"I got very lucky, it seemed that doors
kept getting thrown open to me."
"This business requires total commitment.
I believe that's why I've succeeded."
These two statements are not really conflicting when you consider that the speaker is Helen Keane, record producer and artist's manager. Extraordinary measures of luck, as well as dedication and talent have accorded Keane a unique position in the music business. She is one of a handful of women working as record producers, and the number narrows even more when women artists producing their own work are subtracted. Seven of Keane's albums produced for pianist Bill Evans have won the Grammy and numerous others have been nominated for the award.
Helen knew early on that she wanted a career in entertainment; her mother was a famous model and her aunt, a successful actress in New York. Realizing that an on-stage career was not for her, Helen landed a job as a secretary at MCA then the largest talent agency. Her boss recognized that Helen had a real sense for spotting talent and began to train her secretly to become an agent. MCA had a strict rule against hiring women agents. He nurtured her skill and lobbied for her so that at age 19 Helen became the first female agent at MCA. One of her discoveries for the agency was a young singer by the name of Harry Belafonte, whose act she helped change from pop tunes to folk songs.
Helen left MCA to join CBS Television as Director of Variety Casting, booking talent for a number of programs, including the Gary Moore Show. She was responsible for bringing to Moore's attention Jonathan Winters, Carol Burnett, Artie Johnson, Dom deLuise, George Gobel and Geoffrey Holder. As a result of appearances on Moore's show they established their television careers. Moore was also a 'closet' jazz drummer and was open to jazz artists as guests. Helen, who had developed a love for jazz by listening to her older brother's Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie records, was able to secure guest appearances for such performers as Chris Connor, Marian McPartland and Toshiko.
Helen remained at CBS for seven years. Wanting to spend more time with her children, she opened a personal management office out of her home. Husband and wife dancers Geoffrey Holder and Camman de Lavallade became her first clients. Alvin Ailey joined shortly thereafter and with these successes her agency flourished.
It was at this time that Gene Lees introduced Helen to jazz pianist Bill Evans. Helen who was already a fan, had a immediate rapport with Bill and they began working together almost immediately. As Bill's personal manager, Helen was present at all of the recording sessions. Evans and his producer, Creed Taylor, began to seek and rely on Helen's input. Taylor opened the door for Helen to produce for Bill at MGM/Verve. Skeptics at the label were mollified when the first album she produced for Bill was nominated for a Grammy and the second record won.
Keane remained Bill Evans' personal manager for 18 years, until his death in 1980. She was responsible for bringing Evans together with singer Tony Bennett and she produced two albums with this unique duo. Overall, Helen produced some thirty of Evans' records over a period of 15 years on the Verve, Columbia, CTI, Fantasy and Warner labels. Seven of these albums were Grammy winners; the most recent were awarded in 1980 for the Best Jazz Recording by a Soloist and Best Recording by a Group.
With a growing reputation as Evan's manager/producer Helen attracted jazz artists of the highest caliber. She acted as manager/producer for Joao Gilberto (a Grammy nomination was the result of their album,"Amoroso"), Mark Murphy and the all woman jazz quintet Alive. When Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera came to the United States in 1980, Bruce Lundvall (then president of CBS Records) recommended Helen. She was responsible for guiding his career for the next seven years (producing five of his albums) during which time he rose to national prominence.
Keane generally enjoys long term relationships with her artists. For the past eleven years Keane has produced and managed flugelhorn/trumpet player Art Farmer. Their recent work together includes the 1989 "Ph.D" on Contemporary and the 1992 Art Farmer in Japan. She has worked with guitarist Kenny Burrell for sixteen years, first managing his career and continuing as his producer on Muse, Capital/Blue Note and his current label, Contemporary. Their in-studio album "Sunup To Sundown" was released by Fantasy/Contemporary in 1991. With pianist Joanne Brackeen, Helen also began as manager/producer and continues through the present as Joanne's producer. They recently got together, for a second time, to record "Where Legends Dwell," for Ken Music featuring Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJonette.
In her role as producer, Helen's credits are long and varied they include work with both jazz singers and instrumentalists. In addition to those artists already mentioned, she has produced for Karen Akers, Barbara Carroll, Chris Connor, Roy Gerson, Philly Joe Jones/Dameronia, Clifford Jordan Big Band, Morgana King, Steve Kuhn, Claudio Roditi, Randy Stewart, Carol Sloane, Sylvia Syms, Clark Terry and Grover Washington.
There continues to be great interest in the music of Bill Evans and Helen Keane has spearheaded several projects which have kept his memory and music available and accessible. She produced the 1989 Bill Evans Fantasy Boxed Compact Disc set titled, "The Complete Fantasy Recordings" and the 1991 release "Blue in Green - The Concert in Canada" for Milestone, a compilation of several live recordings in Canada. For Rhapsody Films she produced the 45 minute video "The Universal Mind of Bill Evans." This new release for home video includes rare performance and interview footage. In 1991, Helen produced the live concert event, "A Celebration of Bill Evans," for the New School Jazz Program. The concert established the "Bill Evans Scholarship Fund" and featured a performance by George Shearing, among others. She was invited to the 1992 IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) convention to present a lecture on Bill Evans and participate in a panel on Women in the Music Business.
Helen finds that she is often called upon to discuss women's role in the music industry and although she never actively sought the role of "trail blazer,' she has been an enthusiastic champion for women in the arts. She is a consultant to the NJSO (National Jazz Service Organization) and has participated in numerous panels, seminars and conferences dealing with women and jazz including the 1990 IAJE, the Celebration of Women in Jazz Weeks at Berklee College of Music and Northwestern University, the Kansas City Women's Jazz Festivals, the Universal Jazz Coalition Seminars in New York, and the Jazz Times Convention.
Helen was profiled in Linda Dahl's book, "Stormy Weather," a history of women in jazz and was the only non-performer to be accorded a full chapter. In addition, she was chosen as judge at the 1990 Jacksonville Piano Jazz Competition. In 1992 she will conduct a series of informal interviews with Tony Bennett, Marian McPartland, Jan Ira Bloom and Joanne Brackeen at the New School.
Helen plans to continue working in all facets of her career; managing, producing, lecturing and teaching. One thing is certain - whether Helen Keane is in the control booth or behind the lectern, you'll find a passionate, involved and dedicated creative musical presence.