By Florence Avakian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
NEW YORK — Music is “among the gifts that God hath sent,” was once said by legendary poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This phrase is certainly embodied in the talents of internationally recognized and acclaimed husband and wife team of George Avakian and Anahid Ajemian.
A unique exhibition of their work entitled “Music for Moderns,” is currently on view until Saturday, September 24, at the New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Anahid Ajemian, who passed away on June 13, 2016.
This exhibition is derived largely from George Avakian’s and Anahid Ajemian’s personal archives of photographs, recordings, memorabilia, oral histories, writings, letters, and other papers.
During the almost two hours I spent at the exhibit, more than two dozen people came in perusing the many archival recordings, photographs, oral histories, writings, letters held by the Music and Recorded Sound Divisions of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. One also is privileged to hear the ongoing magical sounds of such jazz and popular music giants as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Benny Goodman, Billy Strayhorn, Keith Jarrett, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, and many others.
These world famous music icons achieved international record stardom under the tutelage of George Avakian (no relation to this writer). He produced their best-selling albums while he was director of Popular Albums for Columbia Records. He also recorded many different types of music from rock and roll to Broadway shows and opera.
At the same time, violinist Anahid Ajemian and her pianist sister, Maro Ajemian, who had graduated from the Juilliard School of Music with honors, had thrilled audiences in the most prestigious concert halls in North America and Europe, playing not only the classical repertoire, but introducing the music of contemporary composers such as John Cage, Alan Hovhaness, Ernst Krenek, Carlos Surinach, Lou Harrison, Aram Khachatourian, and others, many of whom had written special works for them.
George, born to Armenian parents in Armavir, Russia, in 1919, immigrated with his family to New York at the age of 2. The family’s business which had begun in 1886, eventually became the second largest family-owned Oriental rug importing company in America.
While a student at Yale University, he covered a “Battle of the Bands” between Count Basie and Benny Goodman at Madison Square Garden, then “got a deal” to write a monthly column for Tempo Magazine for five dollars an article. “I got a reputation as an expert on jazz,” but he was annoyed there no jazz albums, only 78-rpm singles. A suggestion to Decca Records in 1939 led to the industry’s very first jazz album, and a few months later Columbia Records asked him to produce the first series of out-of-print jazz classics.
He said these tunes “reminded me of the lively dance music, ballads, and other folk music that my parents played in the house. That’s why many European immigrant families identified with jazz. There was a common ethnic bond.”
Following his military service in World War II, George joined Columbia Records full time in 1946. Partly because he spoke French, German and Armenian, he became manager of the International as well as the Popular Album Department. In 1948, he produced the industry’s first 100 pop LP’s. He left in 1958 to help start Warner Brothers Records. In 1960, he became RCA’s Director of Popular Artists and Repertoire, and free-lanced thereafter. He has been interviewed in countless television and radio documentaries.
In 1957, George Avakian produced the first records of Soviet and American artists together, featuring the legendary Pavel Lisitzian of the Bolshoi Opera singing Armenian songs, with piano accompaniment by Maro Ajemian. In 1990, he became the only American citizen to receive the Soviet Union’s highest decoration, the “Order of Lenin,” for his pioneering work in establishing musical relationships between America and the Soviet Union.
In an interview I conducted 13 years ago with both artists in their elegant, spacious home in Riverdale, NY, he reminisced about his favorite artists, calling “Satchmo” Armstrong and Duke Ellington as the “two greatest giants in the jazz field.” Armstrong, whom he knew for 30 years, he said “was the greatest single individual. He changed the whole sound of jazz, and influenced all jazz musicians. He was one of the finest human beings, with a heart of gold, decent, thoughtful, never holding a grudge.”
The Duke, he related “was the greatest charmer in the world, with style, glamour and sophistication. He was also the greatest composer and arranger in jazz history, and organized the best band.” And Mahalia Jackson” was the greatest singer I ever worked with. Nobody else could sing with emotion like she did.”
Anahid, like George, was also born of Armenian parents, and prophetically met George for the first time in 1946 when her sister Maro who had visited the Avakians’ summer home several times to practice on their piano, was giving a recital in Town Hall. Going backstage after the concert, he recalled seeing “this fantastically beautiful girl standing next to Maro.”
A post-concert dinner with composers Cage, Hovhaness, choreographer Merce Cunningham, pianist William Masselos and the Ajemian sisters, was the first step toward Anahid’s and George’s marriage on May 22, 1948. (Their family includes a son Greg, two daughters Maro and Anahid, and two grandchildren Alexander and Epiphany.)
After extensively concertizing with her sister on world famous stages, and on many television broadcasts, Anahid expanded her activities in 1966, by forming the award-winning Composers String Quartet which toured extensively throughout the U.S., Europe, Canada, the Soviet Union, China, the Middle East, Africa, Australia and the Far East. She also was an instructor at the New England Conservatory of Music, and associate professor of music at Columbia University.
Donations to Armenian Community
Both artists have received numerous honors throughout their lives, including an encyclical from Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II. Though the professional careers of George Avakian and the Ajemian sisters have been almost wholly outside the Armenian world, they have nonetheless generously donated their extraordinary talents to the Armenian communities throughout the world.
As a devoted fund-raiser for Armenian charities, Maro tirelessly worked for the Armenian Committee for Homeless Armenians (ANCHA), organized by the late San Francisco benefactor, George Mardikian. The Ajemian sisters helped organize the Armenian Diocese’s Pro Musica, which aided young Armenian musicians and composers, as well as the Aram Khachatourian Memorial Competition for performers and composers.
During that memorable interview more than a dozen years ago, Anahid Ajemian, in her typically modest manner, called success “the feeling that you’ve satisfied yourself in reaching for and making a worthwhile contribution to something that is up to your highest standard.”
For more information on the exhibit, visit https://www.nypl.org/events/exhibitions/music-moderns