David Ostwald Remembers George Avakian

The Louis Armstrong Eternity Band-leader and tuba player pays tribute to his dear friend, the legendary jazz producer (3.15.19-11.22.17)

2010 NEA Jazz Masters, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln C

George Avakian accepts his NEA Jazz Master award in New York in 2010; poet A. B. Spellman can be seen at back (photo by Alan Nahigian)

Had George done no more than produce the recordings and reissues that taught us musicians the language we now speak, It Would Have Sufficed. Had George done no more than write incisive and comprehensive liner notes that gave us the context to better understand that language, It Would Have Sufficed. Had George done no more than bring to the world dozens of million-selling records, including:

Louis Armstrong: “Mack the Knife”
Dave Brubeck Quartet: “Take Five”
Miles Davis: Miles Ahead
The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart
Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport
Frankie Yankovic: “Blue Skirt Waltz”
The Everly Brothers: “Cathy’s Clown”
Arthur Godfrey’s TV Calendar Show
Michel Legrand: I Love Paris
Édith Piaf: “La Vie en Rose”

plus recordings of:

Liberace and Thelonious Monk (not together!)
Lucille Ball and Ravi Shankar
John Coltrane and Bo Diddley
Frank Sinatra and William Masselos
Richard Tucker and Keith Jarrett
Lotte Lenya and Mahalia Jackson
Johnny Mathis and Alan Hovhaness
Tony Bennett and John Cage

It Would Have Sufficed.

Had George done no more than break international barriers with Benny Goodman’s tour of Russia, It Would Have Sufficed. Had George done no more than co-found the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, It Would Have Sufficed. Had George done no more than unearth long-ignored Louis Armstrong compositions at the Library of Congress, which he brought to life by recording them with a contemporary band, It Would Have Sufficed. Had George done no more than conceive and produce the first-ever jazz album, a medium he created as a 20-year-old undergraduate, It Would Have Sufficed. Had George done no more than save a dozen previously unissued Louis Armstrong recordings from destruction while working as a teenager at the Columbia warehouse in Bridgeport, Conn., recordings which became part of the jazz canon, thus giving way for all American pop music (just the good kind) to develop and thrive, It Would Have Sufficed.

Had George done no more than make mind-boggling contributions in marketing, recording techniques, artist development and just about everything else in recording, such as establishing the popular album as the most important part of the recording industry worldwide, It Would Have Sufficed.

Yet there was so much more. Like the time when, for his 87th birthday at Birdland in 2006, he said, “Thank you all for coming. As I look around and see so many friends at one time, I’m reminded of what Lou Gehrig’s mother said the first time that her son took her to Yankee Stadium: ‘I never saw so many people in one place who had nothing better to do.’

I have a confession to make. At this moment, it’s not really my 87th birthday. Because I was born in the Soviet Union, that means that right now, back there it is already March 16. But I’m glad you’re here, even if it’s the wrong time. After all, otherwise none of us would be here.”

Or like the time we went to the Hammerstein Ballroom to watch the swing dancers, and as we sat in a box looking down on the swirl of dancers, George, age 94, said, “Oh, to be 87 again!”

Or like the time when he sent me what he called his “Fervent Prayer”:

Dear Lord,

In the past year you have taken away my favorite actor (Fess Parker), my favorite actress (Farrah Fawcett), one of my favorite musicians (Freddie Hubbard, jazz trumpeter) and my favorite salesperson (Billy Mays).

Just wanted to let you know my favorite TV, political and radio personalities are Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, John Boehner, Chuck Grassley, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin.

Thank you.

Or like the time when I was trying to find out if he could get me a copy of a CD I wanted for free:

Hi George,

Do you know the meaning of the word “schnorrer”? Perhaps you’ll understand if I give it to you in context: Do you have a free copy of this CD for me?

He responded:

Dear David,

Schnorrer? Please elucidate. It’s not in my Armenian-Yiddish dictionary, but I gather it’s not good.   

(Of course he knew its meaning—he had taught it to me!)

Or like the times when he told me about seeing Babe Ruth play at Yankee Stadium; about how as a 12-year-old he sat on the bank of the Hudson every day after school watching the George Washington Bridge go up; about his time as a soldier in the Pacific, engaged in horrific combat in which I couldn’t imagine him, yet somehow I could; about his visit to Hiroshima the morning after the bombing; about Christine Keeler, Gjon Mili, Merce Cunningham, Philippe Halsman, William Saroyan, Jack Kerouac, Stanley Kubrick and Harpo Marx, among many others.

Or like the time when he took me to the Morgan Library to view illuminated medieval Armenian manuscripts. Or like the time when, at age 88, he led the veterans-against-the-Iraq-War demonstration in front of the United Nations building. Or like the times when, most important, he and his wife, Anahid, gave hours of love and fun to my children.

George, you have given me more than I can ever repay. When I said that to George, which was only all the time, he’d say, “But you can keep trying!”

Read the JazzTimes obituary for George Avakian

For more on David Ostwald, visit his official site