Today is George Avakian's birthday. For more than 70 years, George has shaped how jazz was recorded and regarded. As a pop and jazz LP producer starting in the mid-1940s, George was a visionary at a time when several recording technologies and formats were emerging and competing. In the first decade of the LP era, his innovative album concepts for Columbia transformed jazz from a fringe genre to nationally acclaimed performance art. In this regard, George served as both an eyewitness to modern jazz history and a catalyst, raising jazz's profile while serving as architect of its sophisticated image. [Photo of George Avakian by Ian Clifford]
George's "firsts" speak volumes. He produced the first jazz album in 1940 (for Decca). He wrote the first jazz album liner notes. He produced the first 10-inch LP at Columbia in 1948 (The Voice of Frank Sinatra). He produced the first 12-inch jazz LP in 1950 (Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, 1938), which also happened to be the first double-LP set. He signed Miles Davis in 1955 and helped make the trumpeter jazz's first modern superstar. He revived the careers of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He also founded Warner Brothers Records—and we're only up to 1958.
In Part 1 of my five-part series with George, 91, the father of the jazz LP talks about interviewing Benny Goodman for his high school newspaper, writing to Decca Records in 1938 and pitching a series of jazz albums, producing one of them, and having to learn about the music through French jazz books:
Tomorrow, George talks about befriending jazz authority Marshall Stearns at Yale, being summoned by Columbia chief Ted Wallerstein to the company's Bridgeport, CT, plant, being drafted into the Army in 1941, and hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg's in Los Angeles upon his return to the U.S. in 1946.
JazzWax: When did you first fall in love with jazz?JW: Why did the music appeal to you?
George Avakian: In 1935, at age 16. I was supposed to be sleeping but instead I was up sneaking a listen to NBC on the radio. I first heard broadcasts from New York’s Savoy Ballroom. But the music didn’t resemble Yes We Have No Bananas and other novelty stuff of the day. It was the music of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong.
GA: It reminded me of the lively dance music, ballads and other folk music that my parents had brought to America from Armenia and played in the house. I think that’s why many European immigrant families identified with jazz. There was that common ethnic bond.
JW: Did your obsession with late-night radio grow?
GA: Yes. As I became more deeply interested in the musicians with the strange-sounding names, I began to listen regularly on Saturdays to NBC’s Let’s Dance program, which came on at 10:30 p.m. in New York and lasted for hours. NBC used to divide the broadcast among three different types of music, so there would be something for everyone. There was sweet band music by Kel Murray, Latin by Xavier Cugat and dance band music by Benny Goodman.
JW: By the summer of 1935, Goodman’s status had changed, didn’t it?
GA: Oh, yes. When Goodman went out on the road to California with his band that year, his music’s popularity died as he traveled west. People just weren’t interested. But when the band reached the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in August 1935, the roof came off there was so much excitement. NBC’s Let’s Dance broadcasts had built an audience for him, Benny was so popular out there that he didn’t return to New York for a year.
JW: How did you feel about Goodman?
GA: I was more than a fan. When I heard that Goodman was scheduled to return to New York in September 1936, I saw an opportunity. I was editor of my high school newspaper at the Horace Mann School for Boys. I decided I was going to interview Mr. Goodman. His record of King Porter Stomp had been No. 1 on "Your Hit Parade" for weeks. Imagine, a composition originally written in 1903 by Jelly Roll Morton ends up being the biggest selling record in the country. The question was how to reach someone like Benny Goodman.
JW: What did you do?
GA: I told a classmate what I wanted to do. He said that his mother was on the Democratic Committee in New York and that its president was owner of the Hotel Pennsylvania, where Benny was due to play for an extended period. My friend said that his mom might be able to arrange for me to interview him.
JW: What happened?
GA: I caught a break. The hotel’s owner agreed to put us together. In November, I interviewed Mr. Goodman in the hotel’s Manhattan Room. Benny enjoyed the experience so much that he told his band manager, “Take good care of George and his friend. They’re nice kids. Be sure they have a good table.” After the show, we were invited to hear the band rehearse pop tunes of the day for the following week’s Camel Caravan radio program.
JW: How was it?
