George Avakian, who as an executive and producer at Columbia Records in the 1940s and ’50s created a successful formula for packaging jazz as popular music and who signed Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Johnny Mathis to the label, among others, died November 22. He was 98. [Photo above by Ian Clifford]
In the early 1950s, George was a dynamic force in the record business. During those years, the 33 1/3 long-playing album format had emerged along with new recording and playback technologies. The revolution gave singers and soloists more commercial power and revived the American songbook. By signing Davis to Columbia in 1954, George dramatically elevated the trumpeter’s status and earning power, making him the first jazz superstar in the 12-inch LP era. By bringing Dave Brubeck into the Columbia fold that same year, he gave the jazz piano trio and quartet high-culture legitimacy. And by signing Mathis in ’54, George launched the career of the label’s most romantic and iconic vocalist.
I interviewed George several times over the years—for JazzWax in 2010, for my 2012 book, Why Jazz Happened, and for the liner notes to the Columbia box set Miles Davis; The Original Mono Recordings (go here).
Below is my complete JazzWax interview with George:
JazzWax: When did you first fall in love with jazz?
George Avakian: In 1935, at age 16. I was supposed to be sleeping but instead I was up sneaking a listen to NBC on the radio. I first heard broadcasts from New York’s Savoy Ballroom. But the music didn’t resemble Yes We Have No Bananas and other novelty stuff of the day. It was the music of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong.
JW: Why did the music appeal to you?
GA: It reminded me of the lively dance music, ballads and other folk music that my parents had brought to America from Armenia and played in the house. I think that’s why many European immigrant families identified with jazz. There was that common ethnic bond.
JW: Did your obsession with late-night radio grow?
GA: Yes. As I became more deeply interested in the musicians with the strange-sounding names, I began to listen regularly on Saturdays to NBC’s Let’s Dance program, which came on at 10:30 p.m. in New York and lasted for hours. NBC used to divide the broadcast among three different types of music, so there would be something for everyone. There was sweet band music by Kel Murray, Latin by Xavier Cugat and dance band music by Benny Goodman.
JW: By the summer of 1935, Goodman’s status had changed, didn’t it?
GA: Oh, yes. When Goodman went out on the road to California with his band that year, his music’s popularity died as he traveled west. People just weren’t interested. But when the band reached the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in August 1935, the roof came off there was so much excitement. NBC’s Let’s Dance broadcasts had built an audience for him, Benny was so popular out there that he didn’t return to New York for a year.
JW: How did you feel about Goodman?
GA: I was more than a fan. When I heard that Goodman was scheduled to return to New York in September 1936, I saw an opportunity. I was editor of my high school newspaper at the Horace Mann School for Boys. I decided I was going to interview Mr. Goodman. His record of King Porter Stomp had been No. 1 on “Your Hit Parade” for weeks. Imagine, a composition originally written in 1903 by Jelly Roll Morton ends up being the biggest selling record in the country. The question was how to reach someone like Benny Goodman.
JW: What did you do?
GA: I told a classmate what I wanted to do. He said that his mother was on the Democratic Committee in New York and that its president was owner of the Hotel Pennsylvania, where Benny was due to play for an extended period. My friend said that his mom might be able to arrange for me to interview him.
JW: What happened?
GA: I caught a break. The hotel’s owner agreed to put us together. In November, I interviewed Mr. Goodman in the hotel’s Manhattan Room. Benny enjoyed the experience so much that he told his band manager, “Take good care of George and his friend. They’re nice kids. Be sure they have a good table.” After the show, we were invited to hear the band rehearse pop tunes of the day for the following week’s Camel Caravan radio program.
JW: How was it?
GA: A thrill. And the musicians were so nice to us—probably because we responded immediately to requests for sandwiches [laughs].
JW: After you graduated from high school, you attended Yale. What did you study?
GA: English literature, which I had discovered years earlier by picking up a Sherlock Holmes story. When I asked the school librarian for more stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, she brought me a big thick book. I ate it up in about 10 days. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an English teacher or a journalist.
JW: In 1938, while at Yale, you wrote to Decca Records. Why?
GA: Yes, I did. And they responded a year later. I had been campaigning for jazz to be recorded and released like classical albums of the day. Back then, classical albums featured multiple 78-rpms that slid into sleeves. They also came with a booklet that featured beautiful photos and text describing the music and why the composer and performers were important.
JW: What did you write in your letter to Decca?
