George Avakian, Record Producer and Talent Scout, Dies at 98
By PETER KEEPNEWS NOV. 22, 2017
George Avakian with Louis Armstrong and W.C. Handy, center, in an undated photograph. Mr. Avakian helped popularize the long-playing record and organized the first jazz reissue series, preserving the recorded legacies of Armstrong and other pioneers. Columbia Records
George Avakian, a record producer and talent scout who played a key role in the early careers of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett and Bob Newhart, among many others, died on Wednesday at his home in on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 98.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Anahid Avakian Gregg.
Over the course of a career that began when he was in college, Mr. Avakian (pronounced a-VOCK-ee-an) was involved in virtually every facet of the music industry. He helped popularize the long-playing record; organized the first jazz reissue series, preserving the recorded legacies of Louis Armstrong and other pioneers; and introduced Édith Piaf to American audiences.
He made his most lasting mark as a jazz producer with Columbia Records in the 1950s. He brought Brubeck and Davis to the label, helping to transform them from artists with a loyal but limited audience to international celebrities. He signed Johnny Mathis, then an unknown jazz singer, and oversaw his emergence as a chart-topping pop star. He persuaded Louis Armstrong to record the German theater song “Mack the Knife,” an unlikely vehicle that became one of his biggest hits. And he supervised the recording of Duke Ellington’s performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which revitalized Ellington’s career.
George Mesrop Avakian was born on March 15, 1919, in Armavir, Russia, to Armenian parents, Mesrok and Manoushak Avakian. His family moved to the United States shortly after he was born. His younger brother, Aram, became a respected film editor and director.
An avid jazz fan and record collector, George was a sophomore at Yale and already a published jazz critic when he persuaded Decca Records to let him record the guitarist Eddie Condon and other musicians who had been fixtures of the Chicago scene a decade earlier. Those sessions, in 1939, produced “Chicago Jazz,” a package of six 78 r.p.m. recordings that is widely regarded as the first jazz album.
“When I saw how much alcohol Eddie Condon and his guys drank and abused their health,” Mr. Avakian told Down Beat magazine in 2000, “I was very alarmed and became convinced they couldn’t possibly live much longer. So I persuaded Jack Kapp at Decca to let me produce a series of reunions to document this music before it was too late.
“They were only in their mid-30s. But I was 20. What did I know about drinking?”
Columbia hired Mr. Avakian in 1940 to assemble and annotate a comprehensive jazz reissue series, something no record company had undertaken before. Working one day a week for $25, he compiled anthologies of the work of Armstrong, Ellington, Bessie Smith and others, establishing a template that the industry continued to follow into the CD era.
In 1946, after five years in the Army, Mr. Avakian became a full-time member of Columbia’s production staff.
While overseeing the company’s jazz operations, he wore many other hats as well. 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.
He also played a significant role in establishing the 33⅓-r.p.m. long-playing record as the industry standard, supervising production of the first pop LPs shortly after the format was introduced in 1948.
George Avakian in 2007. Ken Levinson/New York Public Library
Mr. Avakian later worked briefly for the World Pacific label before joining the Warner Bros. movie studio’s newly formed record subsidiary, where he was in charge of artists and repertoire from 1959 to 1962.
With a mandate to get Warner Bros. Records on solid financial ground by delivering hits, he temporarily shifted his focus from jazz. He brought the Everly Brothers to the label and signed a young humorist named Bob Newhart, who had been working as an accountant in Chicago and moonlighting as a radio performer but had never performed for a live audience.
Mr. Newhart’s first album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” became one of the best-selling comedy records of all time.
In 1962, Mr. Avakian joined RCA Victor Records, where he was in charge of pop production but also had the opportunity to renew his involvement in jazz, producing critically acclaimed albums by Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond and others.
Tiring of the day-to-day grind of the record business, Mr. Avakian became a freelance manager and producer in the mid-’60s. His first client of note was Charles Lloyd, a saxophonist and flutist whose freewheeling style had attracted a young audience and who became one of the first jazz musicians to perform at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and other rock venues.
The pianist in Mr. Lloyd’s quartet was Keith Jarrett, and Mr. Avakian worked with him as well, helping to lay the groundwork for his breakthrough as one of the most popular jazz musicians of the 1970s.
By the late ’90s Mr. Avakian had come full circle: He returned to Columbia Records to supervise a series of jazz reissues. This time the medium was CD rather than vinyl. And this time many of the recordings being reissued had originally been produced by Mr. Avakian himself.
Mr. Avakian was married for 68 years to the violinist Anahid Ajemian, a founding member of the Composers String Quartet. She died in 2016. Aram Avakian died at 60 in 1987.
In addition to his daughter Anahid Avakian Gregg, Mr. Avakian is survived by another daughter, Maro Avakian; a son, Greg; and two grandchildren.
In 2014, Mr. Avakian and Ms. Ajemian donated their archives, including unreleased recordings by Armstrong and Ellington, to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Among the many honors Mr. Avakian received were a Trustees Award for lifetime achievement from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2009 and a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award for advocacy in 2010. Receiving the N.E.A. award, he said at the time, was “a culminating honor that confirms my long-held belief: Live long enough, stay out of jail, and you’ll never know what might happen.”