"The best time to learn music,” says pianist Armen Donelian, “is when you’re young, while the brain synapses are still open and fresh.
I started playing by ear when I was 5 or 6, and started classical piano lessons when I was about 7 at the Westchester Conservatory of Music. I was lucky to have parents who supported my musical aspiration.”
As a child, Armen absorbed the sound of Armenian, Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern music at social gatherings and from records his father played at home. “Our home was multicultural long before that phrase became politically correct,” he relates.
Armen trained as a concert pianist at the Westchester Conservatory of Music in White Plains, NY with director Michael Pollon. “Michael was my second father, for music,” Donelian recalls. His studies lasted for twelve years and included regular solo recitals and several concertos with local symphonies, culminating in a 1968 graduation recital featuring works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofiev.
At thirteen, Donelian joined a group led by Jazz guitarist Arthur Ryerson, Sr., and things were never quite the same afterward. Captivated by the Jazz feeling, he began listening to the masters - Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. “Folk, Rock, Dixieland, Jazz, Church, Show and Society music – I played them all while growing up,” says Donelian.
“In college, I made money by accompanying theater and dance classes, providing cocktail music at a restaurant on campus and playing and arranging for an 8-piece Jazz/Rock band. After graduation, I had no gigs, no direction, and lived at home for a few months. My ex-girlfriend’s mother told me, ‘Armen, nothing is going to happen unless you make it happen.’ So, after graduating from Columbia University in 1972, I started teaching kids’ piano lessons at the Conservatory to make money. I moved to Washington Heights in NYC and started knocking on doors.”
Starting in 1973, Donelian apprenticed for two years with pianist Richie Beirach, one of the strongest musical voices on the New York scene. He learned how to meld his Classical training with his instinct for Jazz improvisation and composition. “This was a pivotal moment in my development,” Donelian recalls.
“Richie provided an artistic paradigm to emulate, social access to top musicians in NYC and vital information about recordings and scores. I observed his live gigs as learning models. My roommate was a bassist, Mike Bocchicchio, who studied with Frank Tusa, Richie’s bassist. Together we practiced examples from composer Paul Hindemith’s book Elementary Training For Musicians, organized jam sessions and formed a mutually supportive camaraderie.
Around this time, Donelian made a blind call to the William Morris agency in New York seeking gainful employment. “The agent offered me an accompanying job at a singers’ showcase at the Monkey Bar in the Hotel Elysée. I networked with singers, leading to a good deal of arranging work. It was a period of freelancing, composing and touring with country rock singer/guitarist Bob Sanders.” On the road, Donelian had free time to practice and listen to music and transcribe solos.
Back in New York, Donelian led a trio that included Bocchicchio and drummer Chris Braun, who studied with drummer Jeff Williams. Although other career options were open to him, Donelian committed to a musical career. “With persistence and luck I found my way, although I believe that luck is a by-product of persistence,” he maintains.
”In 1975, I moved downtown, two blocks from the Village Vanguard. I started actively going to clubs, hanging out and rehearsing with other musicians. Then, through one of my students, it happened - I auditioned for and was hired to play with Mongo Santamaria and the rest is history.”
Armen Donelian broke into the Jazz world with Santamaria’s vibrant Afro-Cuban Jazz octet. Several North American tours and recordings ensued, including Santamaria’s Afro-Indio and Sofrito that includes three Donelian compositions and was nominated for a 1976 Grammy Award as the Best Latin Jazz Album. Donelian also performed on Mongo and Justo and A La Carte.
“I joined Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians and soon was playing on TV, radio, records, having my compositions recorded and touring nationally and internationally.” With guidance from Beirach, bassist Gene Perla and information Donelian obtained from a book called This Business of Music, he established a publishing company and started collecting royalties from Broadcast Music Inc. and the American Mechanical Rights Association.
