James Keepnews – Jazz Promoter and Musician

  |  October 20, 2016

Hometown: Pelham

Lives in: Beacon
Favorite Thing About Upstate: “The Hudson River. The views of it I have from my windows are so inspiring—especially the sunsets.”
Least Favorite Thing About Upstate: “Gentrification concerns me. I guess I feel a little responsible for some of that, since what I do helps attract people to the Hudson Valley. But I still love living here.”

“It’s so important to me, to be able to hear interesting and creative music,” says James Keepnews. “It’s in my DNA.”

Indeed, it is, although the guitarist, performance artist, writer, and curator of Beacon jazz and experimental music events didn’t always know it. His father’s cousin was Orrin Keepnews, the legendary producer and jazz journalist who ran the Riverside Records label and worked with Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, and other giants—but as a young kid in the sedate Westchester County town of Pelham, James was aware of neither jazz nor his iconic relative’s role in it. “My immediate family wasn’t really into music, and my dad really wasn’t a fan of Orrin,” says the promoter, whose father was a straitlaced insurance superintendent. “He saw him as just this irresponsible hepcat who hung out with the jazz musicians in Greenwich Village. It wasn’t until I’d become a DJ on my college radio station and started seeing Orrin’s name on all of these important records that I made the connection. He was indefatigable.”

Indefatigable is also an apt descriptor for James Keepnews, who discovered jazz on his own in his teens and began taking guitar lessons during his senior year in high school. “I bought John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard Again! album,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I gotta find out more about this stuff.’” He majored in English and participated in the electronic music program at Hamilton College, where in 1986 he organized his first concert, an appearance by saxophonist David Murray.

Keepnews, who is also a technical writer and arts journalist, studied under Robert Fripp in the legendary art rocker’s Guitar Craft program in New York, where he immersed himself in the city’s experimental jazz and rock scenes. Having earned an MFA in electronic arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he currently commutes by train several days a week to Manhattan for work as a Web developer. His multimedia background occasionally blurs over into his creative side: In 2014, he launched “I Gotta Breathe: A Post-Singularity Blues,” a video/music art project and mobile app, and in 2015 he staged “Feed,” a performance-art installation blending video, spoken word, electronics, and live music.

Keepnews lived in Peekskill from 1999 until 2010, when he relocated to a loft in Cold Spring. Although he was able to present some jazz events at its historic Chapel Restoration, he ultimately found the latter town’s antiques-dominated atmosphere lacked the raw edge he craved. He began casting his eyes and ears slightly upriver, to Beacon. “I would come up just to look at all the amazing old buildings,” he says. In 2013, a year after he’d moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Beacon, the owners of local music venue/restaurant Quinn’s invited him to curate a Monday night jazz series. “I just started making calls, and right away we had the first few months booked,” says Keepnews. Since the series’ inception, the club has hosted top names like Marc Ribot, Joe McPhee, Mary Halvorson, Karl Berger, and Andrea Parkins. “Most artists do two sets, and usually there’s no cover,” explains the organizer. “We just ask for a donation.”

The series’ success led to Keepnews’s being asked to manage the Beacon Jazz Festival, which debuted last year and will return to the town’s Pete and Toshi Seeger Riverfront Park on June 25 *(see note below) with a bill headlined by the Sun Ra Arkestra. “[The festival] is very diverse musically and feels like a party, with local food vendors and beer and cocktails by local brewers and distillers,” says Keepnews, who in April unveiled a new noise series at Beacon Yoga.

Clearly, Keepnews’s jazz genetics and his adopted home are a fine fit. “I was telling a friend recently how glad I was that I found Beacon,” he says. “And he told me, ‘You didn’t find Beacon—Beacon found you.’”

* Correction: Sadly, the Jazz Festival was cancelled in May.

About Peter Aaron

In addition to being the assistant editor of Upstate House, Peter Aaron has been the music editor of Chronogram magazine since 2006 and is the author of If You Like the Ramones..., which was published last year by Backbeat Books. His writing has also appeared in the Village Voice, the Boston Herald, the Daily Freeman, and other publications. Photograph by Jennifer May.

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