Columbia's first 12-inch jazz LP was George Avakian's idea. In 1950, when company president Ted Wallerstein played George a test pressing of Benny Goodman's band live in 1938, George knew instantly what he was listening to: Goodman's famed Carnegie Hall concert, which had been languishing in a closet and had never been released in its entirety. George decided to have the entire concert issued that year on two 12-inch LPs—jazz's first double-album. It appeared on the company's more expensive Masterworks label. "We had to do that for the Goodman album because of the all the extra number of copyrights that were on the program,“ George told me.
From that point on, the 12-inch pop and jazz LP was simply a matter of time—and depended on whether costs could be contained. By 1954, more efficient record-manufacturing strategies were in place, making the two-cent royalty on ASCAP compositions moot. With the larger format becoming standard industry-wide by 1956, George was busy planning hundreds of new 12-inch jazz LPs, among them Miles Davis' followup to 'Round About Midnight.In Part 5 of my five-part interview with George, the legendary producer talks about the inspiration for Miles Davis' Miles Ahead (1957), helping establish the "look" of the Miles Davis Quintet, and the Gil Evans album that was never recorded:
JazzWax: What did Miles Davis think as he listened to Dimitri Mitropoulos conduct Gunther Schuller’s brass work in 1956?
George Avakian: Miles sat there in awe. He’d already heard Mitropoulos conduct a Kurt Weill violin concerto at Town Hall in 1954.
JW: Did Davis get to play in the studio with Mitropoulos conducting that day?
GA: Almost. When Miles came into the studio at the end of the first break, he said to me in that raspy voice, “George, do you think he’ll let me play with his band if you ask him?” So after the next break, when Mitropoulos was returning to the studio after the playbacks, I said to him, “There’s a very fine young trumpet player who’s going to be recording for me. He hopes one day he might be able to play with the Philharmonic. Can he play with the group?” [Pictured: Miles Davis and George Avakian]
JW: What did Mitropoulos say?
GA: Mitropoulos was very polite as always. He nodded his head sagely and said, “Yes, yes, perhaps,” and walked out. But his response wasn’t a yes or a no.
JW: What did Davis say?
GA: Miles never said another word. He knew that Mitropoulos had other things to think about and that he was generous enough to say what he did and that it was not a good idea to bug him. If Miles had asked me to ask again to get clarity, I would have. But he didn’t.
JW: So from that jazz brass ensemble Davis did accompany, you wanted to create a similar one for him on an album?
GA: Yes. Miles and I agreed that the orchestral setting would be perfect for his sound. Remember, I thought of Miles essentially as a ballad player who could communicate instantly with large audiences. He was more impressive doing that than any of his in-person performances, especially after I signed him.
JW: Did Davis agree with you?
GA: Miles realized that the plan I suggested would be very, very good for him, commercially. So the whole thing came together very, very well.
JW: You were happy with the Miles Ahead sessions?
GA: Everything clicked and we sold a ton of records. The album established Miles as a major international jazz star. The publicity kept rolling in. Deborah Ishlon at Columbia had done a terrific job with Dave Brubeck and the return of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, both of whom had been in the doldrums for a while.
JW: You also worked with Miles to create a new look or image.
GA: Miles looked great. He had his group wear black silk suits with black neckties and white shirts. They looked terrific. That meant a great deal, because up until then, jazz musicians wore whatever they felt like wearing. Frankly, when Miles was on junk he looked like a bum. He went down hill so badly that he didn’t shave or bathe. He was falling apart. He finally got it together when he realized that he was ruining his ability to earn a living. [Photo of Miles Davis by Robert W. Kelley for Life]
JW: Did you coach Davis on his formal look?
GA: Let’s put it this way. Miles established the look and then I persuaded him to standardize it, which I didn’t have to work hard to do. He kept that meticulous look for quite a while. But by the 1960s, he was well established and public would have come to see him if he had been in a bathrobe [laughs].
JW: So the look was good for Davis and good for business.
GA: Yes but I didn’t apply this to all of the jazz musicians on the label. It was just Miles I wanted to appear before the public that way because he did it himself and I realized, hey, this is what's going to get him into Time and Newsweek and break him out of the jazz category. [Photo of Miles Davis by Herb Snitzer]
JW: In general, did you have a vision for an album first and then discuss it with an artist or the other way around?
GA: Most of the time. Sometimes there was no need to discuss the concept because the repertoire spoke for itself. But the more complicated things were, of course, the more they had to be discussed in advance.
JW: How did the idea for Sketches of Spain come about?
GA: Gil Evans and I were going to make an album based on Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land. I had already recorded the composition with Calvin Jackson, the jazz pianist. My vision for Gil was an album with exotic, beautiful music from all over the world. Each track would be influenced by music from a different country. Out of that concept came the inspiration for Sketches of Spain.
JW: How did the concept begin?
GA: One of the pieces for the Lotus Land project representing Spain was from a pre-war 78-rpm record I had by Pastora Pavón Cruz [pictured], one of the great flamenco singers of 1920s and 1930s. Her stage name was La Niña de los Peines, or “Woman with the Combs.” It was a beautiful procession-like piece with these long valve-less trumpet instruments and drums.
JW: Was it used on Sketches?
GA: It was the basis for Saeta on Sketches. But remember, Gil’s arrangement of the song was written before Sketches because we originally had been planning to do it as part of Gil's Lotus Land album.
JW: So why wasn’t Lotus Land recorded?
GA: Because in 1958 I left Columbia to start Warner Brothers Records. Gil took the one Spanish-influenced arrangement for Lotus Land and developed it into an entire suite for Miles.
JW: Looking back, you had quite a run at Columbia Records.
GA: It was a great experience. Though I was in charge of producing pop music records there, I think we did quite a great deal to make jazz more popular without compromising its heart or integrity. Everything had changed over this period of time, the music and the technology. My first recording session at Decca in 1939 was recorded on a machine powered by a series of pullies because the power wasn’t steady enough to turn the turntable consistently [laughs].
JW: Do you still have the sign from your office door?
GA: [Laughs] Yes, actually I do. It’s a gray plaque with white lettering that says, “Popular Album Department.”
JazzWax tracks: Both Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain have been remastered and issued with alternate takes. You'll find Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain at iTunes or here and here. As jazz musician and writer Bill Kirchner reminds me, Evans did eventually get to record Lotus Land on Kenny Burrell's Guitar Forms (Verve) in 1964.
JazzWax clips: For more on Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, check out Michael Steinman's fine post at JazzLives here. And here's a fascinating clip featuring soundless film images of that night...
Fifty-three years later, Miles Ahead continues to amaze and thrill. The concept remains daring and the execution is at times shy and vulnerable and at other times assertive. Dig the spectacular beauty and spare modernity in this clip of Miles Davis on flugelhorn and Gil Evans conducting Dave Brubeck's The Duke in advance of a CBS-TV appearance in April 1959...