Around this time, Donelian attended a music business workshop led by Cobi Narita of the Universal Jazz Coalition. “I learned how to write grants and press releases,” Donelian recollects, “start and maintain a mailing list, make a flyer using Prestype (the cutting edge design technology of the day), send out bulk mailings using postage metering and a rubber stamp and an ink pad for the return address. I learned how to develop relations with critics and members of the press, how to approach venues to get hired. Most importantly, I learned how to create my own concerts at any type of venue – nursing homes, old age homes, churches, social clubs, schools etc. I and many other artists of my generation owe a lot to Cobi.”
In subsequent years, Donelian mastered the Jazz arts through engagements and recordings with saxophonist Sonny Rollins (1977-8), trumpeter Chet Baker (1977 and 1983-5), saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera (1984-5), vocalist Anne-Marie Moss (1979-84) and many others. During his tenure with saxophonist Billy Harper (1979-83), Donelian received his first taste of international recognition (Europe, Japan, Soviet Union and Middle East) and recording Trying To Make Heaven My Home, The Believer, The Billy Harper Quintet and Jazz Jamboree with Harper.
In 1978, Donelian moved into Manhattan Plaza, a subsidized housing project for performing artists, further enabling networking opportunities. “I developed a sense of belonging to the performing arts community,” Donelian beams. “My next-door neighbor, Charles Mingus, invited me to collaborate on his recording project with Joni Mitchell. Dexter Gordon rang my doorbell to tell me he enjoyed hearing my playing in hallway outside my door. Jack Walrath, Alex Foster, Harold Ashby and Horacee Arnold were frequent session partners. It led to more NYC gigs and solo, duo, trio concerts. It was a magical and fulfilling period in my life.”
During this period, Donelian also composed and led groups in New York area venues. “In 1980, I produced and recorded my first album with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Billy Hart. I sent out thirty demos to record labels. Most of them ignored the package. After numerous second attempts, I received two or three responses, still negative, and one yes.”
In 1981, Stargazer finally was released in Japan on Atlas Records. It was a lesson in persistence that eventually paid off. The LP received warm praise for its Wonderful tension and Donelian’s Uncommon talent as a composer (Swing Journal). However, as an import the record went unreviewed by the American press.
Still, in 1983 Donelian produced a debut release concert at Carnegie Recital Hall accompanied by Gomez and Hart. It was attended by and even written up by Jon Pareles, the New York Times’ music critic. The concert was a success, but Pareles’ piece was scrapped by the editor in favor of a review of a Philip Glass concert, citing a space shortage.
Discouraged and concerned about his financial future, Donelian considered enrolling in a fledgling computer science program at Columbia University and abandoning his musical career. “I passed the initial admission test and was called for an interview,” Donelian recounts. “After examining my resume, the interviewer asked me why I wanted to enroll in the program.” Donelian replied that he was concerned about making a living in music. “Oh, but we think that you should stay in music,” he was told. “You’re doing so well.” And so Donelian stayed the course, and his fate as a musician was sealed.
In 1984, Donelian recorded a second album of solo piano music. “I shopped it to several companies. Francois Zalacain had just started a new label called Sunnyside and he picked it up.” A Reverie, Donelian’s solo debut, was released 1986 in the USA and France. It’s a masterpiece said Swing Jazz Journal in a glowing review. Donelian says, “I’ve been with Francois for almost thirty years and released ten albums on Sunnyside. I was always able to talk with Francois. His dedication and independence has earned my respect and gratitude as they have from every artist on his label.”
Concurrently, Donelian began harmony and counterpoint studies in the tradition of Arnold Schoenberg with clarinetist and master microtonal composer Harold Seletsky. Several fugues and motets resulted. The lessons with Seletsky also had a marked bearing on Donelian’s Jazz writing. A composer of 100 works, Donelian’s works are published by Advance Music and Sher Music, and recorded by Mongo Santamaria and Rory Stuart.
From 1980-87, Donelian made frequent tours to Europe to perform with a Norwegian trio including bassist Carl Morten Iversen and drummer Audun Kleive. After an exhausting three-week summer tour of Scandinavia, they recorded and released a CD under the auspices of the Norwegian Jazz Federation, Trio ‘87 (Odin), One of the great unsung piano recordings of the 80’s (Cadence). “It received outstanding reviews in Norway,” Donelian acknowledges, “and is probably one of my best records. Sadly, as with Stargazer, due to its foreign origin it was ignored by the American press.”
