George Avakian 15/3/1919 – 22/11/2017

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 George Avakian by Ian Clifford New York City May 2003

There never was a jazz record producer more important than George Avakian – only the somewhat older John Hammond, who recommended him for his first part-time job, would come close. Just think of some of the albums Avakian initiated: Miles Ahead and 'Round About Midnight; Ellington At Newport; Benny Goodman At Carnegie Hall; Gil Evans's New Bottle Old Wine; Dave Brubeck's Jazz Goes To College; Sonny Rollins's The Bridge and Our Man In Jazz; Charles Lloyd's Forest Flower; and Keith Jarrett's debut, Life Between The Exit Signs. But also Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, Concert By The Sea (Erroll Garner), and The World's Greatest Gospel Singer (Mahalia Jackson), signing these artists to the labels he was working for, as he did with stand-up comic Bob Newhart.

Born in Russia of Armenian descent, George was raised in New York, learning the piano as a pre-teen and doing English literature at Yale University. During his student years, he started writing jazz reviews and took a cross-country trip with fellow student Marshall Stearns (subsequent author and founder of the Institute of Jazz Studies) in order to hear jazz in Kansas City and elsewhere. He also pitched to Decca the idea of recording an album of 78rpm discs on Chicago Jazz, one of the first non-reissue concept albums, and worked part-time for Columbia discovering a half-dozen now-hallowed but then-unissued tracks of Louis Armstrong and a couple of Bessie Smiths.

Returning to Columbia full-time after war service, in the 1950s Avakian became their head of popular music albums, using the new LP format to innovative effect and incidentally ensuring that successful popsters such as Johnny Mathis or Tony Bennett sometimes recorded with jazz players. He was a pioneer of editing between different takes, even for jazz, and of discreet overdubbing (as on parts of Miles Ahead and a couple of Armstrong tracks such as 'Mack The Knife'). Leaving Columbia in 1958, he worked for Pacific Jazz, Warner Bros and RCA, with periods of freelance producing, and then moved into personal management; in this capacity, he worked with Charles Lloyd from 1964 to the end of the decade and Keith Jarrett from 1967, negotiating his initial deal with ECM. In more recent years, he remained engaged in Armstrong and Ellington studies, always available to fellow jazz enthusiasts and forever alert, even in extreme old age.

– Brian Priestley
– Photo by Ian Clifford