My father, Aram “Al” Avakian, was probably just a kid when he picked up the family camera one day and started taking pictures. I never asked him what year it was. But photography was part of his young life. So was jazz.
Those two passions came together when my uncle George, a record producer, asked my dad to be the visual sideman during now historic recording sessions for Columbia Records. From Duke Ellington to Chet Baker, Dad photographed them all. He even persuaded George, his older brother, to sign Miles Davis. And he once impersonated Harry James — in French, no less.
Some of the photos shot in the studios of Columbia Records were used on album covers, some for publicity. Columbia kept the negatives and contacts in its archives, but most of Dad’s photographs were not used, and they sat unseen in the company’s archives for decades. When Sony, which had purchased Columbia, returned them to me, I was overjoyed: Not only were they in great condition, but they also formed a rarely seen chronicle of seminal jazz artists at work and at the peak of their creative powers.
We hope to share Dad’s soulful, intimate jazz images with the public on a wide scale soon. For now, three of his Miles Davis photos are prominently displayed in the “American Cool” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Miles was gruff when they first met.
“Where’d you get that shirt?” Miles challenged Dad. “I hate white shirts.” But Miles was comfortable with Dad’s presence, like all of the players.
It was my father who convinced my uncle that Miles — who had begged him to be signed during years when he was addicted to heroin — was “off the junk and back to playing great,” as George recalled in a letter. The resulting album, “Miles Ahead,” with Gil Evans’s arrangements, went gold and established him as an international star.
My father was half Iranian-Armenian and half Georgian-Armenian. His parents had arrived by 1923 in New York, where his father, Mesrop, set up a successful Persian carpet business on Fifth Avenue, Avakian Bros., the United States branch of the family business back in Iran. They embraced their new nationality, sending their children to top schools. When my father graduated Yale, my tiny, kind and formidable grandmother Manoushak said, “Amen, I am a college-boy mother!” Her family back in Soviet Georgia would disappear in Stalin’s purges.
During World War II, Aram was an enlisted man in the Navy who was found to have such a visual talent that he was made an officer, serving as an air traffic controller on a carrier in the Pacific. He went to Paris after the war, where the G.I. Bill allowed him to study at the Sorbonne.
Dad wrote and attended French literature and language classes, while introducing his buddies — among them Terry Southern, Bill Styron, J.P. Marquand Jr. — to Paris’s jazz scene. They played hard, experimented with drugs, had cool girlfriends and bopped around Europe. Dad was part of the Beat generation, as well as the second wave of American expat writers in Paris, including those at The Paris Review. The friendships he found there lasted his lifetime.
His fluency in French came in handy when Georges Meyerstein, a Columbia executive, wanted Benny Goodman, Chet Baker and Harry James to record answers to questions from French disc jockeys. In French. George lamented to Dad that the request was impossible. As my uncle recalled in a recent letter to me, could anything be done?
“Mais oui,” said Aram, who had spent five years in Paris after World War II at the Sorbonne, minoring in French literature while majoring in la vie nocturnelle de Pigalle, Montmartre et la Rive Gauche. “Chet is in town, so we’ll make the tape the day after the questions arrive.”
“Get serious, bro,” I said. “Meyerstein says this is desperately important.”
“No sweat,” said Aram. “I’ll be Harry James, you’ll be Benny Goodman … and Chet will read what I write for him phonetically. He can do it — he has a fantastic ear.”
And that’s what happened.
Dad photographed Chet Baker, both in his pretty-boy youth and later, when the ravages of his life were clear. I found other, rare shots, too: unpublished photos Dad took on his own were of Charlie Parker in his coffin, Erroll Garner snuggling in bed after a gig in Paris. He photographed white police and train passengers looking askance at Garner, glamorous female admirers around him and — what would be shocking in the U.S. at the time — mixed-race dancing, and more.
He eventually turned to film directing, once again combining his loves — and meeting my mother, actress/writer Dorothy Tristan — in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.” I was born a year after the film’s release.
My father taught me most of what I know about photography. There is no way to overstate that he was the greatest teacher, the finest editor I ever had. He was a tough, supportive and passionate teacher. He used to lay all my prints out on a huge Persian rug and show me how to make a long-form photo essay. He used to send me back out to reshoot something he didn’t think was strong enough. He trained me.
When I got serious about photography, about the age of 19, he used to say to me, “Alex, photography is not a church you have to worship in!” After a photography teacher made a pass at me, he said: “Remember, your photography idols may be great at what they do, but maybe not good people. Be careful now.”
I was extremely focused. He was dedicated to guiding me. Then in 1986 he became deeply upset when I began photographing conflict in Haiti. The next year, he died.
When Dad’s photos were returned to me and I could really study them, I realized that I literally saw the way he saw in many cases, especially the in-camera layering in a single frame that I love to do. He never told me to layer, it just happened to please me. Now if you see my son’s photos you can sometimes see layering.
Dad once told me that one of photography’s most important roles is documenting family life. To have a strong, kind father who believes in you is a beautiful thing for a girl.
"The New York Times," February 24, 2014