GA: I proposed that they do a series of jazz albums and start with tributes to the styles of the three cities that made jazz famous—New Orleans, Kansas City and Chicago.
JW: What was Decca’s response?
GA: Decca said in essence, “We don’t know quite what jazz in those cities is about but you seem to know so why don’t you go ahead and produce them.”
JW: Be careful what you wish for, right?
GA: I was excited. I was pretty close with the musicians from Chicago who had moved to New York during the Depression, like Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman [pictured] and Jimmy McPartland. I made that album first. But when time came to get paid, I found out that Decca was going to pay me only $75, which was less than it had cost me to go to Chicago and do one recording session with Jimmy McPartland.
JW: What happened?
GA: I decided I was in over my head. I told them to take the material I had outlined for the other two sets and to give them to the two people I thought would do the best job—Steve Smith for the New Orleans set and Dave Dexter for Kansas City. Smith was a collector who had started the United Hot Clubs of America. Dave had been the Kansas City Star’s crime reporter and knew all about the jazz scene there.
JW: What was your album called?
GA: Chicago Jazz, and it was the first jazz album ever recorded. It had six 10-inch 78-rpm discs, which meant a total of 12 songs. I wrote a 12-page booklet, which became the first jazz album liner notes. I produced those records between my sophomore and junior years at Yale in 1939 and 1940.
JW: Had you written to other record labels?
GA: Yes. And oddly enough, just after my Decca set came out, Columbia Records answered some of the letters I had written them about reissues. I had written the company after discovering Okeh Records over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1936.
JW: What happened?
GA: That fall, Julian Koenig, a friend of mine, had told his older brother, Lester, a senior at Dartmouth, that I was interested in swing music. Lester read the interview I had just done with Benny Goodman and said to Julian, “Ask George what he thinks of Louis Armstrong.”
JW: What did you say?
GA: I gave him an honest answer since I had been buying Louis’ Decca records: “Oh, he sings funny but he sure plays a lot of trumpet” [laughs]. Lester’s response was, “Gee, George has never heard the Okehs. I’m going to knock his ears off Thanksgiving weekend.”
JW: Did he?
GA: When he came home to New York for Thanksgiving, Lester invited me over and, wow, imagine out of the blue hearing West End Blues and all those other great classics of Armstrong’s. I said, “How can I get them?” Lester said, “You can’t. They’re out of print.” I said, “Who owns them?” He said, “Brunswick Records bought them up long ago and they’re sitting on them.”
JW: What did he suggest?
GA: Lester urged me to write to Brunswick. He said, “They’re in the phone book. But if you want to find out about the history of this music, you can’t do it in the U.S. because there are no books that will help you.” Jazz scholarship and jazz writing didn’t exist the way it does today.
JW: What was his suggestion?
GA: Lester said, “If you studied French at Horace Mann, then you must know enough to do this: Send an $8 money order to La Volta Music at 75 Boulevard Raspail in Paris and request two books.
JW: What were they?
GA: Charles Delaunay’s Hot Discography and Hugues Panassie’s Le Jazz Hot, a definitive guide to jazz musicians that explained why they were great. There was a summary at the end of each chapter telling you which records to buy. Of course, the records recommended were the European releases, but the book gave me a head start.
JW: Was Lester…
GA: That Lester Koenig? Yes. Lester went on to found Contemporary Records in California in 1951.
JW: Did you continue your interest in jazz at Yale?
GA: Yes. Coincidentally, Marshall Stearns, the leading authority on jazz history at the time and one of the most noted jazz critics, was studying literature at Yale. He lived in New Haven and had an open house every Friday night. He invited me to come over to listen to jazz records and talk about them. [Photo of Marshall Stearns by Walter Sanders for Life]
JW: How were those sessions?
GA: Extraordinary. For two years we got together to listen. Along the way, Marshall tired of writing his “Collector’s Corner” columns for Tempo magazine and asked me to take it on from time to time. That was a daunting task because I didn’t feel I had the authority to answer collectors’ mailed-in questions.
JW: Why did they write in?
GA: You have to understand, before the Internet, before jazz became popular, before large record stores and before entire sections of bookstores were devoted to jazz books, information about the music and even records were hard to find or didn’t exist.
JW: But records had been made for years.
GA: Yes, but records that went out of print stayed out of print. Before World War II, you had to learn about jazz by listening carefully to the records you could get your hands on, reading mostly French books on the subject, and by searching out experts.
