George Avakian, Record Producer of Singular Influence, Dies at 98

Nov 22, 2017

George Avakian, a producer, artist manager and writer who played a foundational role in jazz’s expression on record, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 98.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Anahid Avakian Gregg.

Over the course of a long career that began in his early 20s, Avakian worked closely with many jazz legends, including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He also shaped core perceptions around jazz’s historical recordings, creating both the first jazz album and the first jazz reissue program. And he helped put the music in relatable context, savoring his reputation as “the father of jazz album annotation.”

Few figures were as integral to the jazz recording industry during its commercial and creative peak. During his tenure with Columbia Records in the 1950s, Avakian signed and produced artists like Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner and Benny Goodman. Later, in the ‘60s, he worked with RCA Victor. His momentous run on those two labels included touchstone albums like Ellington at Newport (1956), Miles Ahead (1957) and Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge (1962).

But well before that run of contemporary recordings, Avakian oversaw a collection of six 78-r.p.m. discs he called Chicago Jazz. Recorded in 1939, and featuring musicians like guitarist Eddie Condon and trumpeter Jimmy McPartland — central figures in what had been known as the Chicago Style — Chicago Jazz was released on Decca, and generally recognized as the first jazz “album.” It was packaged with Avakian’s liner notes, providing full credits and other information, in an unusual gesture at the time.

Avakian was still an undergraduate at Yale when Columbia asked him to initiate a program of archival releases. No one had ever taken such a concerted effort to go through a label’s back catalog, but Avakian threw himself into the task. He compiled and produced boxed sets for seminal figures like Ellington, Bessie Smith and Armstrong, often discovering and incorporating previously unreleased material in the process. His comprehensive, methodical approach would become the gold standard for reissues of historical material.

One result of Avakian’s archival explorations was of monumental significance. The series of recordings that Armstrong had made between 1925 and 1928, known as the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, were obscure and out of print before Avakian advocated for their reissue in the late 1930s. His advocacy of this material, which Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout has memorably called “the Old Testament of classic jazz,” was crucial to its survival.

“When I gave Louis a set of the newly discovered test pressings in the spring of 1940,” Avakian wrote in a recollection for JazzTimes, “his delight was boundless, especially after we both realized that a few months later these unidentified metal masters would have been automatically recycled because wartime scrap drives had increased as Hitler’s armies advanced.”

George Mesrop Avakian was born on March 15, 1919, in Armavir, Russia, the oldest of three children of Mesrop Avakian. His family immigrated to the United States when he was 4, settling in New York City.

He became a jazz fan in his early teens, furtively listening to radio broadcasts after the rest of his family was asleep. By the time he was a senior at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, Avakian was well-versed enough to interview Benny Goodman for the school paper. One of his classmates showed the article to his older brother — Lester Koenig, the founder of Contemporary Records.

Koenig invited Avakian over to hear some rare Armstrong: Hot Five tracks like “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” and “West End Blues.” As Avakian vividly recalls in a 2010 conversation with Josh Jackson, on WBGO’s The Checkout, he then asked where he could buy these records. “You can’t,” he was told. Thus began a furious letter-writing campaign to Brunswick, which owned OKeh at the time, and had let the recordings fall out of print.

Avakian attended Yale University, and almost immediately fell in with a jazz record club and study group that gathered at the home of the pioneering jazz historian Marshall Stearns. “When I was in New Haven as a freshman and a sophomore,” he told me in 2006, “I went every Friday night to Marshall’s house, and he invited anybody that wanted to come talk about records and so on. It was an interesting experience, because it introduced me to the whole history of jazz as it was known at the time.”

After serving in the Army during the war, Avakian returned to Columbia, where he became a leading proponent for the new 33⅓-r.p.m. long-playing record format. He also wrote about jazz for magazines including DownBeat and Mademoiselle. (He would keep writing well into his late career: he received a Grammy Award for best album notes in 1996, for the boxed set Miles Davis & Gil Evans - The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings.)

Avakian left Columbia in 1958, briefly establishing a label at Warner Bros. One of his signings, Bob Newhart, became the first comedian to win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. (The album was The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, released in 1960.)

As an artist manager in the 1960s, Avakian advanced the careers of musicians like the pianist John Lewis and the saxophonist Charles Lloyd. He was integral to the ascendance of a young pianist named Keith Jarrett, negotiating the contract that landed him at ECM Records.

George Avakian in 2003
Credit Ian P. Clifford

Avakian was one of the co-founders of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, and served as its president from 1966-67. He received the Trustees Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 2009 — one year before he received the A.B. Spellman Jazz Advocacy Award from the National Endowments for the Arts. In 2011 he was inducted by ASCAP to its Jazz Wall of Fame.

In addition to his daughter Anahid Avakian Gregg, Avakian is survived by another daughter, Maro Avakian; a son, Greg; and two grandchildren. His wife, the violinist Anahid Ajemian, died in 2016. His brother Aram Avakian, a filmmaker who directed the 1960 documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, died in 1987.

“If I hadn’t gotten into music, I wouldn’t be alive today,” Avakian said in his 2010 conversation with Josh Jackson. “It kept me going in many, many ways.”