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This has been quite a month for us, and coming right off of our sessions with Sarah McLawler, we are proud to announce that legendary record producer GEORGE AVAKIAN will be leading JAZZ FOR CURIOUS LISTENERS on Tuesday, June 12th. Here are pictures of both Mr. Avakian (with his wife, violinist Anahid Ajemian) and Ms.McLawler at our fundraiser last week:
You can hear an interview that Sara Fishko did with Mr. Avakian here.
Here is an interview with Classic Records for those didn’t catch him when he was our guest at HARLEM SPEAKS:
The Classic Interview: George Avakian
H: When did you come to Columbia, George?
A: This is a complicated question. You see, I started part time while a student of English Literature at Yale in early 1940, producing the first series of reissues which included albums as well as singles. Then I was drafted after graduation in 1941 and came back full time in early 1946. But before I went into the army, Mr. Edward Wallerstein, the president of Columbia Records, said "George, when you finish your one year's service, if your father will let you do this instead of going into the family business, then I'd like to have you back." I said, "Thank you Mr. Wallerstein, I'll call you when I get out." Pearl Harbor kept me in for the duration, and when I called him it was late February 1946. He asked, "Can you start Monday?" and I said "Yes Sir!"
H: Did you work with Brubeck at all?
A: Well, I signed him to Columbia in the spring of 1955.
H: How did you do that?
A: I simply said to Dave: "What do you want for a contract? Just tell me and we'll talk about it." He said: " George, I need $6000 to pay off the mortgage on our family ranch in California and if I can get an advance of $6000 against the usual 5% royalty then that would be fine." I told him that I thought that I could swing it and I did. That was how Brubeck came to Columbia.
H: Did you participate in any of the recordings with Brubeck?
A: Oh yeah, I produced all of his studio and live recordings from 1955 to early 1958.
H: But not including "Take Five"?
A: That was later.
H: Did you work with Irving Townsend at Columbia?
A: I hired Irving. Here's what happened. He was a very good writer and we needed someone to write ordinary liner notes on albums so, I brought him in to do that and then he started writing publicity and ad copy. Irving, who was a good clarinetist in the Goodman style, wanted to get into record production. So, I told him "Well look, sit tight and I'll sneak you in" and I did. Eventually, we got somebody else to do advertising and I moved Irving into another office next to me and he became my second assistant, after Cal Lampley.
H: Sounds like you had some pretty talented assistants, George.
A: Well, I did, but they also had to be nice guys.
H: Like Townsend?
A: Yeah, Irving was a nice guy.
H: After you left Columbia, Townsend went on to produce "Kind Of Blue" among others.
A: Yes, in fact that came about because Cal Lampley, who started producing Miles after I left and did "Porgy and Bess", came to work as my assistant at Warner Brothers. Irving then took over for Miles' recordings.
H: Tell me a little about how Miles came to Columbia.
A: "Oh my God! (laughs) Well, Miles kept bugging me during the period he was a junkie. He would say to me "Hey George, sign me up, I want to record for you."
H: Now, was this during the period that he was recording for Prestige?
A: Yes, but first Miles had gone to Paris in 1949 and that's when he became a junkie; before that, he was clean even though he hung out with Bird. When he came back he was in rough shape. Then he started coming out of it and I just kept putting him off because I didn't want to deal with a guy I knew was a junkie. He was very nice and pleasant and we had become friends, but I didn't want problems, so I kept stalling him. He was under contract to Prestige soon afterwards, anyway. In late 1953 he went home to East St. Louis and I heard that he'd kicked the habit. I began believing it when he started playing well again on Monday nights at Birdland. Miles kept bugging me to sign him, but meanwhile he'd re-signed with Prestige. I started to get interested, but his contract still had two years to go.
H: So, how could he suggest that you should sign him?
A: Well, Miles came up with this idea that I should talk to Bob Weinstock, the owner of Prestige. He said, "Tell Bob that since you're going to sign me at the end of my contract, he should let you record me now and put the masters aside and release them after the contract expires".