JW: Did Stearns put you at ease about handling his column?
GA: He said, “You can do it. Just go into my closet and pick out the records you have to check out to answer readers’ questions.” So I did. In Tempo magazine, Marshall had his byline, and his address appeared at the bottom so people could write in with questions. When I took on the column, I had my address at Yale there, and I’d get letters addressed, “Dear Professor Avakian…” [laughs]. I was just a sophomore.
JW: When did Columbia Records answer your letters?
GA: Early in my junior year, right after my Chicago Jazz album for Decca came out. Ted Wallerstein, president of Columbia Records, asked me to come to the company’s factory in Bridgeport, CT, which was about 20 miles from Yale.
JW: What did he want?
GA: He wanted to talk about the possibility of a jazz reissue program. I figured he had read one of my letters, but that turned out not to be the case.
JW: How did you know that?
GA: At the meeting in Bridgeport with various company executives, it was clear Mr. Wallerstein had invited me there after seeing my Decca album. At the meeting, he asked the factory manager to choose a letter he had received urging Columbia to reissue classic jazz records the label owned. As the manager started to read the letter, I began to realize it was mine.
JW: What did you do?
GA: I interrupted to say that I might have been the writer of that letter.
JW: What happened?
GA: The manager looked at the bottom of the letter and said, “So you did—two years ago.” Mr. Wallerstein then asked me, “Did you get an answer, young man?” “Yes, sir,” I said. “What was the answer?” he asked. I said, “The letter said that the company’s advertising department in New York handles such matters and that I’d hear from them shortly.” [Illustration: Bridgeport by Jim Flora]
JW: What did Wallerstein say?
GA: He said, “Did you ever hear from them?” “No sir,” I said. Mr. Wallerstein said, “Well I’m hiring you at $25 a week to come to this factory and get all the test pressings you want, listen to them and put out all the albums you want according to the plans outlined in your letter—four albums at a time and then some singles for special releases.”
JW: What did you think?
GA: I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t wait to get started.
JW: Did all of this affect your schoolwork at Yale?
GA: It sure did. It knocked me off the dean’s list, but I graduated anyway. It gave me a punch line for my 90th birthday party last year. I said, “I’m upset that I got knocked off the dean’s list at Yale and that my grandchildren have better grades in college than I did when I graduated” [laughs].
JW: You graduated from Yale in 1941?
GA: Yes. Then I was drafted into the Army.
JW: What did you do in the Army?
GA: I ended up in New Guinea and then at the invasions of Leyte and Mindanao islands in the Philippines. I was fortunate. Even though I was a sergeant in the infantry, I wasn’t actually on the front lines. I was assigned to a rear-echelon unit. We did interpretations of aerial photos and reconnaissance work. It was an intelligence unit. I was discharged in February 1946, as a second lieutenant.
JW: What did you do when you arrived back in the U.S.?
GA: I came back by way of Los Angeles because I wanted to see my sister, who had married a colonel in the Air Corps. That visit led me to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker at Billy Berg’s club. The entire music scene was changing.
JW: Was it new to you?
GA: Yes and no. I had heard much of it already when I went up to Minton’s in Harlem on furloughs in New York. I also had hit the jam sessions in Greenwich Village and on 52d Street. So I was a little onto the scene by 1946. But hearing Gillespie and Parker was an experience.
JW: Was Billy Berg’s as empty as they say?
GA: Yes. I went there three times with Ross Russell of Dial Records. He was a terrific enthusiast for the music and was about to start recording Parker out there. At the club, there were never more than 12 people in the audience. Yet Parker and Gillespie played with enormous fervor.
JW: Who hired you at Columbia in 1946?
GA: Mr. Wallersein. He liked what I had done with Columbia’s reissue series, which had to be canceled when the Japanese army reached Malaysia and cut off the world’s supply of shellac. But he had liked my work. In 1941, after I was drafted, he had said to me, “If your father allows it, I’d like you to work for me after the war.” He knew that my father wanted me to go into my family business, which imported Oriental rugs.
JW: When you went to see Wallerstein after the war, did he remember you?
GA: He did. I visited him in early 1946, just after returning to New York. The first thing he asked me was, “Did you speak to your father?” I said, “Yes, sir, and here’s what he said: ‘You went to college and went into the Army and came back in one piece, thank God. Go enjoy yourself in the record business.’ My father also said that when I was ready to get serious about life, I’d join the family business [laughs].
