Thursday, November 23, 2017

For the love of George

George Avakian, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins
Newport Jazz Festival, July 6, 1963
©Burt Goldblatt/CTS Images
George Avakian has died. He was 98. He lived a long, good life. For us, music lovers, the important bit is that he was a record producer, and a pioneer at that. Trying to give a fair overview of his whole career is almost impossible, and you will notice that, more often than not, the focus is on less than a decade, from 1950—when he produced Benny Goodmanʼs Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert—till 1958, when he left Columbia Records. Not all eras deserve the same attention, and those years were very intense for Avakian: he signed Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner and a certain Miles Davis into the big time, and relaunched the careers of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. But before that, he established, or helped establish, the concepts of the jazz album and the reissues of older recordings, a paradigm still extant. After those heady times at Columbia, he produced Sonny Rollinsʼs comeback in the sixties, beginning with The Bridge, all the studio recordings of Paul Desmond with Jim Hall—one LP for Warner Bros., the rest for RCA—and launched the careers of Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett. And still, this doesnʼt make him justice (, as good as it is, barely scratches the surface).

Jazz historians tend to suffer from a sort of tunnel vision, which is helped by the fact that jazz is better documented than other branches of recorded music—I insist in the need to tackle the monstrous task of publishing complete label discographies of RCA and Columbia. This can also affect our view of Avakianʼs legacy. For all the emphasis in his jazz legacy, he was always “pop” or “popular music” A&R or director, or whatever his position at the label called for, and this position, in a large corporation such as CBS, depended on sales. What Avakian managed was a balance between artistic values—if we let time be the judge of that, he did keep them—and sales, to which his ascendant career at Columbia bears witness. In this regard, in October 1957, out of the eight best-selling jazz albums, five were by Columbia.

Joe Williams and George Avakian, possibly in 1963
during the recording of Jump for Joy for RCA
©Burt Goldblatt/CTS Images
Despite his overwhelmingly successful career as a producer, it is also important to remember that Avakian went to work every day and that he didnʼt always get it right, or totally right. A prime example of this is Johnny Mathis. Avakian brought him to the label, and that he got right, given not only the popularity of the singer, but his long relationship with Columbia; however, his first, jazz-oriented, album produced by Avakian didnʼt really work, and it was only when Mitch Miller took the reins of his career that Mathis found his footing and commercial success. Still, Avakian was on to something: the arrangers in Mathisʼs first recording are Bob Prince, Manny Albam, John Lewis, future Columbia staff producer Teo Macero, and Gil Evans, then, but not for long, a forgotten name.

Charles Mingus, Teddy Wilson, George Avakian and Benny Goodman,
February 13 or 14, 1963. RCA Studio A, NYC.
©Burt Goldblatt/CTS Images
Avakianʼs image as an elder statesman of jazz and his friendly demeanour belie the fact that he was a determined producer with a ruthless approach to his job, which he also inflicted on himself: at age 38, not long before he left Columbia, he was working so hard that he fell ill with mononucleosis and hepatitis at the same time. As for his working methods, as he told Nat Hentoff in an interview in 1956, “if it is possible to improve the performance artistically, without hurting the artist in any way, I owe it to the artist to use the processes that are available to me”. In our little world of jazz, this went against a perceived authenticity that implied recording—and leaving untouched—whatever happened in the studio.

In general terms, Avakianʼs vision entailed two things: one, using any technical and financial means available to him; two, applying his own musical and aesthetic criteria, often with little input from the artists. In practice, this meant pushing the technical limits of tape editing by cutting and splicing, which Avakian would do himself—even in out-of-office hours, against sound engineersʼ union rules—taking decisions about takes and solos on the fly.

If thereʼs an album which encapsulates this work ethos, itʼs Miles Davisʼs Miles Ahead (click here for my long article on its production). The original idea—taking Miles Davis off the quintet—was Avakianʼs; three months before recording began, he got a promotion, which must have meant more clout within the company: the rule of thumb at the time was four tracks per three-hour session; Miles Ahead had four sessions booked for ten tracks, and a fifth one was eventually needed, with a top-notch orchestra at Columbiaʼs 30th St. studio, no less, all of it—from the marketing point of view—for two nobodies: Miles Davis, a second-rate, former heroin-addict trumpet player, and Gil Evans, an arranger whose work for the previous seven or eight years is so obscure, it still has biographers and historians scratching their heads.

The result, like a disproportionate amount of Avakianʼs legacy, is sensational, and itʼs there for all to hear. Sad as his passing is, we can only celebrate—donʼt take my word for it: look for some of his productions and just play them.

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