[JPL] George Avakian, Jazz Producer to the Greats
drjazz at drjazz.com
Wed May 20 23:06:59 EDT 2009
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT MAY 19, 2009 Jazz Producer to the Greats
By WILL FRIEDWALD
George Avakian probably has done more to influence the way jazz has been
heard over the past 70 years than anyone else alive. Mr. Avakian, who
celebrated his 90th birthday in March, may not have single-handedly
invented the jazz album, but in 1939 and 1940 he got the concept off the
ground. He is responsible for essential albums by Louis Armstrong, Duke
Ellington, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and other jazz greats -- a list
much too long for this column. And he ran the first jazz reissue program.
Born in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, Mr. Avakian arrived in
New York in 1923. The first jazz record he distinctly remembers hearing
was of the Casa Loma Orchestra in 1933, when he was 14, and the first
jazz star he remembers seeing in person is Lucky Millinder, at a theater
in New York's Washington Heights, the part of upper Manhattan where Mr.
Avakian grew up. He got hooked on jazz via the radio, hearing Fats
Waller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and others. By 1936, when
attending the Horace Mann School in the Bronx's Riverdale neighborhood,
he contrived to interview Benny Goodman for the school paper; in 1962,
Mr. Avakian accompanied Goodman on his ground-breaking tour of Russia.
The legendary producer remains active in the recording industry at the
age of 90, paneling a Grammy Museum discussion in January 2009.
From Horace Mann, Mr. Avakian went to Yale, where he met the pioneering
jazz scholar Marshall Stearns. After Stearns received his doctorate, he
accepted an offer to teach at a university in Hawaii, and in the summer
of 1939 he asked Mr. Avakian to drive with him to the West Coast. They
made it a cross-country musical tour. "As we approached Chicago," Mr.
Avakian recently recalled in a phone interview from his apartment in
Riverdale, New York, "we were listening to the radio, and we heard Fats
Waller and then Muggsy Spanier and his Ragtimers coming from the Hotel
Sherman. So we just drove straight to the hotel, left our bags at the
front desk, and spent the rest of the night with Fats and Muggsy."
When he returned from that trip, Mr. Avakian was given the opportunity
to produce what was possibly the first original jazz concept album. "I
felt that jazz should be treated the way that classical music was
treated, released in albums with three pockets and six selections, with
annotations," he remembered. "I thought that the way to start the
excitement would be to record the pioneers of the three cities that were
responsible for spreading jazz: New Orleans, Kansas City and Chicago."
He put together the Chicago album himself, starting with a date by Eddie
Condon and his Chicagoans in August 1939.
In 1940, he got a call from Ted Wallerstein of the recently reorganized
Columbia Records and was hired to come in one day a week (while still
attending Yale) to put together album packages from the corporation's
already vast holdings. He remembers playing the recordings of Robert
Johnson, and he made sure that they were preserved for future
generations but wasn't able to issue them at the time "because nobody
had ever heard of Robert Johnson."
Mr. Avakian's work at Columbia was interrupted by the war (during which
time the army trained him to speak German and then promptly shipped him
out to the Pacific). His only professional experience with music during
those five years was helping his friend Charles Edward Smith record an
album of W.C. Handy songs for Asch Records, which indirectly inspired
Mr. Avakian's famous album "Louis Armstrong Sings W. C. Handy" a decade
Returning to New York in 1946, Second Lt. Avakian went back to work at
Columbia and soon was in charge of the label's jazz, popular and
international album releases -- first on 78s and then on 33 1/3 rpm LPs.
>From 1946 to 1958, Mr. Avakian produced what seemed like an endless
string of classic albums for the company. Among many others, he was
responsible for pianist Erroll Garner's masterpiece "Concert by the
Sea," which actually was a tape made almost by accident -- of a
performance at an Army base in California. The success of Duke
Ellington's 1956 Newport Jazz Festival concert also turned out to be a
happy accident: The producer and artist had planned the concert album
around a new suite by Ellington. But in actual performance, the big
event turned out to be his 20-year-old composition "Diminuendo and
Crescendo in Blue," with its epic tenor saxophone solo by Paul
Gonsalves, which drove the crowd into a near frenzy and made "Newport"
the biggest-selling album of Ellington's career.
Mr. Avakian had particularly good luck with trumpeters, including the
celebrated series of "Buck Clayton Jam Sessions" of 1953-1956. With
Armstrong, Mr. Avakian not only produced two of Satchmo's most
celebrated later works, his songbook tributes to Handy and to Fats
Waller, but he also steered the legendary trumpeter-vocalist to one of
his biggest hit singles, "Mack the Knife." Mr. Avakian takes special
pride in his association with Miles Davis, as he noted both to me and in
a 2005 interview on this page with John McDonough.
Mr. Avakian was doing his best to keep up with the demand, but the 1950s
were the era of a major boom in the recording industry, when every home
had a long-playing turntable and everybody seemed to be buying tons of
albums. Mr. Avakian was exhausting himself; he even bought a tape deck
so he could edit masters at home on nights and weekends. He was so
overworked that he came down with a "combination of hepatitis and
mononucleosis," and that, combined with the relatively low salary he was
receiving, convinced him to leave Columbia in 1958.
After a rest, Mr. Avakian became an executive at the new Warner Bros.
Records, where he was responsible for pop hits by TV star Edd "Kookie"
Byrnes as well as "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart," the first
comedy album to hit No. 1 on the charts.
Leaving Warner Bros. in 1960, Mr. Avakian returned to jazz at RCA, where
he produced milestone albums with Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, and Joe
Williams. For the past 45 years or so, he's worked mostly as a
free-lance producer; among his discoveries are saxophonist Charles Lloyd
and pianist Keith Jarrett. Messrs. Avakian and Jarrett still share an
interest in a publishing company.
Mr. Avakian, who has received lifetime achievement awards from Downbeat
magazine and the Grammies, continues to be involved in new albums and
reissues. He is writing his long-awaited memoirs and enjoying his
60-year marriage to violinist Anahid Ajemian (and their three children
and two grandchildren). He's followed the trail of music from swing to
bebop to postmodernism, and of the industry from 78s to LPs to CDs to
downloads. The legacy of recorded jazz would be substantially poorer
Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz for the Journal.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D7
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