In 1938, recordings by the latest swing bands were plentiful. The three major record companies that dominated the market (RCA, Columbia and Decca) saw to that. But earlier releases from the 1920s and 1930s that were recorded by companies that had gone bust were out of print. And other than a magazine or two, there were no books published in the U.S. on jazz, no jazz encyclopedias and no jazz discographies. Jazz was music without an archived past, which baffled a young George Avakian, who loved jazz but was hard-pressed for information and pre-swing recordings. [Photo of George Avakian in 2007 by Hank O'Neal]
George's earlier questions about the music were not unlike your own today. Who were these guys who could play such amazing solos? Where did they come from? Who were their teachers? What else did they record? And who were their inspirations? The difference was George had no resources to turn to for answers. Instead, he had to find jazz authorities, question them, read French jazz books and become an expert without the source material we now take for granted. [Pictured: Johnny Dodds]
In Part 2 of my five-part interview series with George, the first jazz and pop LP producer, talks about befriending Marshall Stearns at Yale, meeting with Columbia president Ted Wallerstein, service in the Army during World War II, and seeing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg's in Los Angeles:
JazzWax: Did you continue your interest in jazz at Yale?Tomorrow, George talks about the birth of Columbia's long-playing microgroove album, the moment he decided to sign Miles Davis, why he viewed the trumpeter as more than a jazz star, and the strategy that got Davis out of his Prestige contract in 1956 with the blessing of the label's owner.
George Avakian: Yes. Coincidentally, Marshall Stearns, the leading authority on jazz history at the time and one of the most noted jazz critics, was studying literature at Yale. He lived in New Haven and had an open house every Friday night. He invited me to come over to listen to jazz records and talk about them. [Photo of Marshall Stearns by Walter Sanders for Life]
JW: How were those sessions?
GA: Extraordinary. For two years we got together to listen. Along the way, Marshall tired of writing his "Collector's Corner" columns for Tempo magazine and asked me to take it on from time to time. That was a daunting task because I didn’t feel I had the authority to answer collectors’ mailed-in questions.
JW: Why did they write in?
GA: You have to understand, before the Internet, before jazz became popular, before large record stores and before entire sections of bookstores were devoted to jazz books, information about the music and even records were hard to find or didn't exist.
JW: But records had been made for years.
GA: Yes, but records that went out of print stayed out of print. Before World War II, you had to learn about jazz by listening carefully to the records you could get your hands on, reading mostly French books on the subject, and by searching out experts.
JW: Did Stearns put you at ease about handling his column?
GA: He said, “You can do it. Just go into my closet and pick out the records you have to check out to answer readers’ questions.” So I did. In Tempo magazine, Marshall had his byline, and his address appeared at the bottom so people could write in with questions. When I took on the column, I had my address at Yale there, and I’d get letters addressed, “Dear Professor Avakian…” [laughs]. I was just a sophomore.
JW: When did Columbia Records answer your letters?
GA: Early in my junior year, right after my Chicago Jazz album for Decca came out. Ted Wallerstein, president of Columbia Records, asked me to come to the company’s factory in Bridgeport, CT, which was about 20 miles from Yale.
JW: What did he want?
GA: He wanted to talk about the possibility of a jazz reissue program. I figured he had read one of my letters, but that turned out not to be the case.
JW: How did you know that?
GA: At the meeting in Bridgeport with various company executives, it was clear Mr. Wallerstein had invited me there after seeing my Decca album. At the meeting, he asked the factory manager to choose a letter he had received urging Columbia to reissue classic jazz records the label owned. As the manager started to read the letter, I began to realize it was mine.
JW: What did you do?
GA: I interrupted to say that I might have been the writer of that letter.
JW: What happened?
GA: The manager looked at the bottom of the letter and said, “So you did—two years ago.” Mr. Wallerstein then asked me, “Did you get an answer, young man?” “Yes, sir,” I said. “What was the answer?” he asked. I said, “The letter said that the company’s advertising department in New York handles such matters and that I’d hear from them shortly.” [Illustration: Bridgeport by Jim Flora]
JW: What did Wallerstein say?
GA: He said, “Did you ever hear from them?” “No sir,” I said. Mr. Wallerstein said, “Well I’m hiring you at $25 a week to come to this factory and get all the test pressings you want, listen to them and put out all the albums you want according to the plans outlined in your letter—four albums at a time and then some singles for special releases.”
JW: What did you think?
GA: I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t wait to get started.
JW: Did all of this affect your schoolwork at Yale?
GA: It sure did. It knocked me off the dean’s list, but I graduated anyway. It gave me a punch line for my 90th birthday party last year. I said, “I’m upset that I got knocked off the dean’s list at Yale and that my grandchildren have better grades in college than I did when I graduated” [laughs].
JW: You graduated from Yale in 1941?
GA: Yes. Then I was drafted into the Army.
JW: What did you do in the Army?
GA: I ended up in New Guinea and then at the invasions of Leyte and Mindanao islands in the Philippines. I was fortunate. Even though I was a sergeant in the infantry, I wasn’t actually on the front lines. I was assigned to a rear-echelon unit. We did interpretations of aerial photos and reconnaissance work. It was an intelligence unit. I was discharged in February 1946, as a second lieutenant.
JW: What did you do when you arrived back in the U.S.?
GA: I came back by way of Los Angeles because I wanted to see my sister, who had married a colonel in the Air Corps. That visit led me to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker at Billy Berg’s club. The entire music scene was changing.
JW: Was it new to you?
GA: Yes and no. I had heard much of it already when I went up to Minton’s in Harlem on furloughs in New York. I also had hit the jam sessions in Greenwich Village and on 52d Street. So I was a little onto the scene by 1946. But hearing Gillespie and Parker was an experience.
JW: Was Billy Berg’s as empty as they say?
GA: Yes. I went there three times with Ross Russell of Dial Records. He was a terrific enthusiast for the music and was about to start recording Parker out there. At the club, there were never more than 12 people in the audience. Yet Parker and Gillespie played with enormous fervor.
JW: Who hired you at Columbia in 1946?
GA: Mr. Wallersein. He liked what I had done with Columbia’s reissue series, which had to be canceled when the Japanese army reached Malaysia and cut off the world’s supply of shellac. But he had liked my work. In 1941, after I was drafted, he had said to me, “If your father allows it, I’d like you to work for me after the war.” He knew that my father wanted me to go into my family business, which imported Oriental rugs.
JW: When you went to see Wallerstein after the war, did he remember you?
GA: He did. I visited him in early 1946, just after returning to New York. The first thing he asked me was, “Did you speak to your father?” I said, “Yes, sir, and here’s what he said: ‘You went to college and went into the Army and came back in one piece, thank God. Go enjoy yourself in the record business.’ My father also said that when I was ready to get serious about life, I’d join the family business [laughs].
JW: You started with Columbia in 1946?
JW: So, did you ever work in your family’s business?
GA: Yes, 25 years later. It was a great experience to work for Avakian Brothers and travel to Iran, Pakistan and India buying carpets. [Pictured: Aram Avakian of Avakian Brothers demonstrating how an Oriental rug is made, for a 1981 Milwaukee Sentinel article]