During this period, Donelian led groups with saxophonists Dick Oatts or Liebman, trumpeter Barry Danielian, bassists Ratzo Harris or Harvie Swartz or Ed Schuller, drummers Keith Copeland or Bob Moses, and sometimes with percussionist Arto Tunçboyaciyan. In 1988, Donelian released a highly rated quintet CD on Sunnyside featuring Oatts, Danielian, bassist Anthony Cox, drummer Bill Stewart and Tunçboyaciyan, Secrets, #3 Jazz Album of 1988 in the Jazz Hot Critics’ Poll with special mention for its Epic musicality. Another with the same unit followed in 1990, The Wayfarer, praised as Downright haunting (Downbeat).
In addition to performing and composing, Donelian has been active as a teacher since his teens. In the early 1980’s, Donelian met and played with saxophonist Arnie Lawrence, founder of the New School Jazz Program. “In 1986, Arnie invited me to teach in the program, and I’ve been there ever since,” Donelian states. The faculty unionized in 1995, providing some measure of job security in an ever-challenging music business climate. In 1993, Donelian also began teaching at William Paterson University and he continues to lecture at both schools.
Always proud of his Armenian heritage, in 1986 Donelian co-led a quintet recording Positively Armenian with reedman Souren Baronian, featuring drummer Paul Motian, Danielian, Tunçboyaciyan and bassist Ralph Hamperian. Donelian later joined Night Ark, a stunning Middle Eastern Jazz fusion group led by oudist Ara Dinkjian during the 1980’s and 90’s, appearing on the recordings Moments, In Wonderland and Petals On Your Path and performing in Switzerland, Italy, Israel, Greece, Turkey, Armenia and the USA with Tunçboyaciyan and either Ed Schuller or Marc Johnson on bass. As an arranger and pianist, Donelian accompanied Armenian Jazz vocalist Datevik Hovanesian from 1990-2000 in performances in the USA, France and Armenia. Their album Listen To My Heart with saxophonists Paquito D’Rivera and Alex Foster, drummers Portinho and Ben Riley, bassist David Finck and percussionists Tunçboyaciyan and Steve Berrios, was produced by George Avakian and released in France on the Sony label. Once again, as an overseas product, American media disregarded it.
Donelian led a fiery quartet with the alto saxophonist Thomas Chapin in the mid-1980s. “In 1991, I suffered a traumatic accident to my hand, requiring surgery and a long recovery,” Donelian relates. ”Thomas was the only person who looked in on me during my recovery. I’ll never forget his kindness.”
Donelian’s first recording following his accident was made with Chapin in 1992, a thrilling live set from their gig at New York’s Visiones nightclub. After a long label search, in 2003 Playscape Recordings issued Quartet Language, six years after Chapin’s tragic and premature death from leukemia. Bassist Calvin Hill and drummer Jeff Williams ably assisted in igniting An acrid alchemy [that] festers among these players, especially Donelian and Chapin (All About Jazz).
In 1993, Donelian was hired to teach in guitarist Attila Zoller’s Vermont Jazz Center summer program, upon the recommendation of pianist Harold Danko, then a New School colleague and fellow Sunnyside artist. “Through Zoller, I met saxophonist Fred Haas who, with his wife Sabrina, started the Interplay Summer Jazz Camp in 1997. Fred is great. I’ve taught there ever since,” Donelian affirms.
In 1997-8, Donelian recorded the highly acclaimed solo piano trilogy, Grand Ideas, A beautiful and personal recording (Fred Hersch, from the liner notes), representing Donelian's lifetime devotion to the piano, composition and improvisation. With support from a 2000 Fellowship in Music Composition from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, Sunnyside Records released the set: Volume 1-Wave: Standards; in 2002, Volume 2 - Mystic Heights: Original Compositions; and in 2005, Volume 3 - Full Moon Music: Improvisations.
