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ANOTHER THING for which I can be thankful is the life so richly lived by George Avakian, who died November 22, 2017, at age 98 in New York City. Over his long career of recording impresario, Avakian introduced me to the music of Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Erroll Garner, Miles Davis, and even Edith Piaf.
George was Russia-born to Armenian parents. The family came to America not long after his birth. During his college days at Yale, George became a published jazz critic with a goal: persuading record companies to reissue music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, and others. Indeed, his senior year, George got to interview Goodman for an article in the Horace Mann School Record.
While still at Yale, George was hired by Decca Records to produce Chicago Jazz, 1940, which highlighted this city’s jazz scene featuring Eddie Condon and Jimmy McPartland (destined to be the husband of jazz pianist Marion McPartland).
In its obituary of Avakian, The New York Times quotes his reminiscence in Down Beat, 2000: “When I saw how much alcohol Eddie Condon and his guys drank and abused his health, I was very alarmed and became convinced they couldn’t possibly live much longer…. They were only in their mid-30s. But I was 20. What did I know about drinking?”
Columbia Records, at the time part of CBS, hired Avakian in 1940 to assemble and annotate its jazz reissue series, a first among major record companies. The job was part-time, one day a week for $25, but got him supporting the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and others.
After five years in the U.S. Army, Avakian was hired full-time at Columbia. The New York Times notes that “He was in charge of pop albums and served as a one-man international department, releasing Piaf’s ‘La Vie en Rose’ and other important European records in the United States.”
Avakian also played a role in the transition of the record industry from 78-rpm format to 33 1/3 long-play vinyl. The 33 1/3 era dominated until the advent of the CD, another medium in which Avakian was involved during the late 1990s.
Avakian taught one of the country’s first academic history courses on jazz, at New York University, in 1948. By bringing Dave Brubeck to Columbia in 1954, he gave California cool a broader audience (leading to Brubeck’s November, 1954, Time magazine cover).
Kurt Weill wrote the music for the 1928 Die Driegroschenoper, including the song Die Moritat von Mackie Messer. (There’s a marvelous YouTube of lyricist Bertolt Bretcht singing it in the sinister manner he envisioned.)
In 1956, Avakian persuaded Louis Armstrong to cover this classic in English. Armstrong’s “Mack the Knife” became one of his greatest hits.
The careers of comic Bob Newhart, the Everly Brothers, and Bill Haley & His Comets were furthered by Avakian-produced recordings. So were careers of American classical composers Alan Hovhaness and John Cage.
Avakian’s wife was concert violinist Anahid Ajemian, who predeceased him earlier this year at age 92, after a marriage of 68 years.
Thank you, Mr. Avakian, for a life well-lived in bringing the pleasures of music to so many of us. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017