By Florence Avakian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
NEW YORK — World famous jazz impresario George Avakian was honored at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in a special tribute on February 18. During his more than 60-year stellar career as a music recording producer, artist manager, writer and educator, Avakian (no relation to this writer), is best known for his work with such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, John Cage, Alan Hovhaness, among many other musicians and composers. He was also instrumental in working with acclaimed concert artists violinist Anahid Ajemian (his wife), her sister pianist Maro Ajemian, and the Composers String Quartet.
From June 21 to September 24, the Lincoln Center’s Performing Arts Library will present a special exhibition titled, “Music for Moderns – The Partnership of George Avakian and Anahid Ajemian.” The exhibition will highlight their papers (1908-2012), and document their careers and lives through personal and professional correspondence, published and unpublished writings and speeches, scores, clippings, photographs, awards, posters and visual art.
On February 18, the legendary producer, now 97, sitting in a wheel chair, with a smiling and virtually wrinkle-free face, was interviewed by special guests Ricky Riccardi and David Ostwald in the Bruno Walter Auditorium, packed with his friends and admirers.
Reminiscing with charming anecdotes, Avakian revealed that for his written work on the back of his first album featuring Louis Armstrong, he was paid $10. He recalled that the legendary jazz artist told him “communication is very important,” a piece of wisdom Avakian never forgot. In the 1950s, he produced the artistry of another great, W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” and shortly after he met an unemployed Fats Waller who soon became lionized.
Other greats Avakian worked with were the incomparable Duke Ellington whom he called “a perfectionist, well prepared at all times,” who “created a whole new genre” at the Newport Jazz Festival, as well as Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day, whom he called “the greatest singer of them all.”
Using jazz as diplomacy, Avakian was involved in many international tours, including with Benny Goodman in Russia. “I wanted to stretch jazz as far as possible around the world, including beyond the Iron Curtain,” he related, adding that many jazz performers were thrown into jail in the Soviet Union, “probably because they did not play so well.” This observation elicited loud laughter. During his 1962 tour of the USSR, he recalled that every concert was sold out. It was the first tour by an American jazz band, and the first jazz album ever recorded there.
During the two-hour tribute, the six piece “Sammy Miller and the Congregation” combo played with great flair and an infectious beat several all time jazz favorites, including Ellington’s Solitude and Black and Tan Fantasy, W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues and Careless Love, Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Honeysuckle Rose and George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm.
Following a lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion of the program, many attendees rushed to the stage to speak with Avakian personally. Having interviewed both George and his wife Anahid at their spacious home in Westchester several years ago, this writer was thrilled that when the Jazz giant motioned her to meet him on stage. There, he revealed that he and wife Anahid, now 92, are living in a comfortable assisted living apartment upstate, with their children often visiting. “I am happy to see here a fellow Armenian,” he said, while delivering a gallant kiss to the hand.
A Brilliant Career
Born George Mesrop Avakian in 1919, in Armavir, Armenia, he was the oldest of three children which included his brother, film director, editor and photographer Aram Avakian. His family emigrated to the US in 1923, settling in New York City. A graduate of Yale University, he soon became an expert on recorded jazz in an era when there was very little information about the published music.
Aware that much of the recorded jazz of the 1920s and early 1930s was not available for study and purchase, Avakian envisioned a new way of recording and releasing the music on record. In 1939, Decca Records invited him to produce Chicago jazz, a set of new recordings by Chicago musicians led by Eddie Condon.
Inspired by the Decca release, the America Record Company, renamed Columbia Records, hired Avakian in 1940, while he was still a student. He was assigned to the company’s warehouse for deleted and never-released masters and created reissue packages for them. Drafted into the US Army upon graduation in 1941, he served in the Pacific front for two years, continuing his jazz writing in several well-known magazines and during and after his military service. Discharged in 1946, he returned to Columbia and resumed production of the Hot Jazz Classics and Special Editions Archives series. Appointed in 1948 as head of the international department, he oversaw production of new foreign recordings. This resulted in meetings and productions with Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour.
Throughout his advancement with Columbia, he was innovative in several ways, making Columbia the first major label to record live jazz and popular music, and becoming one of the first producers to fully embrace multi-track recording and tape editing techniques. He was also one of the co-founders of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1957, later serving as its president.
From 1958 to 1964, he worked in high positions at World Pacific Records, cofounded Warner Brothers Records, and RCA Records, eventually leaving to independently produce and manage artists. In addition to his production of many Broadway cast recordings, Avakian was also involved in incidental music for the Broadway run of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and produced the first Off-Broadway revival of “The Cradle Will Rock.”
Avakian worked diligently to foster intercultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In addition to the landmark Benny Goodman and Charles Lloyd tours, he was the first to record Soviet and American artists together (Pavel Lisitsian of the Bolshoi Opera and pianist Maro Ajemian for New York Records in 1957), and he befriended many Russian musicians, composers and writers. For his life-long efforts, he received the Soviet Union’s highest honor, the “Order of Lenin” in 1990, by the Soviet Composers Union.
Other honors that Avakian has received, include the “Knight of Malta” (1984), the “Down Beat Lifetime Achievement Award” (2000), the coveted French jazz award, the “Django d’Or” (2006), the French rank of “Commandeur des Arts et Lettres” (2008), the “Trustees Award” from the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences for contributions to the music industry worldwide (2009), and the “National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master” award (2010).
Anahid Ajemian and Maro Ajemian studied at the Juilliard School, and both artists launched their illustrious careers at Town Hall. Later they both became interested in contemporary composers, performing the works of Aram Khatchaturian, Alan Hovhaness, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Ben Weber and others to American and international audiences.
Anahid Ajemian and violinist Matthew Raimondi formed the Composers String Quartet which rapidly became renowned, touring the world in the late 1960s and 1970 under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department. George Avakian managed the quartet for several years. In his retirement, he continued to involve himself in independent recording productions for several artists, and also remained active in jazz research and writing, a fitting legacy to a brilliant career.