JW: You started with Columbia in 1946?
JW: So, did you ever work in your family’s business?
GA: Yes, 25 years later. It was a great experience to work for Avakian Brothers and travel to Iran, Pakistan and India buying carpets. [Pictured: Aram Avakian of Avakian Brothers demonstrating how an Oriental rug is made, for a 1981 Milwaukee Sentinel article]
JW: You were at Columbia at the dawn of the LP era, yes?
GA: That’s right. Columbia introduced the LP in the spring of 1948. But jazz was really an afterthought and came later. Columbia invented the 12-inch LP for classical music, which ran long and had required multiple 78-rpms to fit all of the music of a symphony. The LP reduced the cost, weight and inconvenience of 78-rpm albums. The 10-inch LP was actually created by Columbia for pop music.
GA: Classical record albums were popular with listeners who could afford them. The next most lucrative genre was pop, so it made business sense that pop would receive the LP treatment next. Since pop songs were relatively short, the thinking at first was that the genre didn’t really need a 12-inch disc.
JW: There was a royalty issue as well, yes?
GA: Yes. A 10-inch LP meant fewer tracks—and fewer royalties to pay, which meant lower overhead. There were no royalties to pay on classical recordings. Once we decided to move forward with the 10-inch LP, we needed to create a complete catalog of pop LPs in a hurry. That was my job. I developed around 100 titles relatively quickly.
JW: What about jazz?
GA: There really wasn’t much of a strategy with the 10-inch LP for jazz at Columbia. At first, we just transferred the masters of 78-rpm discs onto the longer-playing discs. So the early 10-inch jazz LPs were just a collection of previously released 78-rpm singles. We didn’t start recording jazz for the 10-inch LP until later.
JW: Many people assume you were a jazz producer.
GA: That right—and it wasn’t the case. You have to remember that I was head of the pop music department. One day I came back from lunch and my secretary said a man from Europe had come in looking for me. She said he was very disappointed because he saw a sign on my door that said “Popular Album Department.” My secretary told me that the man had said, “I thought Mr. Avakian was in charge of the Jazz Department.” She had to explain to him that such a department didn’t exist at the label.
JW: When did you start to think about Miles Davis as a Columbia artist?
GA: When I heard Miles at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955. That was where I had made the decision that I was going to sign him to Columbia, despite the fact that he had been a junkie and all that.
JW: What did you hear at Newport?
GA: I heard and saw jazz’s first modern superstar. What struck me was that Miles was the best ballad player since Louis Armstrong. I was convinced that his ballad playing would appeal to the public on a very large scale. While his bebop playing had established his reputation among musicians and jazz bands, I knew that bebop would never connect on a large scale.
JW: Why not?
GA: It was ingenious music but far too complicated for the average ear and too hard for the mass market to follow the melodies.
JW: So Davis, to your ear, was a melody player?
GA: Absolutely. It’s really Miles‘ melodic playing that put him across with the public on a wide scale. That happened first with our album ‘Round About Midnight in 1956 and on an even bigger scale with Miles Ahead in 1957, which sold 1 million copies and established him internationally.
JW: But he was more than a jazz musician in your eyes?
GA: Yes. I viewed him as a much bigger figure, a pop-jazz star, if you will. But there was a problem. A few years earlier, when he was hung up on junk, I was astounded to find that he had worked live in front of the public only four to five weeks out of the year. No one wanted to hire him. He was too irresponsible and his habit was ruining him. He’d cancel out at the last minute, so club owners saw him as absolute poison.
JW: Why was playing live so important?
GA: To be a star on the level I had in mind, Miles had to perform constantly and consistently, not just a few weeks a year. Back then, before TV, cell phones and the Internet, the way you promoted yourself was in front of live audiences. If audiences liked you, they told others and bought your records. Clubs were affordable and convenient places to hear and see jazz musicians.
JW: What was the turning point for you?
GA: When Miles kicked his habit on his own and convinced me that he was going to stay off junk. After I heard him that day at Newport, my brother, who was standing with me, said, “George, stop worrying about signing Miles. You can go ahead. He’s back. You can hear that he’s back. You’ve been listening to him.” [Photo of Miles Davis’ hand by Irving Penn]
JW: So we have your brother partly to thank for Miles Davis on Columbia.
GA: That’s right [laughs].
JW: You waited just a bit though before signing him.
