November 24, 2017

George Avakian, 1919-2017

Artists in all disciplines depend on a variety of behind-the-scenes personalities who bring their visions to life. George Avakian, who passed away on November 22, was an integral part of the presentation and marketing of jazz for six decades. In addition to his role as a producer, George was a jazz historian, a talent scout, and a prolific writer of LP liner notes. Early in his career he made a significant contribution to the jazz canon by compiling and re-issuing historically important recordings by Louis Armstrong and other jazz pioneers.
There is some debate about when jazz changed from entertainment to an art form. George addressed this question during our interview:
MR: Yesterday I had asked you a question about if the early jazz musicians thought of their music as an art form. And you said probably not.
GA: No not really. They were just playing happy music that they had developed within their lives, and they were happy making a living at it as best they could in many cases of course. Because a jazz musician’s life has never been easy unless you happen to hit it big. But I don’t think musicians ever took it seriously as an art form until they were told it was an art form, and that probably started, I think it would have to be during the World War II years. Because before there weren’t any articles being written in magazines, God knows no books to speak of, but once that started, quite a bit of pretension did begin to creep in. And some of it spurred I feel the bop movement because that was something new and hard to understand compared to the relative ease of listening to the earlier music because that was, among other things, dance music, social music, good time music, popular songs were involved. Bop became something which for the most part did not depend on familiar standard selections, even though a lot of the earlier compositions were simply variations on the harmonies which were themselves altered along the way, of standard tunes by Gershwin and Cole Porter and so forth. So it became a kind of an inside arty thing. And this was encouraged by the people who wrote about jazz because more and more writing about jazz took place in magazines.
George’s expertise in production and marketing played an important role in moving jazz not only into the retail marketplace but also into the greater culture. His range of projects included work with Louis Armstrong and other innovators such as Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Gil Evans. Notable LP productions included Benny Goodman “Live at Carnegie Hall,” “Ellington at Newport,” and “Miles Ahead.”
George was the co-founder of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, and was named a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master in 2011.
From the Fillius archive, here is a link to the full YouTube interview I conducted with George on April 21, 1998.