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3rd July
2008

First Published in The New York Sun, July 3, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

The Fourth of July marks the anniversary of the independence of America, a time to reflect on the greatness of our nation and all sorts of high-minded civic concerns. For me, however, it’s an opportunity to reflect on another aspect of America’s greatness and ingenuity, the great jazz music pioneered by Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong’s birthday traditionally is celebrated on the Fourth of July. It is said that Satchmo thought that he was born on the Fourth of July of 1900. But research since he died has shown he actually was born on August 4, 1901.

But never mind. Armstrong’s career is so important that the fiction of his birth date is a convenient reminder of the contribution he made to American culture. He was the central figure in the creation of America’s great indigenous music form, jazz.

There is a key figure in Armstrong’s career who still is alive and has a great story to tell of Satchmo, and his own story of American ingenuity and his contribution to the music industry.

George Avakian, a spry and energetic 89-year-old, is my neighbor here in Riverdale. As a student at the Bronx’s Horace Mann School in the late 1930s, he came up with what was then a revolutionary idea - the reissue of collections of music of the past.

“I listened to Armstrong on the Decca label, where he recorded then, and I didn’t know about the existence of the old records such as the “Hot Fives” and “Hot Sevens.” These are the seminal Armstrong recordings that launched his career as a star in the emerging world of jazz. The older albums of great stars simply weren’t available. It never occurred to industry executives that these recordings could be of any value.

Mr. Avakian recalls, “I had a classmate, Julian Koenig, who had a brother, Lester Koenig, a record producer, and Julian invited me to his house to listen to the great Armstrong records of the past. Well, I was floored. I was 16, 17 at the time and the fact that I couldn’t buy these records inspired me to start writing letters to Columbia Records which owned the rights. I suggested that they begin a program of reissues, a concept that was unknown.”

But, according to Mr. Avakian, “these letters were ignored. When I was a freshman at Yale in 1938, I got a reply back from the factory saying that they thought my ideas were interesting, but that wasn’t their department, and I should expect to hear from the advertising department in New York. They never wrote back.

“In 1940, on Washington’s Birthday when I had no classes I went to the Columbia factory, which was about 25 miles from Yale. I was invited by the president of the company, Mr. Edward Wallenstein, to talk about an idea he had to start a program to reissue the ‘hot jazz classic’ recordings!

“He said that the public had been asking for such reissues and called in the manager of the factory, Mr. Morrison, to read one of those letters, which sounded very familiar. I said, ‘Excuse me, but I think I wrote that letter in 1938, and was promised an answer.’ Mr. Wallenstein asked if I got that reply, and I said no, and he said ‘you have one now,’ and offered me a job.

“They paid me $25 a week, and I came out after classes to research the masters that they had stored there and catalog them for reissue. And all of this came about because I couldn’t buy an Armstrong ‘Hot Fives’ or ‘Hot Sevens’ record!

“These were reissued not just as singles, but as complete albums with annotations that I wrote myself.”

Thus was born the reissue industry. Those “Hot Fives” and “Hot Sevens” are still being reissued today, enjoyed by millions on media such as CDs that no one could even dream of at the time.

After college and a stint in the Army, George Avakian went back to work for Columbia. He already had forged a relationship with a grateful Armstrong since Mr. Avakian discovered, during his research, a group of unreleased masters of some of the “Hot Fives” and “Hot Sevens.” They forged a relationship that continued until Armstrong’s death.

When Mr. Avakian finally got the chance to sign Armstrong for Columbia, the first thing he did was to record Satchmo playing the music of W.C. Handy in 1954. When the record was complete, old Mr. Handy was brought in to hear the recordings for the first time, tears coming to his “sightless eyes.” Such is the power of these Louis Armstrong recordings for Columbia, produced by George Avakian, considered by many to be Armstrong’s best.

“Louis was thrilled to do the W.C. Handy album, and we went on to do another, ‘Satch Plays Fats,’ Fats being Fats Waller. We planned others, but his contract ran out and his agent, Joe Glaser, refused to sign an exclusive contract.”

These two great albums, recorded over a half century ago, have never left the Columbia catalog. So if you’re looking for some quintessentially American music to fire up on your iPod for the holiday, you can’t do better than “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy,” produced by George Avakian. Three American originals for the Fourth of July.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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