H: Now that sounds like a crazy idea.
A: Well, I'd never heard of a deal like that before but it sounded interesting. Then Miles took part in a pick up set at Newport and played "Round Midnight" as a second tune. And what a lineup...it was Percy Heath and Connie Kay, Thelonious, Mulligan, Zoot and Miles. "Round Midnight" was terrific and it really got the crowd who were hushed by the brilliant solo played by Miles. If there'd been a roof, the applause afterward would have torn it off. My brother, Aram, who was with me said, "Listen, after tonight the word is going to get around that Miles is back and somebody will grab him if you don't". So, it took a couple of months to work out the deal but we got him.
H: So, this was a bit like an investment for you even though he still had recordings to do for Prestige?
A: Yes, and to protect my investment in Miles I went to my friends Jack Whittemore, and Bob Messinger at the Shaw Artists Agency who had just begun booking Miles. I told them that if they could continue booking Miles so that he could hold a group together then Columbia would support their bookings after Miles came over. They bought the idea.
H: What year was this?
A: Let's see, it was the summer of 1955. I told Miles that when he got a settled personnel for Jack and Bob to book and try to keep together that I would start recording him. Then one day he called me from Philadelphia and said "I've got a bunch that I think that I can keep together and the first couple of nights were great and can you come down?." So I went down that weekend and that was the first time I heard John Coltrane. A few weeks later we did the first recording sessions in New York. I had told Miles to hold the song "Round Midnight" for me and don't record it for Weinstock because that was going to be the name of the first album. Miles said to me "We'll do that later" and I said OK, since we had a year and a half to go. Well, when Miles finally recorded the "Round Midnight" it was not in the same format as the performance that I heard at Newport. I speculate that it is quite probable that Miles and Gil Evans had gotten together in the interim because I had talked to them about doing "Miles Ahead". Miles may have told Gil about my idea to have him do "Round Midnight" for the title of the first album, and Gil may have suggested "Hey, let me cast it a different way for you".
H: How can you be sure this happened?
A: I can't. This is all conjecture on my part based on people saying that Gil had done this. But I had no knowledge of it. Gil was not at the session and I don't remember any paper at the session either. I just assumed that Miles had just been playing it differently after Newport.
H: So, what was next?
A: Well, the second album was a problem. I knew I couldn't keep releasing the quintet because Weinstock would be recording the same guys, and even though I recorded them first, there'd be about four Prestige albums on the market by the same quintet before I could release "Round Midnight." And of course, apart from the contract restriction, I told Weinstock that I wouldn't release an album right on top of him and crush his sales, because he had been very cooperative.
H: Why did Miles want to come to Columbia?
A: After Columbia started LP, we became the hottest label in jazz. Miles saw what was going on, so he kept after me because he knew that if he were successful on Columbia that would be far better for him than any other label he could be with. Debbie Ishlon, who was in charge of publicity, had become a jazz fan and supported the jazz releases just as hard as the pop stuff; that impressed him and he knew he was on the right track.
H: Were any of these early recordings in stereo? What about "Miles Ahead" ?
A: "Miles Ahead" was the first, but we had no realistic expectation of releasing it in stereo because that was still an experiment and home playback equipment was still years away. We had only one 3-track machine, and we put those reels away for future use, and just concentrated on the monaural release. Miles had to over-dub some of this solos, and with only one stereo machine we couldn't make a true 3-track composite of those portions for the future, although recently those tapes were found and re-mixed fairly successfully by Mark Wilder and Phil Schaap for the big "Miles and Gil" box set which just won three Grammys.
H: What did you think about new advancements when they came along like multi-track track recording and so on?
A: I thought it was great because it gave us a lot of flexibility in the recording. The basic result was all for the good.
H: So, you embraced the new technology?
A: Definitely, but I'm not a fan of sixteen tracks or anything like that. If you know what you are doing then you don't need sixteen tracks.