GA: I wanted to hear how consistent he was. So I went to hear him on Monday nights at Birdland. The club had an open mike night on that day, which meant musicians who weren’t on the bill could just show up and play.
JW; How was he?
GA: Miles was playing beautifully. I was convinced he was clean. I told him to come in to talk to me about the contract he had been bugging me about for some time.
JW: What did you tell him when you met?
GA: The first thing I said was, “Look, you’ve got to get a group together and hold onto the musicians.” Consistency was important then. You wanted musicians who knew the material and knew how to interact with each other. That’s where the magic was. But retaining the same players also was important for audiences. When you built and promoted a group, that group was what audiences wanted to see and hear. [Photo of Miles Davis by Don Hunstein]
JW: But Davis in 1956 was signed to Prestige Records.
GA: That’s right. Miles’ idea was I should record him and hold the Columbia releases until his Prestige contract expired. By then, he said, he would be even better known and we could release the Columbia recordings right away. His point was that we’d get the publicity going instantly instead of waiting the customary three months for an album to be marketed. [Photo of Miles Davis by Esmond Edwards/CTSImages.com]
JW: But you had a different idea.
GA: We had the same concept in mind but I had a slightly different twist on it.
JW: Which was?
GA: I wanted to sign Miles right away—before he got bigger. Which meant he had to get out of his Prestige contract. Or wrap it up faster. He still owed the label four albums.
JW: What did you come up with?
GA: I decided that Miles should record enough material to complete the remaining four Prestige albums, to finish up his deal with the label right away. Prestige’s owner Bob Weinstock [pictured] knew that Miles was going to sign with Columbia, so there was no real expectation that he would re-sign with Prestige. It was just a question of whether that contract ended sooner or later.
JW: How did you make such an arrangement worthwhile to Weinstock?
GA: By recording all four album’s worth of material at once [in May and October 1956], Prestige would have an inventory it could release—either one at a time or all at once—starting when our first album came out. Bob immediately saw the value.
JW: And what was that value?
GA: That the Prestige releases, with the exact same group, would be riding Columbia’s marketing coattails. As I spent money to promote Miles’ Columbia records, Bob would be able to release his Prestige albums simultaneously. He would wind up with greater sales than if Miles was still with Prestige all that time. In other words, he’d be getting a free promotional ride for his releases.
JW: Quite a brilliant move on your part.
GA: Look, I could have bought out Weinstock, but that’s not what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to hurt Weinstock, who was a pretty decent guy. This approach would help both of us and Miles.
JW: What did Davis think?
GA: He got it. But the plan was predicated on Miles continuing to hold onto the same group of musicians.
JW: Which meant you had another challenge.
GA: What’s that?
JW: Making sure Davis performed frequently and regularly at clubs with the same group.
GA: Yes, that’s right. And he had a terrible reputation for not showing up and for leaving owners hung up with a financial loss.
JW: What did you do?
GA: I was pretty friendly with Jack Whittemore of Shaw Artists Corp., the second or third largest booking agency for jazz musicians.
JW: What did you say?
GA: I said, “Jack, if I sign Miles, he promises to keep the same group together and to keep it going if you can keep on booking him, despite the obstacles you’ve encountered in the past.” I said, “At the end of the year, when publicity builds in support of his first album [‘Round About Midnight], I promise it’s going to be big because I plan to spend a lot of money to establish Miles Davis.” [Photo of Miles Davis by Don Hunstein]
JW: What did Whittemore say?
GA: Jack agreed and Miles agreed. Within a few days in 1955, Miles had a lineup of musicians ready for touring. Sonny Rollins was on tenor saxophone, which was great because I had become very friendly with Sonny and had already tried to record him.
JW: What happened?
GA: Sonny was still under contract to another label. Then disaster struck when Sonny quit Miles’ group. He got an offer from a Chicago club to play with a local rhythm section for four times the money that he could make with Miles. He also liked the idea that he’d be based in Chicago and wouldn’t have to tour. He had already kicked his habit. [Photo of Sonny Rollins by Francis Wolff]
JW: Who did Miles use in his place?
GA: Cannonball Adderley. But then Cannonball quit, too. He had been teaching in the Florida school system and had tenure. He said, “I can be more assured of my future if I keep my tenure as a teacher than traveling as a jazz musician.” He went in that direction.
JW: So what did Miles do?
