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Harlem Speaks Honors Renowned Producer George Avakian

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 PostPosted: Fri Feb 02, 2007 10:58 pm    Post subject: Harlem Speaks Honors Renowned Producer George Avakian Reply with quote Back to top

Harlem Speaks Honors Renowned Producer George Avakian Producer Feb. 8th at 6:30 PM
Posted: 2007-02-01

The Jazz Museum in Harlem
104 East 126th Street
New York, NY 10035
212 348-8300

George Avakian, Producer Feb. 8, 2007 6:30 pm
Bill Hughes, Trombonist Feb. 22, 2007 6:30 pm

On February 8, 2007, Harlem Speaks welcomes legendary producer George Avakian.

George Avakian was born in 1919 in Armavir, Russia, to Armenian parents. He attended Yale University, where in 1937 he met the early jazz scholar/collector and Down Beat columnist Marshall Stearns, who was then working on his Ph.D. in English literature. Avakian immediately became part of a small group that would come to his apartment every Friday and listen to early records by Armstrong, Ellington, Smith, Beiderbecke, the “Chicagoans” and more. Avakian formed his mature tastes here, and the experience would quickly bring him to record Chicago Jazz, a packet of six 78-rpm records for Decca, and soon after, launch the Hot Jazz Classics albums at Columbia, all done while still at Yale.

When Life magazine ran a major article in August 1938 about the history and roots of swing, Ted Wallerstein, soon to become the first president of Columbia Records under its new parent CBS, had an idea: Why not reissue some of the records referred to in the Life story? Wallerstein moved to Columbia in late 1938, and he asked Avakian to research the masters and assemble a series of 78-rpm albums for $25 a week in pay. The 20-year-old Avakian became the first “authoritative” person to review the short history of jazz up to 1940 and nominate a fundamental canon of indispensable classics that could be heard by a wide audience. His selections included the Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens, the now familiar Beiderbecke and Smith classics, and basic Fletcher Henderson and Ellington collections. In the process, he also became the first producer to discover and issue unreleased alternate takes. His choices would influence the basic writing about jazz at a critical time when the music was beginning to be seriously written about.

In 1951, Avakian expanded these albums to the LP format to create the famous four-volume Louis Armstrong Story and other LPs. Once in general circulation, they would remain in print until the advent of the CD and have an immense impact for generations to come as new listeners came to jazz.

After the war in 1946, Avakian accepted Wallerstein's invitation to join the Columbia production staff. He would remain there until early 1958, during which time he achieved the milestones that continue to define his career-the Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy/Fats Waller sessions, Ellington At Newport in 1956, the Dave Brubeck quartet sessions with Paul Desmond, LPs by Buck Clayton, Eddie Condon, J. J. Johnson & Kai Winding, Errol Garner, Mahalia Jackson, and other notable projects.

He also signed Miles Davis, which also brought John Coltrane to Columbia in his prime.

In the summer of 1955, Avakian issued the first and perhaps best LP sampler ever, I Like Jazz, a capsule jazz history, intelligently annotated, that sold for only $1 and served as a powerful marketing tool showcasing the Columbia catalog. As chief of Columbia's pop album and international divisions and through a combination of influential reissues and new sessions, he made Columbia the most powerful force in jazz among the majors.

In 1959 he moved to Warner Bros., where two of his closest former Columbia colleagues, Jim Conkling and Hal Cook, were laying the foundations that would make the label a power in the industry. Avakian joined Warner with a mandate to build a strong pop catalog for the new label, an assignment that cut his activity in jazz to virtually nothing, although he did manage to sign drummer Chico Hamilton.

When Conkling's contract was up in 1962, Avakian was offered the presidency of WB Records. But a desire to remain close to production and to stay as far away from Los Angeles as possible led him to accept a position at RCA Victor, where he was brought in to improve the company's sagging pop album sales.

Avakian found few jazz artists available to RCA. But Paul Desmond was still with the Brubeck quartet but a free agent for recording purposes. Avakian signed him and turned out a series of extraordinary albums. He also turned to trumpeter Al Hirt, a solid if commercial name on the edge of the jazz world. Then Avakian signed Sonny Rollins, and the contract produced, among other things, The Bridge and a pairing of Rollins and Coleman Hawkins.

By the end of 1963, Avakian decided he would never work for a large company again, and left recording almost entirely except for occasional associations with small jazz labels such as Chiaroscuro Records and independent productions for Columbia and Atlantic. He managed Charles Lloyd, and then Keith Jarrett, who joined Lloyd in February 1966 when the group played an East Third Avenue club called Slug's, where Lee Morgan was later stabbed to death by his wife.