H: At some point it becomes messy.
A: Yes, in fact I'm sorry I recently did a recording on a 24 track machine and it is so difficult to edit without getting sound bleeding into the wrong microphone and so forth. I should have told the engineer, "Hey, let's keep it simple". I would have been glad to record straight to two-track.
H: What about Sonny Rollins? How did he come to RCA?
A: Sonny was a special situation. He and I had become very good friends during the period that he was with the Max Roach / Clifford Brown Quintet.
H: When they were on Mercury?
A: That's right, very good recordings too. I got talking to Sonny between sets and he was a very serious, slow talking person then as he is now. He was also very shy which was odd because he was such a big formidable looking guy. His nickname was "Newk" after Don Newcombe, the Dodger's pitcher, who was a big hulking guy.
H: I'll be darned, so that's where that Blue Note title "Newk's Time" comes from?
A: That's right.
H: So, when did you hook up with him on RCA?
A: Well, you know the story about him dropping out for awhile. The story was that he got shook when he heard Coltrane. He started to play on the upper reaches of the Williamsburg Bridge - he lived on the Brooklyn end at 5 Willoughby Street. Ralph Berton heard him and published an article about this mysterious music coming from the top of the bridge. Sonny was not on the scene at all. He didn't play anywhere and all of a sudden he popped up with a quartet that included Jim Hall on guitar and Bob Cranshaw on bass ; the drummer would change from time to time. It was an engagement that lasted about a month and a half or two months at the Jazz Gallery, down in Greenwich Village, which was a new club which failed not long after Sonny closed there. This was in the fall of 1960 . Everyone was excited that Sonny was back now. He was managed by Monte Kay. I told Monte that I was interested in Sonny. I renewed my friendship with Sonny with whom I'd had many intelligent conversations, which was not all that common in jazz clubs at the time. So, I told Monte, "Hey let's work out a deal".
H: So, how did you structure it?
A: Well, Monte had people bidding from several record companies, and he was driving a hard bargain. I offered him a deal that included a $90,000 advance. The key was that half would be paid just before the New Year and the other half just after. Sonny signed the contract on December 30th and we gave him the check and told him to deposit it immediately. He saved a bundle on taxes that way.
H: How did the title of Sonny's first album for you at RCA come about? Did you actually go down to the Williamsburg Bridge and hear him play or just read about it?
A: No, I just read about it. I decided right away that his first RCA album would be called "The Bridge" - not only referring to the bridge itself but also the bridge from Sonny's past to his future.
H: Did you produce "Now's the Time" with Sonny?
A: Yes, I produced all of Sonny's records on RCA.
H: And what about Bob Prince? Wasn't he listed as the producer on some of those records?
A: This is one of the things that has always puzzled people. Bob was another nice guy who had worked for me at Columbia and Warner Brothers. As manager of Popular Artists & Repertoire at RCA, I was swamped at the time so I had him do parts of two sessions with Sonny and almost all of another. My boss, Bob Yorke, said "We don't have any provisions for that kind of free-lance help, so just put Bob down on the paperwork as producer and then we can justify paying him." No producer credits were listed at the time, so I put Bob down instead of myself even for a session where he wasn't there so he could be paid enough.
A: Yeah, and then years later somebody comes along a looks in the files and says "Hey, George Avakian didn't produce those sessions." If I had been asked to produce the transfers to CD, of course I would have credited Bob as co-producer, just as I credited Cal Lampley for his assistance in the CD version I made, in 1994, of "Miles Ahead" because he had handled the over-dubbing session for me.
H: One last question George, with respect to producing. What, in your opinion, is the essence of the job of a producer?
A: Ah, I've finally distilled it to basically this: The job of a producer is to present the artist in a way that best serves the artist, the record company and the public. That is, to bring everybody together in the best possible circumstances and satisfy all three interests.
Time: Tuesday, 7pm – 8:30pm
See you there and welcome to the Jazz Museum in Harlem family!