George Avakian Dies at 98

Groundbreaking producer and manager worked with Miles, Armstrong, Ellington, Lloyd, Jarrett and others

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)

George Avakian, a record producer, talent scout and manager whose professional influence in jazz affected the careers of a broad spectrum of musicians, from Louis Armstrong to Keith Jarrett, died at his Manhattan home on Nov. 22, as reported by the New York Times. He was 98.

Avakian’s influence on jazz was more than professional. He had a profound impact on what, and how, jazz audiences heard. He produced the first series of jazz reissues, thus helping to construct the canon; played a key role in establishing the 33 1/3-rpm “long playing” record as the industry standard; and helped make the “live album” an institution.

While his career began at Decca Records in 1940, Avakian is best known for his stint at Columbia Records from 1946 to 1958, during which time he produced seminal albums by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, among many others.

His work extended outside of the jazz world as well, helping introduce listeners to such diverse talents as Edith Piaf, Bob Newhart, Ravi Shankar and John Cage.

Armenian by ethnicity, George Mesrop Avakian was born March 15, 1919, in Armavir, Russia—a city then besieged by the Russian Civil War. The family escaped to New York City when he was an infant, putting Avakian into the temporal and geographical heart of the Jazz Age. He grew up on radio broadcasts of the music in the city: Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson. When some early records of theirs and others proved hard to find, Avakian began writing incessantly to the labels that had originally pressed them, begging for reissues. It was his letter-writing campaigns that set the course for his future.

In 1940 Decca Records hired Avakian, then a junior at Yale University, to produce a collection of Chicago jazz artists. That same year, Columbia Records (at the recommendation of their in-house jazz producer, John Hammond) recruited him to curate his much-desired reissue series: archival sets of music by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson and Bix Beiderbecke. In the process, Avakian found treasure troves of never-before-released sides by the artists—including many of what are now known as the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens.

Following military service during World War II, Avakian became the head of Columbia’s Popular Music division, which at the time included jazz. When the long-playing record format was introduced in 1948 Avakian seized the initiative, creating a reissue series that put the first 100 pop recordings onto a series of the new 12-inch, 33 1/3-rpm discs. In 1950, Avakian produced a record of Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert—the first time a jazz orchestra played the hallowed venue—beginning a new trend of recorded live performances on which Columbia led the industry. Avakian solidified the trend with a series of recordings made at the Newport Jazz Festival, including the 1956 classic Ellington at Newport that revived the bandleader’s faltering career. He also signed major talents to the label, including Gerry Mulligan, Art Blakey and Erroll Garner, in addition to Armstrong, Davis and Brubeck.

After leaving Columbia Records in 1958, Avakian worked with Pacific Jazz, Warner Brothers and RCA before managing the career of saxophonist Charles Lloyd—and, later, Lloyd’s pianist, Keith Jarrett. He continued through the 2000s to work in record production and artist promotion, and as a writer and historian. He received an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2010.

Avakian was predeceased by his wife of 68 years, the violinist Anahid Ajemian, who passed away in 2016. He is survived by a son, Gregory Avakian; two daughters, Maro Avakian and Anahid Avakian Gregg; and two grandchildren.

Read a JT article by Avakian on his trailblazing work in jazz reissues