George Avakian and Anahid Ajemian: An Introduction

By Matt Snyder
May 10, 2016
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
The Avakians
George Avakian and Anahid Ajemian at Basin Street, watching the Benny Goodman Orchestra

Photograph by Bernard Seeman, 1951

Music For Moderns: The Partnership of George Avakian and Anahid Ajemian, a forthcoming exhibition at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, tells the story of two remarkable figures in American music.

George Avakian is a former music producer and manager who helped redefine the recording industry of the mid-twentieth century while ushering to the world an enormous variety of popular and artistic music. Over a sixty year career, he produced some of the greatest recordings ever made, including landmark albums by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Benny Goodman, Charles Lloyd, and Keith Jarrett. His clients among popular singers were no less remarkable and included Johnny Mathis, Edith Piaf, and Doris Day. 

Avakian's accomplishments behind the scenes, however, were just as important: his work on the first jazz reissue program on Columbia Records effectively established the “jazz canon,” or the corpus of key early recordings of jazz from the 1920s and early 1930s that came to be regarded as definitive; he was at the forefront of the technical shift from 78 rpm singles to the 33⅓ long playing album, a transition that triggered a massive expansion of the recording industry; and he worked tirelessly on behalf of musical exchange between the United States and the former Soviet Union, efforts for which he received recognition and high honors from both nations.  

George Avakian in Tbilisi, 1962.

This photograph of Avakian was taken in Tbilisi, the capitol of then-Soviet Georgia, during Benny Goodman's 1962 tour of the Soviet Union, the first of the country by an American jazz band. Avakian initiated the tour, which paved the way for future visits

Anahid Ajemian, who married Avakian in 1948, is a former violinist who dedicated her career to the performance, recording, and promotion of new music. As a soloist; in a duo with her sister, the pianist Maro Ajemian; and as a founding member of the Composers String Quartet, she was responsible for the premieres, the first recordings, or the commissioning of new compositions by some of the giants of twentieth century music, including John Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, Milton Babbitt, and Elliott Carter.

Maro and Anahid Ajemian

This is one of the earliest promotional photographs of Maro and Anahid Ajemian, taken around 1948. Their solo careers were well underway by this time, and as a duo they fearlessly explored both traditional and contemporary repertoire. Image ID: 5649312

Music For Moderns: The Partnership of George Avakian and Anahid Ajemian will explore the careers of these unique figures and their work with of some of the most important artists of the twentieth century. It will also explore the ways in which their careers overlapped and informed each other. Future blog posts for this exhibition will discuss specific episodes in their careers, as well as particular artists and their associations with Avakian or Ajemian (or both). The exhibition opens on June 21.