GA: Miles called in the early fall of 1955 and said he had a new saxophonist for the quintet. It was John Coltrane. I had heard Coltrane at the open mike sessions at Birdland. He was just one of several young musicians there, but at the time he didn’t make a huge impression on me. When Miles hired John, we made this plan: Miles asked me to come down to Philadelphia and listen to the new group. He said, “If you like it, I have a booking at the Cafe Bohemia in New York and we can record us then.” [Photo of John Coltrane by Francis Wolff]
JW: What did you think?
GA: Well I certainly did like it because on the third set, Coltrane played a long up-tempo solo that knocked me out. This was the fall of 1955, when we got started recording ‘Round About Midnight.
JW: You had a secret formula for ‘Round About Midnight, didn’t you?
GA: Well, it wasn’t so secret. It was an overall concept I had in mind when Columbia switched to the 12-inch LP. The switch to the larger disc size for pop and jazz came when I was able to lower manufacturing costs, which made the two-cent royalty fee easier to absorb and still earn a profit. But on the longer records, I realized albums had to be programmed carefully.
JW: What did you do?
GA: I wanted the first track to make listeners glad they bought the album. The last track on the first side was designed to make the person turn the record over. The last track on the second side had to send listeners back to the store to say, “Hey, Mr. Dealer, I want another by this guy. What have you got?”
JW: In essence, you were treating an LP like a Broadway show.
GA: A 12-inch LP no longer could be simply a collection of singles. It was a journey, with a start and a finish. People put it on and sat down expecting a performance, a range of moods, a sequence.
JW: What did you think of ‘Round About Midnight?
GA: I thought it was great. We recorded that in late 1955 and the spring of 1956, in between the Prestige recording schedule and Miles’ tour dates. But my mind was already thinking about Davis’ next album. Record-buyers think in terms of individual albums. Producers think in terms of building an artist’s body of work.
JW: What were you thinking while ‘Round About Midnight was being recorded?
GA: I was already thinking about what I was going to do for an even bigger follow-up. That’s how the idea for Miles Ahead: Miles Davis + 19 with Gil Evans came about. I wanted to do something different that would establish Miles as a soloist and frame him in an orchestral setting. By the time we had the first album with the quintet completed, the second album, with Gil Evans, was already underway.
JW: How did Davis tie in?
GA: The Jazz-Classical Music Society had a concert schedule all rehearsed but it had to be canceled. The key piece was a work by Gunther Schuller for brass and percussion. But when Dimitri Mitropoulos [pictured], conductor of the New York Philharmonic, saw the score, he told Gunther that he wanted to do it with the Philharmonic. Well, you can’t perform an original piece that the Philharmonic is going to do at the same time. You’re trying to attract the same audience. So the Jazz-Classical Music Society’s concert was canceled.
JW: Did Davis hear it?
GA: The group also had jazz pieces that were written and arranged by J.J. Johnson and John Lewis, and included parts for trumpet and flugelhorn. We were going to record the music. John and J.J. asked me if I thought Miles would be willing to record with them, since he was signed to Columbia. So I asked Miles and he accepted enthusiastically. I also invited Miles to hear Dimitri Mitropoulos conduct one of Gunther’s compositions with members of the Philharmonic for the recording. When Miles asked me in the studio if he could play with Dimitri’s group, I asked the conductor during a break. [Photo of Miles Davis by Don Hunstein]
JW: What did Miles Davis think as he listened to Dimitri Mitropoulos conduct Gunther Schuller’s brass work in 1956?
GA: Miles sat there in awe. He’d already heard Mitropoulos conduct a Kurt Weill violin concerto at Town Hall in 1954.
JW: Did Davis get to play in the studio with Mitropoulos conducting that day?
GA: Almost. When Miles came into the studio at the end of the first break, he said to me in that raspy voice, “George, do you think he’ll let me play with his band if you ask him?” So after the next break, when Mitropoulos was returning to the studio after the playbacks, I said to him, “There’s a very fine young trumpet player who’s going to be recording for me. He hopes one day he might be able to play with the Philharmonic. Can he play with the group?” [Pictured: Miles Davis and George Avakian]
JW: What did Mitropoulos say?
GA: Mitropoulos was very polite as always. He nodded his head sagely and said, “Yes, yes, perhaps,” and walked out. But his response wasn’t a yes or a no.
JW: What did Davis say?
GA: Miles never said another word. He knew that Mitropoulos had other things to think about and that he was generous enough to say what he did and that it was not a good idea to bug him. If Miles had asked me to ask again to get clarity, I would have. But he didn’t.
