George Avakian, a producer and record executive who helped define the jazz canon and redefine the album, popularizing everything from long-play vinyl records to live albums and liner notes, died Nov. 22 at his home in Manhattan. He was 98.
His daughter Anahid Avakian Gregg confirmed the death to the Associated Press but did not disclose the cause.
A soft-spoken son of Armenian immigrants, Mr. Avakian was among the most impactful behind-the-scenes figures of 20th-century music, credited with popularizing a sweeping number of innovations and an astonishing variety of musicians.
At Columbia Records, where Mr. Avakian led the once-floundering pop and international division for much of the 1950s, he assembled a roster that included pianist Dave Brubeck and trumpeter Miles Davis and oversaw retrospective releases that revitalized interest in Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith.
He produced saxophonist Sonny Rollins's 1962 comeback hit "The Bridge"; signed rock musicians Bill Haley and the Everly Brothers to Warner Bros. Records; assembled one of the best-selling comedy albums in history, "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart" (1960); and for several years in the 1970s managed jazz and classical pianist Keith Jarrett and saxophonist Charles Lloyd.
Mr. Avakian orchestrated the commercial success of dozens of jazz, rock and international artists, successfully betting that Davis could overcome a heroin addiction and that a teenage Johnny Mathis could become a star.
"Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way," Mr. Avakian wrote in an oft-cited 1955 telegram to Columbia after seeing Mathis sing at a San Francisco club. "Send blank contracts."
But he was also a single-minded jazz scholar who taught one of the earliest jazz history courses and sought to elevate the music he loved as a teenager into an art form that commanded the same critical respect as classical music.
Nearly all the technical innovations he championed were adopted in the service of jazz. While studying at Yale University, he waged a letter-writing campaign to record executives, complaining about the lack of full-length jazz albums. The only records on the market were low-quality singles, heavy shellac discs known as 78s for their revolutions per minute.
Mr. Avakian eventually persuaded the label Decca to let him record an album of his own: "Chicago Jazz" (1940), a set of six 10-inch discs that featured guitarist Eddie Condon and is widely considered the first full-length jazz record in history.
The album also marked one of the earliest examples of liner notes, with Mr. Avakian crafting an accompanying 12-page booklet that offered listeners the wealth of information that had long eluded him as a young jazz fan, including details on the record's performers and composition. The annotations became a staple of Mr. Avakian's releases and would later win him a Grammy Award, for his scholarly liner notes to a 1996 Davis and Gil Evans box set that described recording sessions Mr. Avakian had originally overseen.
A young Mr. Avakian went on to connect with Columbia, whose factory was just 20 miles down the road from Yale's campus, and reissue a series of "Hot Jazz Classics" that put old recordings by Bix Beiderbecke, Armstrong and other early jazz artists in wide release.
The records formed the bedrock of a jazz canon Mr. Avakian spent much of his early career codifying, strolling the archives of Columbia's factory and record library to seek out long-forgotten albums that soon became hits.
"When Woody Allen told us in his movie 'Manhattan' that 'Potato Head Blues' " — a classic track by Armstrong — "was one of the things that made life worthwhile, maybe it was because Mr. Avakian enabled him to hear it at an impressionable age," Wall Street Journal contributor John McDonough wrote in 1997.
As an executive at Columbia, Mr. Avakian oversaw the release of 100 long-play (LP) jazz and pop records in 1948, seizing on the new technology as a way to deliver longer musical numbers and higher-quality sound to listeners.
The albums, also known as 33s, soon became the industry standard and enabled Mr. Avakian to release classic live records such as Benny Goodman's "Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert" (1950) — groundbreaking as an early reissue, as one of the earliest live records and double albums, and as one of the first jazz records to sell more than 1 million copies.
It was followed by landmark recordings such as "Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy" (1954) and "Ambassador Satch" (1956), albums on which Mr. Avakian collaborated with his longtime hero, Armstrong, in what Mr. Avakian described as "one of the greatest privileges of my life."
"I was born at the right time," he told CNN in 2001, "had the right opportunity, and thank God I was able to take advantage of it."
George Mesrop Avakian was born in Armavir, Russia, on March 15, 1919. His parents were cloth traders who had fled western Persia at the start of World War I. Raised in New York, he began listening to jazz in high school, drawn to the music in part, he said, because its "strange sounds resembled the Armenian records that my parents had brought with them."
Mr. Avakian served in the Army during World War II and returned to work at Columbia Records, remaining there until 1958. The following year, Mr. Avakian collaborated with his younger brother, film editor and director Aram Avakian, on "Jazz on a Summer's Day," one of the earliest feature-length documentaries about a music festival.
Aram died in 1987. Mr. Avakian's wife of 68 years, violinist Anahid Ajemian, died in 2016. They had three children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Avakian was one of the founders of what is now the Grammy-giving Recording Academy and contributed to recording sessions and reissues until shortly before his death.
He received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award in 2010, "a culminating honor," he said, that confirmed his "long-held belief: Live long enough, stay out of jail, and you'll never know what might happen!"