Wednesday, November 22, 2017

In Loving Memory of George Avakian


The way I feel about this record can be summed up in this way. When I die, I want people to say, ‘That’s the guy that it if it hadn’t been for him and Louis Armstrong and W. C. Handy, there wouldn’t have been that great record, Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy.” -- George Avakian, 1954


George Avakian passed away this morning at the age of 98. I can’t believe I just typed that sentence. It really felt like he would live forever. It goes without saying that the music he created will most assuredly last forever. And for those fortunate enough to know him, our memories of being in his company will linger as long as we have memories.


When a loved one passes, it’s tempting to eulogize the departed by talking solely about one’s self. I’m not going to lie, I’m probably going to do that right now. You have to forgive me: George Avakian’s albums changed my life. The fact that I got to know him and call him a friend is something I never, ever took for granted and as I process the fact that there’ll be no more visits to see “Uncle George,” I feel like I need to write my memories down.


If you don’t know who George Avakian was (is), Google him and prepare to spend the next several hours reading about his rich history. While still a student at Yale, George practically invented the concept of a concept album with Chicago Jazz on Decca, then pioneered in Columbia's influential series of reissue albums shortly after, digging up some previously unissued Hot Five and Hot Seven masterpieces from the Columbia vaults. After the war, George continued to move up the ladder at Columbia, eventually heading the pop music album department after long-playing 33 1/3 albums exploded in the 1950s. Into the late 50s, he produced essential recordings by Louis, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Eddie Condon, Dave Brubeck, Buck Clayton, Duke Ellington....what more do you need? Even after leaving Columbia, he continued to have the master touch, helping to discover Bob Newhart and later overseeing Sonny Rollins's fantastic RCA Victor recordings, plus managing young talent like Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett.


My life would not be the same without the music described in the previous paragraph. Around September of 1995, I had my first run-in with Louis Armstrong when he unexpectedly showed up in the middle of The Glenn Miller Story to steal the film with a hot version of "Basin Street Blues." My curiosity was piqued. Shortly after, I told my mother to take me to the local library in Toms River because I needed to check out some more of this Satchmo fellow. I don't remember how many choices there were but there were many. Perhaps my life would have changed if I grabbed some inferior-quality bootleg. But no, there was one cassette that looked appealing and I liked the concept: 16 Most Requested Songs.


That was the one that did it. "Mack the Knife" was the opening track and I was hooked immediately. With each passing song, I found myself getting in deeper and deeper....until track 14, "St. Louis Blues," from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. When Trummy Young's solo ended and Louis began leading the final two-chorus charge home, something shifted in my brain. I knew right then and there I'd never be the same.


While listening, I read and re-read the liner notes by someone named George Avakian. Turns out he not only wrote the notes, but he oversaw the entire reissue and originally produced 15 of the 16 "most requested" songs on the tape. So I can specifically say that George Avakian's Louis Armstrong recordings changed my life. I owe George everything. To remind myself of that, I put up a "Wall of Avakian" in my home office in 2014:


That was the moment that changed my life but it was far from my last run-in with George's work. Eventually, as I dug deeper into Louis, I acquired the four LPs in the photo above and wore them out. Branching out to different artists, my first Mosaic Records box was Eddie Condon’s 1950s recordings produced by George. My second Mosaic set was Buck Clayton’s 1950s recordings produced by George. The first Duke Ellington album that really flipped me was Ellington At Newport, produced by George Avakian. He seemed to be everywhere I turned: Erroll Garner, Miles Davis, Kid Ory (I found the Columbia LP), Goodman at Carnegie Hall, etc. Whenever I saw his name involved, I knew it would be something worth listening to. That even went for living musicians. In the late 90s, I began seeking out CDs on the German Nagel-Heyer label and was knocked out by a disc actually produced by George, David Ostwald’s Blues in Our Heart. That was the first I ever heard of Ostwald but I knew if Avakian liked him enough to produce a record, he must be worth seeking out. I was right.  


In 2003, I went to see Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland with my best friend, Mike. It was my first time there and I almost had a heart attack when I saw George Avakian sitting at the bar! I barely remember the music as I spent most of the time working up the nerve to introduce myself. Mike finally convinced me to do it and I did, but not without some stuttering and knee-knocking. George couldn't have been nicer and gave me his e-mail address, telling me he wanted to send me some liner notes for the reissue of Satch Plays Fats that Sony chose not to use (their mistake!). The notes were terrific but I was too nervous to keep the communication going, afraid I might be pestering him or something (not that he ever gave me that feeling).


By 2007, I had an agent trying to sell my book about Armstrong and I was booked to give a lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies. I found George's e-mail address and wrote him again, re-introducing myself, inviting him to my lecture and asking if I could interview him for the book. We immediately set up an interview time....and then he surprised me by showing up to my lecture! Not only that, we ordered a pizza beforehand and split the bill. "I just split the bill for a pizza with George Avakian," I kept telling myself over and over. It was a real "pinch me, I'm dreaming" moment.

If I never did anything but split that pizza bill with George, I would have been happy, but fortunately for me, it was just the start of a beautiful friendship. He invited me to his beautiful home in Riverdale soon after, where I interviewed him for my book in 2007. The following year, I was invited to the Satchmo Summerfest for the first time and George was happy to see me, even inviting me to sit with him and Dan Morgenstern (!) at breakfast. He was in the audience for all of my presentations and couldn’t have been any more enthusiastic.



Breakfast with George Avakian and Dan Morgenstern at my first Satchmo Summerfest in 2008.
He took an interest in my research and soon after, gave David Ostwald permission to copy some treasure’s from his private collection: session tapes for Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats, a five-hour Voice of America broadcast from 1956 and three hours of George and Louis at Louis’s home in 1953, all of it invaluable for my book.


Again, if it had stopped there, I would have been the most thankful cat in the world, but around this point, I felt the shift from colleagues to true friends. When I began working for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, George visited a few times. Once, he brought a stack of reel-to-reel tapes and wanted to hear what was on them (all great stuff, Benny Goodman, Sonny Rollins, etc.)--and then he offered to drive me to Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan! I couldn’t say no so the 90-year-old George got in the car, pulled out of Queens College, got comfortable in the high-speed left lane (in the rain!), turned on his left blinker, didn’t turn left,and sailed down the Long Island Expressway like a kid. I survived the ride, which was more exciting than splitting a pizza.


I also got to know George’s loving wife, Anahid and and all of his children and grandchildren; one of his kids referred to me as an "Honorary Avakian" and I don’t think there’s a higher compliment than that. Even during a visit in January 2014, I had a vodka tonic with George, which might not sound like much....but I don't drink alcohol! (No major reason, I just don't like it.) But when George Avakian is drinking one and asks you to join, you don't say no.
George and his vodka tonic, January 14, 2014.
By that point, it was time for me to do something in return for all George had done for me. Those mid-1950s Columbia Armstrong recordings were some of my favorites but Sony had never really reissued them properly. I hounded Scott Wenzel of Mosaic Records and he agreed, so we set out to work on Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, which was released in 2014 (and just went out of print in 2017). We envisioned it specifically as a tribute to George and dedicated the entire set to him in the notes.


One reason is it literally could not have been finished without him. After starting this blog in 2007, numerous European Armstrong fans had graciously shared treasure after treasure with me of unissued Armstrong recordings. When I pitched the set to Scott, I knew what to include because I had these bootleg copies of this unissued material. But when we went to Sony and Sony didn’t have half of what I promised, we panicked. So I went back to my European sources--where did they get the bootlegs? They asked around and the answer finally came back: from George Avakian! At the time, George’s personal archivist, Matt Leskovic, was in the process of cataloging George’s incredible basement collection. I wrote to Matt and sure enough, the vaunted Avakian basement held the missing puzzle pieces. George let us come by to pick up the tapes and just like that, the set was in motion! (Happy to report that George and Anahid’s personal collection is now housed at and administered by the New York Public Library, where it is overseen by George’s first personal archivist, and another close friend of the family, Matt Snyder. More on that in a bit.)


Out of all the moments I've spent with George, the topper might have come at the 2013 Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans. I told the Satchmo Summerfest people that I'd love to give a preview of the Mosaic set. They thought it was a fine idea but at the age of 94, no one was certain if George would be attending the festival. I asked David Ostwald (another "Honorary Avakian") to join me just in case George couldn't make it and I prepared a "solo" version of the presentation and another version if George made it.


Well, George not only made it, he stole the show! People still mention it to me four years later. David and I asked George questions about working with Louis and all was fine....but then I started playing him things from the Mosaic set--culminating in a 16-minute conversation he had with Louis in 1956--and watching him react and spring to life was positively inspiring. Fortunately, it was filmed and I uploaded it to YouTube back then. This will be extra tough to watch after today’s news, but it was such an honor to be a part of this moment. I'll never forget the standing ovation at the end as long as I live. Ladies and gentlemen, George Avakian:



The camera cuts a few times during the interview segment but watching George listening to his interview with Louis was one of the most emotional things I've ever been a part of. At 1:05, you won't see it in the video, but Louis saying, "There's no such thing as old age in music" really affected George. His reaction isn't in the video but I did document it myself "for posterity," as Louis would say:


While writing the liner notes for the Mosaic, I visited George with David Ostwald a few times to ask about some of the background of the material on the set. His memory was still sharp as a tack and he loved telling the old stories, such as Louis wearing the oversized ambassador’s suit for the cover of Ambassador Satch.


The minute the set came out, David Ostwald and I went by again to show it to him. He loved looking at the photos and we shared some laughs as David snapped some of my favorite photos of all-time:



I had to ask George to sign my copy of the liner notes booklet and he was happy to do so:

And the inscription, which alone, made my life worth living: "This is for Ricky--if he wasn't around, we'd have had to invent him! George Avakian. Bless you, Ricky."

We even listened to some of the previously unissued material and it was my turn to take George through something I had produced (talk about an outer body experience). Again, bless David for filming it. At the 2017 Satchmo Summerfest, David put together a beautiful tribute to George, edited by Evan Engel and using interview footage of George shot by Michele Cinque in 2012 and the footage David shot from the Mosaic listening night in George’s apartment in 2014. You can watch it on YouTube here:



When the Mosaic set was issued, Scott and I were honored to have George attend a “Listening Party” for the box in the summer of 2014 at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Here’s a photo I titled "The Producers":



And I was extra proud to see the Mosaic set up on George's "trophy shelf" of awards (check out the Grammys) and prized possessions:



After that, though, George slowed down. He loved having visitors but sometimes he seemed tired when David and I would get there. (Understandable, of course.) Still, he’d always rise to the occasion and there wasn’t a single time where David and I didn’t leave his apartment, take a few steps down the hall and immediately start pinching each other, always amazed that we just spent time with George Avakian.


On one visit, I hooked up my iPad and showed him nothing but rare footage of Louis on the Ed Sullivan Show, stuff he hadn’t seen since it first aired, if ever. At one point, with David filming, George said, “I’ll be damned,” looked at me, tapped me on the cheek and said, “Ricky, if my mother were here, she would say, ‘You good boy!’” If you have Facebook, you can see the video by clicking here.


There were more visits to the hospital now and he wasn’t as mobile as he used to be, but he still managed to make some memorable appearances, including his yearly birthday party at Birdland and a memorable night at the New York Public Library in February 2016 where George told stories, aided and abetted by David and myself, while enjoying the music of Sammy Miller and the Congregation.

Photo by Tara O'Grady


That evening was one of the events launching the NYPL’s taking over of the Avakian Collection. Matt Snyder was working hard on an exhibit for the summer of 2016 when we all received the heartbreaking news that George’s beloved wife Anahid passed away suddenly in June 2016. Privately some of us wondered if this would be the end for George. But, always managing to surprise us, he took a positive slant, telling people that Anahid was diagnosed with a serious heart condition in the 1980s and he was just grateful that he had 30 more terrific years with her. And when I went to the viewing and expected to console a broken up George, there he was in the corner, talking to everyone who came up to him with his usual indomitable spirit, telling stories and making everyone feel how much he appreciated their friendship. Again, you have to bear with me as I weave myself in and out of this narrative but a moment I’ll never forget is when I approached him to offer my condolences, MY eyes already misty, and George greeted me with a joyous, “Ricky! It was a lucky night when you walked into my life.” He wanted to talk about Louis and said, “I’m just sorry you didn’t get to meet him. You would have loved him. He was so kind, so warm, you and David would have had so much fun with him. And he would have loved you, too.” I broke down. (I’m breaking down now, too, as I type it.)


Still, the show went on and the NYPL exhibit went on, even without Anahid (who was a major component of it, since she was a renowned classical violinist--again, Google Anahid Ajemian!). It was a truly sensational exhibit.

At the exhibit opening, I found myself in the middle of a conversation between George and Dan Morgenstern. Both Scott Wenzel and Matt Snyder saw what was going on and snapped a pic. I forget who took this one but it sums up how I felt every time I was around George (Dan, too):



A few weeks later, George wanted to go back to see it again so I was invited to attend a semi-private look at the exhibit with George’s son Greg, David, Armstrong House Archives Assistant Sarah Rose, among others.


There aren’t too many exhibits you can visit where the subject tells you about the artifacts personally! (And I say “semi-private” because the exhibit was open to the public and there were regular folks there to see it. When Matt told one, “Hey, that’s George Avakian over there,” she was in disbelief.)


In some ways, that was George’s last hurrah. David and I visited a few more times and David even had him over to his home for a memorable dinner with Matt, Dan Morgenstern and others. I continued getting reports that he was in the hospital but he always seemed to bounce back, including another Birdland birthday party. The last time I saw him was actually in a hospital in June 2017, a somewhat sad visit (he was depressed he couldn’t make it to a Lincoln Center Hall of Fame induction for Louis Armstrong) but not without his laughs as he and David reminisced about some humorous times during their friendship.

Dinner at David's, 2017.


George had been on my mind heavily the weeks leading up to his passing. I’m currently teaching “Music of Louis Armstrong” at Queens College and we’ve been covering “The Avakian Years” the past two weeks. It’s been extremely gratifying getting my students’ reaction to the Columbia work of the mid-50s; one of them even went out and bought Louis Plays Handy and Satch Plays Fats on his own and has been loving them. Last Friday, Facebook reminded me that I first posted the photo of George and I laughing over my Mosaic liner notes on that date in 2014 so I posted it again. So many great memories, so much great music. George might be gone after 98 wondrous years but the memories and music will never leave us.


This has been my personal remembrance of George but I know I’m not special. I’ve compared notes with David Ostwald, with Matt Snyder, with Matt Leskovic, with so many others, and their stories are similar. You began as a fan, worshipping George and his work and the next thing you know, you were his friend, a real, true friend, sharing stories of life, politics, sports, everything. This man revolutionized the recording industry and was friends with Louis Armstrong but he always asked how my wife and kids were doing.


I can’t thank David enough for having me along so often, and for documenting so many of the above adventures. He really was like a son to George. And the two Matt’s, too, were dedicated to George’s work and will always be. The four of us had dinner a few months ago to plot further ways to pay homage to George, calling it a meeting of GASS: The George Avakian Secret Society!


And there WILL be more tributes. Maybe this isn’t the right time to formally announce this but Scott Wenzel and I have already gotten the ball rolling to do another Mosaic Records box on Louis’s Columbia STUDIO albums of the 1950s and 1960s. Yes, if you’re curious, it will contain tons of bonus tracks and previously unreleased material from Handy, Fats, the “Mack the Knife” session and more. We want to really start working on it in 2018 and the plan has always been to release it in 2019, The Avakian Centennial. We hoped that George could see the finished product but hell, the man lived it, and now we hope to make it the ultimate tribute to the work he did with his hero and his friend, Louis Armstrong.


George said that when he died, he wanted people to say, “That’s the guy that it if it hadn’t been for him and Louis Armstrong and W. C. Handy, there wouldn’t have been that great record, Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy.” They’re going to remember him for a lot more than that. I know I will. I also know I need to listen to Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy. Now.

Love to the Avakian children, Anahid, Maro and Greg. Eternal love to “Uncle George.” And thank you.

Birdland, 2016. Photo by Seth Cashman