George Avakian, Legendary Record Producer, 1919-2017

Nov 27, 2017

One of the first album covers to grab my attention as a kid was Ambassador Satch. Released in 1956, it pictured Louis Armstrong in a formal cutaway jacket, contrasting gray vest, and striped trousers, and it conveyed a composed elegance about the man that belied the outsized figure I'd felt bemused by when I saw him on television. I would have been seven or eight when I began rifling through the small stack of albums that my parents owned, mostly symphonic and Broadway musical, and this lone record with a black face on the cover. Whether it was that quality alone, or more likely the warmth conveyed by its subject's smile, I always placed Ambassador Satch back at the front of the stack that rested on the rug against our stereo console.  It would take a while before Armstrong's music captured me with the same devotion as his image, but as I reflect upon him now, it seems fitting that the first iconic figure of black America that I took to displaying at home turned out to be the leading man in the musical genre that would soon guide my life. (By high school, I'd turned the walls of our downstairs family room into a virtual museum of black iconography ranging from Muddy, Mingus, and the Soul Clan to MLK, Malcolm, and the Panthers.)

A few years later, "Ambassador Satch" was still the operative trademark when Louis Armstrong and His All Stars played a dance concert at the Worcester Auditorium. His appearance was sponsored by Worcester Tech's junior prom committee, and in a page one story of impressively serious proportions, The Tech News described him as "the World's most widely known entertainer," and the nation's "most effective Good Will ambassador," and discussed at length the "tonal quality" and "abundance of ideas...in his improvisations." I was thirteen when Louis came to town for WPI in the spring of '67, and I've still got the program that my parents brought home from the event, and shortly thereafter when I found myself drawn to jazz as music, I learned that George Avakian was both the producer of Armstrong's iconic album and the promoter of his ambassadorial persona. 

Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, George Avakian, 1954
Credit The New York Times

As it turned out, I never saw Pops in person, but I did meet and speak with Avakian on several occasions, beginning with a call I placed to him in 2002 when I was writing the liner notes for the reissue of a Benny Goodman Quartet album he'd produced in 1963. By then, I knew George's name about as well as anyone's in jazz for it appeared prominently as the producer of such landmark albums as Miles Davis's 'Round Midnight, Miles Ahead, and Milestones; Sonny Rollins's The Bridge; Joe Williams's Newport '63; Paul Desmond's Take Ten; Erroll Garner's Concert By the Sea ; and Duke Ellington's Hi-Fi Ellington Uptown. As I recall, George's phone number was in the book, and while he must have known the Goodman album was slated for reissue, he greeted me as though I was conveying delightful news. From there, he told me the wonderful story of how Goodman was one of his early favorites; of the interview he'd conducted with Benny in 1936 for his high school newspaper at Horace Mann and the favor it won with the King of Swing, including a front table for one his shows at the Hotel Pennsylvania; and the later work he did with BG at Columbia Records in the '50s, and the quartet reunion for RCA, Together Again! 

Avakian, who died on November 22 at 98, was an industry executive, producer, and talent scout who launched the long-playing (LP) album in the early '50s; helped bring to prominence Miles, Brubeck, Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, and others in and out of jazz; and played a leading role in shaping the front-office view of jazz as a prestigious art form whose economic benefit to record labels would accrue over time (the goldmine known as back catalogue) rather than on tomorrow's Hit Parade. Born in 1919 in Russia and raised in New York, he combined a youthful passion for jazz with a sophisticated respect for the music and its players, one that impressed Goodman. "He told me [mine] was the only interview he'd done [at that time] in which he was asked about the music," George recalled in our conversation. "Not about where Benny buys his neckties or what he likes for breakfast."

After graduating from Horace Mann, George attended Yale, where as an underclassman he began pestering Decca Records with letters urging them to make records on musicians whose futures he feared were imperiled, not by the advance of war in Europe, but by their hearty consumption of alcohol. Decca eventually saw the light and gave the assignment to George, who recruited a group of "Chicago Jazz" legends under Eddie Condon's leadership, and produced the first-ever album of historically minded jazz sides-- complete with Avakian's scholarly liner note essay. Soon thereafter, on the recommendation of another Yalie, John Hammond, George began mining the vaults at Columbia Records for the first reissues of records by Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and Armstrong, including previously unreleased takes by the Hot Five for which he personally consulted the trumpeter. Following five years of Army service during World War II, Avakian returned to Columbia and in 1947 became director of Popular and International Music. In that capacity, he signed Ellington, Armstrong, Condon, Goodman, Garner, Miles, and Brubeck, and produced landmark albums by them all including the biggest-seller of Ellington's career, Duke Ellington at Newport

In 1954, Avakian persuaded Armstrong's manager Joe Glaser to move his star client from Decca to Columbia with a lucrative contract and a new royalties arrangement on the Hot Five reissues. He also appealed to Pops with a project he'd conceived for the trumpeter, an album devoted to songs by W.C. Handy. With a new contract in hand, Armstrong and the All-Stars devoted a month of one-nighters to becoming familiar with Handy's catalogue, then recorded eleven songs by the revered "Father of the Blues." Handy himself paid a visit to the studio when the album was being made, and he must have added an extra layer of inspiration, for the resulting album, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, is widely hailed as the finest of Armstrong's career.

Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy was followed in 1955 by another historical concept album, Satch Plays Fats, in which Armstrong paid tribute to Fats Waller and revisited two of the songs he'd introduced in the 1929 revue, Connie's Hot Chocolates, "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue." That was followed by Armstrong's classic recording of "Mack the Knife," the Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht song that Avakian had heard in a revival "The Threepenny Opera," and was certain would be a hit in English translation. But according to Armstrong's biographer and archivist Ricky Riccardi, he showed the tune around to various artists before Dixieland trombonist Turk Murphy suggested it for Armstrong. In his Armstrong biography, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, Riccardi quotes Avakian saying, "Brilliant me! I had never thought of Louis Armstrong." But once he and Murphy proposed it to Pops, Avakian said his reaction "was marvelous. He broke into a big smile as he listened to the lyrics and said, 'Hey, I'll record that. I knew cats like that in New Orleans. They'd stick a knife in you as fast as they'd say hello." 

Armstrong recorded the tune with the All-Stars for release as a single, but his valet misplaced the arrangement at the outset of a ten-nation tour of Europe, so while "Mack the Knife" began climbing the charts in the U.S., Pops was unable to play it abroad. When he returned to the States for opening night of an engagement at the Fontainebleu in Miami, the audience clamored for his new hit. Riccardi quotes Avakian saying, "Louis fielded requests for his hit with charm and 'come back tomorrow folks, we'll lay it on you.' That evening, he took the band down to the hotel coffee shop, armed with five dollars worth of dimes and a stack of blank music paper. They fed the jukebox over and over, copying their own parts...and that's how Louis got to play his multi-million seller-to-be for the first time in public."

Meanwhile, Avakian had gone to work on the album of recordings from the European tour (some of it studio facsimiles of live performances) that not only attracted my attention, but as Riccardi's discovered, is the album most often cited by the musicians that he's surveyed about their "entry into Pops." Riccardi's voluminous Armstrong blog, Dippermouth, provides this quote from correspondence Avakian had when the album was in the works. "We are calling it Ambassador Satch because I feel he is the best ambassador we have, and he is the one artist who is most universally appreciated throughout the world." Here's the performance of "West End Blues" that Armstrong recorded in Milan for Ambassador Satch

(Avakian, Duke and Miles...to be continued)