George Avakian Famous Jazz producer
Posted 27 May 2001 - 04:59 AM
The profile of George Avakian was written and produced by Paul Conley. Engineering assistance from: Suraya Muhammed.
Jazz Profiles is produced by Tim Owens. Assistant producer Madeleine Smith and Website coordinator Patrick Breslin and writer Alexis Abrams.
Producer Paul Conley
Behind the scenes, ground-breaking producer George Avakian has been busy making jazz history for the past six decades. This self-taught innovator revolutionized the jazz recording industry by initiating the concept of the classic jazz reissue. In his years as a producer at Columbia records, Avakian’s imagination helped boost the careers of such artists as Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. Over the course of his career, Avakian presided over recording sessions that document many of the most memorable performances in jazz history. In this show, we meet the man behind the music – music we wouldn’t have heard had it not been for George Avakian’s prescience and passionate dedication.
Born in the Kuban region of Southern Russia on March 15, 1919, Avakian emigrated with his Armenian family when he was 4 years old. Growing up on the east side of Manhattan, Avakian attributes his early affinity for jazz to the fact that he was raised "listening to the intricate rhythms of Armenian folk music," an experience which enabled him to comprehend the complexities of jazz. An avid record collector throughout his childhood, Avakian’s passion for jazz grew when he attended Yale and frequented listening parties hosted by writer and collector Marshall Stearns.
Demonstrating a tenacity that would take him far in the business, Avakian sent a proposal to Decca records suggesting that the company produce a compilation of twelve 78 rpm sides celebrating the musical tradition of Chicago. The president of Decca was enticed by this novel prospect and invited Avakian to produce the Chicago concept, requesting that Decca recording directors "show this young man how a session goes and let him do whatever he wants." Subsequently, Columbia Records hired Avakian to produce "Hot Jazz Classics," a major series of jazz reissues. During this project, Avakian discovered unreleased masters and "rescued from obscurity" recordings by such legends as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. According to critic John McDonough, by releasing these recordings on a major label, Avakian "laid the cornerstone of the basic canon of classic jazz."
In addition to revitalizing the classics, Avakian had an ear for new talent and an ability to arrange successful collaborations of established artists. When Avakian signed pianist Dave Brubeck and produced the album "Jazz Goes to College," he launched the career of a radical artist who, in a short span of time, topped the charts and enjoyed critical acclaim. Despite reservations about Miles Davis’ sobriety Avakian signed the artist and stimulated a new phase of his career, releasing the celebrated "’Round Midnight," and pioneering the partnership of Miles and arranger Gil Evans, a pairing that produced such orchestral masterpieces as "Miles Ahead." With the album "Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy," Avakian demonstrated another aspect of his creativity – the ability to match the right artist with an inspiring repertoire. On this recording, Avakian also utilized innovative overdubbing techniques, enabling Armstrong to back himself up scatting and playing trumpet.
While Avakian’s time at Columbia was the most prolific period of his career, by the late 1950’s, the exhausting hours began to take their toll and he decided to leave the company. During the ensuing three decades, Avakian has enjoyed such triumphs as engineering the first ever performance by an American group at a Soviet Arts Festival. Recently, Avakian’s career has come full circle. This impressive producer with no formal musical training won a Grammy for his liner notes in the complete recordings of Miles Davis and Gil Evans, and returned to Columbia records to work on a new series of jazz reissues – this time consisting of his own jazz recordings which have acquired the status of classics.
Interviewees include Avakian, critic John McDonough, trumpeter Randy Sandke, and pianist Dave Brubeck.
Posted 24 November 2017 - 03:48 PM
Posted 01 December 2017 - 11:56 AM
National Post (f/k/a The Financial Post) (Canada)
November 28, 2017 Tuesday
Justice Served; Few Have Done More To Ensure Jazz Receives The Honour
It Deserves Than George Avakian
by Robert Fulford, National Post
The story of George Avakian is the story of jazz being awakened to
itself and finding its proper place in the world.
In the middle of the 20th century, jazz was pushed to the margins of
music. Nobody wrote its history and nobody taught it in the music
schools. The crucial jazz records of the past were seldom heard
because they were not on sale. They had been sold for a few weeks
after they were produced, then forgotten.
When George Avakian (pronounced a-VOCK-ee-an) saw this cultural
wasteland, he knew it needed changing. And he did more than anyone to
change it. When he died last week at age 98, the people who love jazz
began reflecting on how much he had accomplished.
He was born in 1919 in Russia to wealthy Armenians who left Europe not
long after. Growing up in New York, he found himself attracted to jazz
because (as he recalled), "It reminded me of the lively dance music
and other folk music my parents had brought to America from Armenia."
Even as a child, he listened to jazz on the radio at low volume so his
parents wouldn't know he was still awake.
As a 20-year-old student at Yale in the late 1930s, he wrote to
several record companies with his complaint that much of the great
music was unavailable in record stores. He considered it a tragedy
that Louis Armstrong's two recorded groups from the 1920s, the Hot
Five and the Hot Seven, could only be heard on scratchy-sounding
discs. This was an example - and far from the only one - of a European
pointing out the true value of American culture. At Yale, he
encouraged jazz fans among his fellow students to import two French
books, Charles Delaunay's Hot Discography and Hugues Panassie's Le
Jazz Hot. The Europeans were ahead of North American critics in
treating jazz as art.
Decca Records was so impressed by his letter that it hired him to
organize reissues of valuable material. A new life opened up, for
Avakian and for jazz. The old Armstrong performances became widely
known, and so did the work of many others. One result was the revival
of Armstrong's career. Years later Avakian persuaded Armstrong to
record Kurt Weill's Mack the Knife, which became a major hit.
Avakian's father had always expected him to join the family's rug
importing business, and in fact, the young man made a few trips to
Iran and other sources of rugs. But for many decades, he devoted
himself to music. He worked for Columbia and Warners as a producer of
records, a talent scout and an agent. But he was in essence a man with
a mission; he had an urgent need to see justice done for the musicians
When the record companies adopted the LP (long-playing) discs, he saw
how this innovation could benefit jazz. Great soloists appeared on
discs that allowed them, for the first time, to perform according to
their talent rather than the demands of technology. Avakian absorbed
this alteration in the landscape of musical reproduction. One of his
LPs carried the first-ever jazz liner notes - written, of course, by
In the 1950s, Avakian supervised the release of Benny Goodman Live at
Carnegie Hall 1938, a concert that told the history of jazz through
musical examples. When the Duke Ellington band hit a low period in the
1950s, Avakian supervised Ellington at Newport, reviving the band's
He had a feel for more than jazz. He introduced Édith Piaf to American
record buyers. He produced The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, which
made Newhart's reputation as a comedian. Before the record, Newhart
was an accountant with only a sideline in comedy. After, he was an
Avakian also produced Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, some of Dave
Brubeck's most popular albums and a great Sonny Rollins record, The
Bridge. But his most surprising success was Miles Davis.
"I saw him as the best trumpet ballad player since Louis Armstrong,"
Avakian said. He made Davis a special project, once convinced he had
finally beaten the drug habit that held him back. He suggested Davis
emphasize ballads and encouraged his elegant way of dressing. In 1957
he produced Davis's Miles Ahead, which sold a million copies and
established him internationally. Miles Davis soon rose above the mass
of musicians, taking a place of celebrity all his own, just where
George Avakian thought he should be.
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