GEORGE AVAKIAN (record producer)

George Avakian

Born March 15, 1919
Armavir, Russia
Died November 22, 2017 (aged 98)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality Armenian-American

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George Mesrop Avakian (Armenian: Գևորգ Ավագյան; Russian: Геворк Авакян; March 15, 1919 – November 22, 2017) was an American record producer, artist manager, writer, educator and executive. He was best known for his work from 1939 to the early 1960s at Decca Records, Columbia Records, Warner Bros. Records, and RCA Records and he was a major force in the expansion and development of the U.S. recording industry. Avakian functioned as an independent producer and manager from the 1960s to the early 2000s and worked with artists such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Eddie Condon, Keith Jarrett, Erroll Garner, Buck Clayton, Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, Edith Piaf, Bob Newhart, Johnny Mathis, John Cage, Ravi Shankar, and many other notable jazz musicians and composers.

Avakian was born in Armavir, Russia, to Armenian parents, Mesrop and Manoushak Avakian; the family moved to the United States not long after he was born.[2] His younger brother was the photographer and filmmaker Aram Avakian (1926–1987). The elder Avakian became a jazz fan in his early teens through listening to the radio at night; his first loves were Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, the Casa Loma Orchestra, and Benny Goodman, among others. He managed to meet and interview Goodman for the Horace Mann School Record during his senior year. This is when he began amassing his enormous collection of Jazz recordings. He also began writing letters to such companies as Decca and the American Record Corporation (ARC). ARC had acquired the catalogs of the bankrupt OKeh and Brunswick Records labels, both of which had recorded Armstrong in the 1920s. Avakian figured the only way to get record labels to reissue the music in their vaults was to persuade (or beg) them. At first, his letters drew no responses.

While still at Yale University, Decca Records Jack Kapp responded to his unrelenting letters, hiring him to produce his first Jazz recording, Chicago Jazz (1940), a set of new recordings by musicians such as guitarist Eddie Condon, trumpeter Jimmy McPartland, and drummer George Wettling. This first “jazz album”,consisting of six 78rpm records, complete with Avakian’s liner note essay providing full credits and background information, set the template for future jazz releases.

By 1940, the swing era was in full bloom, and the Columbia Broadcasting System wanted to cash in on the craze by featuring the music’s origins. Having acquired the bankrupt American Record Corporation, CBS was now the corporate owner of large portions of recorded jazz history. It decided to reactivate the Columbia label and form a subsidiary called Columbia Records. The company’s president, Edward Wallerstein, asked John Hammond to produce a reissue series. Hammond declined, but he suggested Columbia tap Avakian for the job.

Still a junior at Yale, Avakian leapt at the opportunity to comb through Columbia’s vaults in Bridgeport, Connecticut to research and assemble what was to be called the Hot Jazz Classics series. Using the format he established at Decca, Avakian created boxed sets devoted to Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, among many others. In the process, he found many unreleased sides and included them in the reissues. Although he did not intend it, Avakian’s tastes helped shape the “jazz canon,” or the set of recordings that came to be regarded as cornerstones of the genre, and which are still regarded as indispensable.

Avakian discovered a number of unreleased Louis Armstrong Hot 5 and Hot 7 sides while researching the first album of the series, King Louis. A strong, decades-long working and personal friendship formed when the young producer brought a few test pressings to play for Armstrong. His annotations are noted for the education they provide their listeners. Avakian would praise Armstrong for the rest of his life.

While serving in the US Army following his graduation from Yale, he was recalled to the United States in 1944 for special training in European languages at Harvard University. While stationed in Boston, he produced a jazz radio program for the Office of War Information featuring Eddie Condon, James P. Johnson, and Fletcher Henderson, among others. He had also continued to write for such magazines as Down Beat, Jazz Magazine, and Mademoiselle while stationed in the Pacific.

In 1958, after an extraordinarily-busy and ground-breaking 12-year run at Columbia, he elected to depart. After a short stint as co-owner of the much smaller Pacific Jazz label, Avakian was invited, along with his former Columbia colleague Jim Conkling, to form a record company for Warner Brothers (at that time the only major film studio not to have its own record label). There, Avakian signed Bob Newhart, producing the first comedy album to win a Best Album Grammy Award. He also signed the Everly Brothers and Bill Haley & His Comets.

Avakian personally financed and produced the first three albums by Alan Hovhaness and John Cage (unrelated to his jobs at Columbia) and, in 1958, presented The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage at Town Hall, an event he also recorded and sold independently. The year before, Avakian and Ajemian produced a three-concert series at Town Hall titled Music For Moderns, featuring jazz musicians and modern composers on the same bill, a very unusual venture for its time. The concerts featured Anahid Ajemian, Dimitri Mitropoulos, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Mahalia Jackson, Chico Hamilton, the composers Virgil Thomson and Carlos Surinach, pianist William Masselos, violist Walter Trampler, and opera baritone Martial Singher, among others.

In 1960, Avakian left Warners to sign on as manager of popular artists and repertoire for RCA, which gave him the opportunity to work once again with jazz musicians. His roster included Lambert, Hendricks, and Bavan; Paul Desmond; Sonny Rollins (signed by Avakian for an unprecedented sum for a jazz musician); Gary Burton; and, once again, Benny Goodman. In 1962,

Avakian and Anahid Ajemian donated their extensive collection of Jazz recordings and memorabilia to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in 2014. A major exhibit was held there in 2016 entitled Music for Moderns: The Partnership of George Avakian and Anahid Ajemian. Once semi-retired, he became involved in harness racing, owning and breeding several race horses. Avakian bred champion pacer Presidential Ball.

Avakian died on November 22, 2017, aged 98, at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York City. The Avakians had three children: Maro, Anahid and Gregory.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia