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GEORGE AVAKIAN,
1919-2017

George Avakian, the record producer and executive who brought Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Johnny Mathis to Columbia Records and was at the forefront of the introduction of the LP and reissue marketplace, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 98.

He also guided the career revivals of Louis Armstrong, convincing him to record “Mack the Knife,” a Top 20 hit in 1956, and Duke Ellington, via a 1956 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. During a short stint with Warner Bros. Records in the label’s early days, he signed the Everly Brothers and Bob Newhart.

He was the seventh Chairman/President of the Recording Academy, serving in 1966 and 1967. 

Born in Russia, Avakian was a jazz fan and record collector, and while a student at Yale, recorded guitarist Eddie Condon and other musicians from Chicago for Decca, which released the six-78s set in 1939 as Chicago Jazz. It is considered to be the first jazz album.

He went to work for Columbia in 1940 and created the first-ever jazz reissue series, compiling anthologies of the work of Armstrong, Ellington, Bessie Smith and others.

He left for a five-year stint in the Army and returned in 1946 as member of Columbia’s production staff where he oversaw the jazz department and the introduction of the pop album. He also took on importing international artists, releasing Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”

He started supervising pop albums in 1948 when Columbia was the earliest adapter of the nascent 33-1/3 LP format, producing Broadway cast albums as well as single artist discs.

He worked briefly for the jazz label World Pacific before heading to Warner Bros.’ fledgling label in 1959; he was its A&R director until 1962.

Avakian then joined RCA to oversee pop production while continuing to produce jazz artists such as Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond and Gary Burton. He left to manage and produce artists, chief among them saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the pianist and Keith Jarrett.

He returned to Columbia Records in the late 1990s to supervise jazz reissues on CD. He won a Grammy for Album Notes for The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings by Miles Davis and Gil Evans in 1997. 

The Recording Academy honored him with a Trustees Award in 2009 and he received a NEA Jazz Masters award for advocacy a year later.

“George Avakian was a dedicated record producer and talent scout known for his significant contributions to the evolution of the music industry,” Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow said in a statement. “We have lost an integral member of our creative community. Our condolences go out to George's family, friends, and fellow collaborators.”  

 

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