In recent years, he has responded to invitations from Columbia Legacy to return to reissues, but with an important difference: now the reissues he produced and expanded (Armstrong Plays Handy) or to which he contributed annotations (Miles Davis And Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings) involve many of the classic sessions he initiated during Columbia's golden age in the '50s.

As Columbia's one bona fide living legend executive, Avakian's knowledge of the company's archives is as deep as it is detailed and personal. He personifies a glorious period in the first two decades of the company's modern history and, along with Mitch Miller, stands as its most illustrious living contributor.

Trombonist Bill Hughes, or “Mr. B” as he's affectionately called by the younger members, joined the Count Basie Orchestra in September, 1953 on a recommendation by the legendary saxophonist/flautist Frank Wess. Hughes will be the guest of Harlem Speaks on February 22, 2007. A 1952 product of Howard University School of Pharmacy and self- taught trombonist, Hughes had previously performed with Wess in variously sized groups and in a house band Wess led at the world famous Howard Theater in Washington, DC. It was at that same time Bill was invited to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra but chose Basie where he would be more comfortable with friends like Frank, Eddie Jones and Benny Powell.

Hughes played the tenor trombone in a three-man section, which included Henry Coker and Benny. This section was at one time acclaimed as the best trombone section in jazz and their names appeared in several polls then popular in jazz magazines. During this period Hughes traveled the world with Basie, including the very first trip to Europe for the orchestra. It was also during this time period Basie was to record several of his timeless hits including ”Shiny Stockings”, “Corner Pocket” and the famous rendition of the classic “April In Paris.”

From September 1953 until September of 1957 Hughes performed continuously with The Count Basie Orchestra. He took a six year break from touring to help raise his family and returned to the road in July 1963 where he has since remained. He took over the directorship of the ensemble in 2004.

Reggie Workman, Harlem Speaks guest on January 25, 2007 has long been one of the most technically gifted of all bassists, a brilliant player whose versatile style fits into all jazz settings. He played piano, tuba, and euphonium early on but settled on bass in the mid- '50s. After working regularly with Gigi Gryce (1958), Red Garland, and Roy Haynes, he was a member of the John Coltrane Quartet for much of 1961, participating in several important recordings as well as touring. One of their European television broadcasts (with added guest Eric Dolphy) is currently available on video (The Coltrane Legacy). After Jimmy Garrison took his place with Coltrane, Workman became a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (1962-1964) and was in the groups of Yusef Lateef (1964-65), Herbie Mann, and Thelonious Monk (1967).

Since that time, Workman has been both an educator, most readily associated with The New School, while also serving on the faculty of The University of Michigan, and a working musician, and has played with numerous legendary jazz musicians including Max Roach, Art Farmer, Mal Waldron, David Murray, Sam Rivers, and Andrew Hill. In the 1980s, Workman began leading his own group, the Reggie Workman Ensemble. He also began a collaboration with pianist Marilyn Crispell that lasted into the next decade. During the '90s, Workman was not only active with his own ensemble, but also in Trio Three, with Andrew Cyrille and Oliver Lake, and Reggie Workman's Grooveship and Extravaganza.

In recognition of Reggie Workman's international performances and recordings spanning over 40 years, he was named a Living Legend by the African-American Historical and Cultural Museum in his hometown of Philadelphia; he is also a recipient of the Eubie Blake Award.

During his expansive interview with JMIH executive Director Loren Schoenberg, Workman expressed himself with a largely philosophical viewpoint, peppered with telling and at times humorous anecdotes. As a young man, Workman bought a hearse to transport his bass as well as the other instruments, which at times included an upright piano. He recalled making these gigs with Archie Shepp and Lee Morgan at various times. Much time was spent talking about the musical community in which he was raised in and around Philadelphia. Workman and his peers, which included John Coltrane, all knew each other so well that their music was just a further expression of their brotherhood. He recalled that the energy level in the Coltrane Quartet was so intense that it took him a week to be able to do anything more than do the job at night, rest up, practice and go to work. One of the most moving moments of the evening came when Workman recalled a night in California while he was a member of Art Blakey's band. Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine came into the club on opening night and sat in the front row. Blakey dropped his patented drum patterns and, as Workman put it, “no one who heard Art play that night will ever forget it. He brought the music so high..”, and that's as far as he could go. The sheer sense memory of that evening brought not only Workman but many in the room to tears. Never content to rest on his estimable laurels, Workman spoke with great enthusiasm about his teaching and about the ambitious series of concerts he is undertaking in February at St. Peter's Church.

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Posted by: Jim Eigo, Jazz Promo Services
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