In Appreciation of Jazz Icon George Avakian

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George Avakian (1919–2017) was a musical polymath and renaissance man who achieved so much and helped so many people that I don’t even know where to begin with my appreciation. Avakian was born in Russia in 1919, though his family fled the country’s tumultuousness for the U.S. during his infancy. Perhaps it was because of his Armenian parents and ancestry that Avakian—like other foreign-born producers such as Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Leonard and Phil Chess, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff—formed an early outsider’s appreciation and love of American popular music, particularly jazz.

George Avakian recording in New York with Louis Armstrong and W.C. Handy (Photo courtesy of Sony Music Archives) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Avakian’s name has graced countless hit jazz albums over the years through his production work for Decca, Columbia, Pacific Jazz, RCA Records, Atlantic Records, and other labels. When he first began producing for Jack Kapp at Decca Records in 1939, Avakian was alarmed at how much jazz musicians like Eddie Condon drank and caroused. He rushed to record six 78 rpm sides by Condon called Chicago Jazz,” mainly because he thought the musicians would die at any minute from the physical abuse they inflicted upon their bodies (source: New York Times). Avakian was just a young, innocent greenhorn at the time.

Avakian’s contributions to the jazz world include signing a young Charles Lloyd and later his pianist, Keith Jarrett. He championed the careers of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Johnny Mathis, Errol Garner, Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, Gil Evans and Art Blakey, among others. Avakian also served as a jazz diplomat during the Cold War, bringing Charles Lloyd, Benny Goodman, and others to the Soviet Union.

George Avakian with Johnny Mathis and Rhonda Fleming, July 1957, Columbia Records Sales Convention (Photo courtesy of Sony Music Archives) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Avakian worked in other musical arenas besides jazz. In 1948, he was instrumental to Columbia Records’ introduction of the 33⅓ rpm-length record, a momentous development in modern recordings. He started the record division at Warner Brothers in 1959, where he produced records by the The Everly Brothers, as well as Bill Haley and His Comets. He also brought Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” to American audiences. He even produced comedy records by Bob Newhart. Together with his classically-trained wife, Anahid Ajemian, Avakian championed the conceptual music of innovator John Cage, Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness, and other classical composers. Avakian later promoted Armenian jazz singer Datevik Hovanesian, who once appeared in a live set on Café LA, my KCRW afternoon show.

Of all his accomplishments, what impresses me most about Avakian was his signing of Miles Davis in 1955 after hearing Davis perform Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” at the Newport Jazz Festival. Avakian was prescient enough to recognize Davis’s originality and brilliance; he signed Davis on the spot and helped pay out Davis’s contract with Bob Weinstock’s Prestige Records. Avakian’s keen sense paid off two years later in 1957, with Davis’s albums, Round About Midnight and Miles Aheada landmark album recorded with the Gil Evans Orchestra.

George Avakian passed away at the age of 98 on November 22, 2017. Few producers were so prolific and eclectic, and I am grateful that he had such a long and productive music career. I will always appreciate and remember him for the many great records he produced.

Banner image: George Avakian, Columbia Records portrait, May 1956. (Photo courtesy of Sony Music Archives)