"To receive a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellowship Award is a culminating honor that confirms my long-held belief: Live long enough, stay out of jail, and you'll never know what might happen!"
George Avakian is a record producer and industry executive known particularly for his production of jazz and popular albums at Columbia Records, including the first regular series of reissues of jazz albums. In 1948, he helped establish the 33 1/3-rpm LP as the primary format for popular music.
Avakian was born in Russia to Armenian parents, who moved the family to New York City in the early 1920s. In his teens he became enamored of jazz through radio programs such as Let's Dance with Benny Goodman. While a student at Yale University, Avakian convinced Decca Records to let him produce a 78-rpm record of the 1920s jazz scene in Chicago. Entitled Chicago Jazz, the recordings marked the first time jazz songs were produced in an album format rather than as singles.
In 1940, he was asked by Columbia to produce the industry's first annotated reissue album series, called Hot Jazz Classics, which included seminal out-of-print selections from Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington. He included the first-ever unreleased and alternate takes in the series. In effect, he had created the first history of jazz on records.
After service in the U.S. Army during World War II, Avakian began his 12-year tenure as a Columbia Records executive, eventually presiding over its Popular Music and International Divisions. At the same time, he was acquiring a reputation as a jazz researcher and critic of some renown, having pieces printed in Tempo, DownBeat, Metronome, Mademoiselle, Pic, and the New York Times. Concerned about the lack of jazz education, in 1946 Avakian started a course in jazz history at the university level at New York University.
In 1948, Avakian introduced the LP record format created by Columbia engineers and produced the industry's first 100 long-playing discs of popular music and jazz. Two years later, he released the original 1938 recording of Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert -- one of the first jazz albums to sell more than a million copies. This inspired him to use the long-play format for something new -- the live recording.
From 1959 onward, Avakian served as producer at Warner Brothers, World Pacific, RCA Victor, and Atlantic, among others. During the early 1960s, Avakian branched out, becoming the manager of Charles Lloyd and later of Keith Jarrett.
He has received a knighthood from the Knights of Malta (1984); the former Soviet Union's highest decoration (the Order of Lenin (1990)); a Lifetime Achievement Award from DownBeat magazine (2000); and Europe's prestigious jazz award, the Django d' Or (2006). In 2008, France bestowed on him the rank of Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, and in 2009 he received the Trustees Award from the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences for contributions to the music industry worldwide.
Louis Armstrong, Plays W. C. Handy, Columbia, 1954
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