JW: So from that jazz brass ensemble Davis did accompany, you wanted to create a similar one for him on an album?
GA: Yes. Miles and I agreed that the orchestral setting would be perfect for his sound. Remember, I thought of Miles essentially as a ballad player who could communicate instantly with large audiences. He was more impressive doing that than any of his in-person performances, especially after I signed him.
JW: Did Davis agree with you?
GA: Miles realized that the plan I suggested would be very, very good for him, commercially. So the whole thing came together very, very well.
JW: You were happy with the Miles Ahead sessions?
GA: Everything clicked and we sold a ton of records. The album established Miles as a major international jazz star. The publicity kept rolling in. Deborah Ishlon at Columbia had done a terrific job with Dave Brubeck and the return of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, both of whom had been in the doldrums for a while.
JW: You also worked with Miles to create a new look or image.
GA: Miles looked great. He had his group wear black silk suits with black neckties and white shirts. They looked terrific. That meant a great deal, because up until then, jazz musicians wore whatever they felt like wearing. Frankly, when Miles was on junk he looked like a bum. He went down hill so badly that he didn’t shave or bathe. He was falling apart. He finally got it together when he realized that he was ruining his ability to earn a living. [Photo of Miles Davis by Robert W. Kelley for Life]
JW: Did you coach Davis on his formal look?
GA: Let’s put it this way. Miles established the look and then I persuaded him to standardize it, which I didn’t have to work hard to do. He kept that meticulous look for quite a while. But by the 1960s, he was well established and public would have come to see him if he had been in a bathrobe [laughs].
JW: So the look was good for Davis and good for business.
GA: Yes but I didn’t apply this to all of the jazz musicians on the label. It was just Miles I wanted to appear before the public that way because he did it himself and I realized, hey, this is what’s going to get him into Time and Newsweek and break him out of the jazz category. [Photo of Miles Davis by Herb Snitzer]
JW: In general, did you have a vision for an album first and then discuss it with an artist or the other way around?
GA: Most of the time. Sometimes there was no need to discuss the concept because the repertoire spoke for itself. But the more complicated things were, of course, the more they had to be discussed in advance.
JW: How did the idea for Sketches of Spain come about?
GA: Gil Evans and I were going to make an album based on Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land. I had already recorded the composition with Calvin Jackson, the jazz pianist. My vision for Gil was an album with exotic, beautiful music from all over the world. Each track would be influenced by music from a different country. Out of that concept came the inspiration for Sketches of Spain.
JW: How did the concept begin?
GA: One of the pieces for the Lotus Land project representing Spain was from a pre-war 78-rpm record I had by Pastora Pavón Cruz [pictured], one of the great flamenco singers of 1920s and 1930s. Her stage name was La Niña de los Peines, or “Woman with the Combs.” It was a beautiful procession-like piece with these long valve-less trumpet instruments and drums.
JW: Was it used on Sketches?
GA: It was the basis for Saeta on Sketches. But remember, Gil’s arrangement of the song was written before Sketches because we originally had been planning to do it as part of Gil’s Lotus Land album.
JW: So why wasn’t Lotus Land recorded?
GA: Because in 1958 I left Columbia to start Warner Brothers Records. Gil took the one Spanish-influenced arrangement for Lotus Land and developed it into an entire suite for Miles.
JW: Looking back, you had quite a run at Columbia Records.
GA: It was a great experience. Though I was in charge of producing pop music records there, I think we did quite a great deal to make jazz more popular without compromising its heart or integrity. Everything had changed over this period of time, the music and the technology. My first recording session at Decca in 1939 was recorded on a machine powered by a series of pullies because the power wasn’t steady enough to turn the turntable consistently [laughs].
JW: Do you still have the sign from your office door?
GA: [Laughs] Yes, actually I do. It’s a gray plaque with white lettering that says, “Popular Album Department.”
JazzWax clips: For more on Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, check out Michael Steinman’s fine post at JazzLives here. And here’s a fascinating clip featuring soundless film images of that night…
Fifty-three years later, Miles Ahead continues to amaze and thrill. The concept remains daring and the execution is at times shy and vulnerable and at other times assertive. Dig the spectacular beauty and spare modernity in this clip of Miles Davis on flugelhorn and Gil Evans conducting Dave Brubeck’s The Duke in advance of a CBS-TV appearance in April 1959…