It’s no secret that some of this city’s best stories are held at the New York Public Library, no small number of which are waiting to be unearthed from its vast archival collections. Currently at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts is one such gem: an exhibition introducing audiences to the singular story of two of the great champions of modern American music, Anahid Ajemian and George Avakian — a musician and a producer, respectively, as well as wife and husband — told through photographs, memos, letters, records, interviews, and other ephemera from their personal archives. The show is not only a celebration of a remarkable couple; it’s also a love letter of sorts to the music and the artists to whom they dedicated so much of their life and work.
George Avakian was born in Russia in 1919 and moved to New York with his family in 1923. A clever and curious child, he was raised between the old world and the new, speaking Armenian at home while enjoying distinctly American pastimes like baseball. By high school he was spending countless nights staying up late, listening to radio shows, discovering the music of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. To his ear, the sounds of early jazz echoed something of the sweetness of the Armenian records his parents listened to. But it wasn’t until a friend’s older brother played him Louis Armstrong records that Avakian’s passion was truly ignited. As he described to Peter Krulewitch in a 2009 interview, “I was immersed, like being dropped into a pool of boiling water or something.” By 1940, at the age of twenty, while still an undergraduate at Yale, Avakian had produced his first album, Chicago Jazz, for Decca Records.
He first laid eyes on Anahid Ajemian backstage at Town Hall in 1946, after a recital given by her older sister, Maro. “This is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my life,” Avakian recalled thinking of his future wife. The Ajemian sisters were also Armenian, though Anahid was born in Manhattan in 1924, two years after her family’s immigration to the United States. Both women excelled at music from an early age: Maro, a pianist, was accepted at the Juilliard School at the age of six, and Anahid, a violinist, soon followed in her footsteps. Although classically trained, both were equally passionate about contemporary composers, performing works by the likes of John Cage, Henry Cowell, Ben Weber, and Alan Hovhaness — all names and sounds that were newer to Avakian. After meeting, Anahid and George fell not only in love, but also into each other’s musical worlds. They married two years later, in 1948, and remained together until Anahid’s death earlier this year.
Avakian would devote the next decades of his life to becoming one of the eminent record producers of the day, working with an illustrious and assorted roster of artists including Ellington, Armstrong, Ravi Shankar, Miles Davis, Lotte Lenya, Sonny Rollins, and countless others. Anahid continued to perform with Maro to critical acclaim and in 1965 co-founded the esteemed Composers String Quartet, a group that would go on, for over thirty years, to commission and present works from that era’s leading composers, such as Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber. Over the years she and Avakian meshed their influence, linking their circles of friends and colleagues and collaborating, on occasion, where their passions intersected. The NYPL’s “Music for Moderns” takes its title from a concert series they produced together at Town Hall in 1957, which featured jazz artists alongside contemporary composers — a novel curatorial vision for that time.
The exhibition spans the whole of their lives together, and curator Matthew Snyder has tightly woven a moving, engaging narrative, with every document on view speaking to a tiny but resonant moment of a far richer story: an interview with Avakian conducted by a high-school-aged Jack Kerouac; photographs of the couple on their wedding day, and on the sisters’ first European tour; an image of Avakian with Davis during the recording sessions for ‘Round About Midnight; Cage’s score for Atlas Eclipticalis (1961), written for a dance by Merce Cunningham and dedicated in part to Ajemian and Avakian; a letter from jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd to Avakian in which the musician wrote that “one might think you were my father or something the way you look after things in regards to me.”
Looking back, one can’t imagine that the relationships between Avakian and his colleagues were always rosy, or that they didn’t occasionally suffer the strains of the times. The exhibition doesn’t dive into the racial politics around jazz; neither is there much mention of the challenges Anahid would have faced as a woman ahead of her time. This is the part of their story that has yet to be written. Is this a shortcoming of the exhibition? As any great performer will tell you, the most successful shows will always leave an audience wanting more.
‘Music for Moderns: The Partnership
of George Avakian and Anahid Ajemian’
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center
Vincent Astor Gallery, The Shelby Cullom Davis Museum
40 Lincoln Center Plaza
Through September 24