazz life as a journalist. In his mid-20s, while working as a junior editor at Simon & Schuster, he moonlighted as the managing editor of The Record Changer, a small but reputable jazz magazine. It was in that capacity that Mr. Keepnews, in 1948, wrote one of the first profiles of Monk, the influential pianist and composer, who at the time was relatively unknown.
Riverside Records, established by Mr. Grauer and Mr. Keepnews five years later, was initially a shoestring operation driven more by ambition and enthusiasm than by any proper business savvy.
The company — its name was derived from the telephone exchange of its Manhattan office — started out with a series of reissues, using material licensed from RCA Victor and Paramount. Because the original masters for most Paramount recordings proved impossible to locate, some of Riverside’s early output was mastered to magnetic tape from 78 r.p.m. discs borrowed from the collection of the record producer John Hammond.
Riverside branched out into contemporary recordings in 1954 with the signing of Randy Weston, a pianist from Brooklyn whom Mr. Grauer had heard at the Music Inn, a summer resort in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. The next year the label signed Monk.
Mr. Keepnews liked to say that his job as a producer was that of a facilitator — he often used the word “catalyst” — rather than someone who actively shapes the musical result. One notable exception was Monk’s composition“Brilliant Corners,” recorded in 1956. The piece, with its melodic angularity and unusual structure, proved tricky enough that even after numerous takes, the musicians — heavyweights like Mr. Rollins and the drummer Max Roach — hadn’t managed a complete version. Mr. Keepnews ended up splicing together a take. It would stand as his most hands-on producing effort.
Through the 1950s and into the ’60s Riverside released dozens of albums that Mr. Keepnews produced, including “The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery,” “Everybody Digs Bill Evans” and Mr. Rollins’s “Freedom Suite,” as well as a string of well-regarded releases by the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and three of the earliest albums by the singer Abbey Lincoln. Still, the label had years of financial difficulty and went bankrupt not long after Mr. Grauer died of a heart attack in 1963.
Mr. Keepnews started a new label, Milestone Records, in 1966, in partnership with the pianist Dick Katz. Its roster featured some former Riverside artists, as well as others, like the tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and the pianist McCoy Tyner, who came from Blue Note.
In 1972 Milestone was sold to Fantasy Records, which had also acquired the rights to the Riverside catalog. Mr. Keepnews moved to San Francisco to oversee Fantasy’s reissue department, which involved many of his old titles. He later started another label, Landmark Records, perhaps best known for a pair of early albums by the Kronos Quartet: “Monk Suite: Kronos Quartet Plays Music of Thelonious Monk” and “Music of Bill Evans.”
But he never lost his connection to his old material. In 2007 the Concord Music Group, which had acquired Fantasy, introduced a “Keepnews Collection” reissue series, with his active involvement.
In 2004 he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and in 2011 he was recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Orrin Keepnews was born in the Bronx on March 2, 1923, the only child of Louis Keepnews, a social worker, and the former Naomi Perlman, a schoolteacher. He grew up in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan.
He fell in love with jazz as a teenager, becoming a regular at clubs like the Hickory House on 52nd Street. After graduating with a degree in English from Columbia in 1943, he served in the Army Air Forces, flying bombing raids over Japan in World War II.
Besides his son Peter, an editor at The New York Times, Mr. Keepnews is survived by his wife, Martha Egan, and another son, David. His wife of 41 years, the former Lucile Kaufman, died in 1989.
Mr. Keepnews wrote about jazz throughout his career. Two of his four Grammy Awards were for best album notes, for releases by Evans and Monk. The other two were for best historical album, for the same Monk reissue, “The Complete Riverside Recordings,” and “The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973),” released in 1999.
In 1987 his collection “The View From Within: Jazz Writings, 1948-87” was published by Oxford University Press. It included jazz criticism as well as a memorably cantankerous takedown of the field. “After all these years,” he wrote, “I find myself unable to avoid an unhappy conclusion: Jazz criticism is a bad idea, poorly executed.”
Nestled within the same essay was one of his clearest descriptions of the record producer’s responsibility. “Our job,” he wrote, “is to create what is best described as ‘realism’ — the impression and effect of being real — which may be very different from plain unadorned reality.”