GA: A thrill. And the musicians were so nice to us—probably because we responded immediately to requests for sandwiches [laughs].
JW: After you graduated from high school, you attended Yale. What did you study?
GA: English literature, which I had discovered years earlier by picking up a Sherlock Holmes story. When I asked the school librarian for more stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, she brought me a big thick book. I ate it up in about 10 days. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an English teacher or a journalist.
JW: In 1938, while at Yale, you wrote to Decca Records. Why?
GA: Yes, I did. And they responded a year later. I had been campaigning for jazz to be recorded and released like classical albums of the day. Back then, classical albums featured multiple 78-rpms that slid into sleeves. They also came with a booklet that featured beautiful photos and text describing the music and why the composer and performers were important.
JW: What did you write in your letter to Decca?
GA: I proposed that they do a series of jazz albums and start with tributes to the styles of the three cities that made jazz famous—New Orleans, Kansas City and Chicago.
JW: What was Decca’s response?
GA: Decca said in essence, “We don’t know quite what jazz in those cities is about but you seem to know so why don't you go ahead and produce them.”
JW: Be careful what you wish for, right?
GA: I was excited. I was pretty close with the musicians from Chicago who had moved to New York during the Depression, like Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman [pictured] and Jimmy McPartland. I made that album first. But when time came to get paid, I found out that Decca was going to pay me only $75, which was less than it had cost me to go to Chicago and do one recording session with Jimmy McPartland.
JW: What happened?
GA: I decided I was in over my head. I told them to take the material I had outlined for the other two sets and to give them to the two people I thought would do the best job—Steve Smith for the New Orleans set and Dave Dexter for Kansas City. Smith was a collector who had started the United Hot Clubs of America. Dave had been the Kansas City Star’s crime reporter and knew all about the jazz scene there.
JW: What was your album called?
GA: Chicago Jazz, and it was the first jazz album ever recorded. It had six 10-inch 78-rpm discs, which meant a total of 12 songs. I wrote a 12-page booklet, which became the first jazz album liner notes. I produced those records between my sophomore and junior years at Yale in 1939 and 1940.
JW: Had you written to other record labels?
GA: Yes. And oddly enough, just after my Decca set came out, Columbia Records answered some of the letters I had written them about reissues. I had written the company after discovering Okeh Records over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1936.
JW: What happened?
GA: That fall, Julian Koenig, a friend of mine, had told his older brother, Lester, a senior at Dartmouth, that I was interested in swing music. Lester read the interview I had just done with Benny Goodman and said to Julian, “Ask George what he thinks of Louis Armstrong.”
JW: What did you say?
GA: I gave him an honest answer since I had been buying Louis’ Decca records: “Oh, he sings funny but he sure plays a lot of trumpet” [laughs]. Lester’s response was, “Gee, George has never heard the Okehs. I’m going to knock his ears off Thanksgiving weekend.”
JW: Did he?
GA: When he came home to New York for Thanksgiving, Lester invited me over and, wow, imagine out of the blue hearing West End Blues and all those other great classics of Armstrong's. I said, “How can I get them?” Lester said, “You can’t. They’re out of print.” I said, “Who owns them?” He said, “Brunswick Records bought them up long ago and they’re sitting on them.”
JW: What did he suggest?
GA: Lester urged me to write to Brunswick. He said, “They’re in the phone book. But if you want to find out about the history of this music, you can’t do it in the U.S. because there are no books that will help you.” Jazz scholarship and jazz writing didn't exist the way it does today.
JW: What was his suggestion?
GA: Lester said, “If you studied French at Horace Mann, then you must know enough to do this: Send an $8 money order to La Volta Music at 75 Boulevard Raspail in Paris and request two books.
JW: What were they?JW: Was Lester...
GA: Charles Delaunay’s Hot Discography and Hugues Panassie’s Le Jazz Hot, a definitive guide to jazz musicians that explained why they were great. There was a summary at the end of each chapter telling you which records to buy. Of course, the records recommended were the European releases, but the book gave me a head start.
GA: That Lester Koenig? Yes. Lester went on to found Contemporary Records in California in 1951.
JazzWax clip: Here's one of the sides from the Chicago Jazz album for Decca that George Avakian produced between 1939 and 1940...