Donelian received four Jazz Performance Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts to lead the Rhythm Section Plus One master class series in New York. Donelian earned praise for this free creative artistic/educational venture. From 1990 to 1996, the series presented over 55 prominent Jazz masters including Dewey Redman, Jim Hall and David Liebman with Donelian as the host and pianist.
Donelian is a noted author. Training the Ear (first published in English by Advance Music, 1992 and later in Japanese by ATN, Inc., 2001) grew out of his classroom work and has been called The most clearly organized and comprehensive package of its type (Rutgers Annual Review of Jazz Studies, 1994-5). The book has been adopted as a required text in many schools. Advance also published Training the Ear Vol. Two (2003); and, Whole Notes: A Piano Masterclass (2011). In 2012, Schott Music acquired the Advance catalogue. Donelian’s articles on ear training and chord voicings have been published in Downbeat (1997- 8, 2005) and Keyboard (1997) magazines and the Rutgers Annual Review of Jazz Studies (1997). Donelian is mentioned in Growing Up With Jazz (by W. Royal Stokes), The Bear Comes Home (by Raffi Zabor), Buddhist Acts Of Compassion (Pamela Bloom) and others.
In 1998, Donelian first traveled to Armenia to perform in the first Yerevan International Jazz Festival, and to teach the first-ever Jazz master classes at the Yerevan State Conservatory.
With support from a CEC/Artslink grant and the Hovnanian Armenian School (NJ), in 1999 Donelian launched the Jazz in Armenia Project, an artistic, educational and intercultural initiative in this land- locked nation. As Visiting Professor of Jazz for several years, Donelian led master classes and impromptu workshops, giving solo piano concerts and appearing with resident musicians at local venues and in concerts honoring humanitarian efforts in rural areas of Armenia.
In 2002, Donelian was named a Fulbright Senior Scholar in support of his ongoing work in Armenia. He taught as Professor of Jazz at the Yerevan Conservatory for one semester, performing in major venues including Yerevan Philharmonic Hall under the auspices of Jazz Appreciation Month (a State Department program).
During his Fulbright visit, Donelian also traveled to Russia, Georgia, Romania and France to perform and lecture at conservatories in St. Petersburg, Tbilisi, Iasi, Cluj and Paris. These activities were made possible by support from the US State Department and the Romanian Fulbright Commission. Donelian appeared as a featured solo pianist in the Kannon Jazz and Modern Dance Festival (Russia), the Richard Oshanitzsky Jazz Festival (Romania) and in a command performance for Hon. Richard and Mrs. Sharon Miles, American Ambassador to Georgia.
Donelian returned to Armenia on several occasions: In 2003, for six weeks to teach as a Fulbright Senior Specialist; in 2004, with support from a second CEC/Artslink grant to teach and perform; in 2007, appearing with the quartet of percussionist Bobby Sanabria by special invitation of the American Embassy in Yerevan; and in 2011, to give a duo concert with Armenian native saxophonist Armen Hyusnounts at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts.
As a Fulbright Senior Specialist, Donelian also traveled to Finland (2004), Switzerland (2005), Sweden (2006) and Greece (2009). For three consecutive years (2009-11), Donelian was invited to adjudicate graduation juries and recitals at the Zurich University of the Arts (Switzerland). In 2009, with his colleagues in Zurich, pianist Adrian Frey, and at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory (Denmark), pianist Nikolaj Hess, Donelian initiated a series of annual academic exchanges with his home institutions, the New School and William Paterson University.
As an ear training and piano curriculum advisor to the Israel Conservatory, Donelian traveled to that country for three consecutive summers (2009-11) to oversee the development and implementation of their fledgling Shtricker Jazz and Contemporary Music Program in cooperation with The New School. In 2010, Donelian was invited along with four other faculty members from William Paterson University on an historic visit to Palestine’s Edward Said National Conservatory of Music to present a series of concerts and workshops. A few months later, Donelian returned to the Al Kamandjâti Summer Music Camp in Beit Jala, Palestine to teach Jazz to children from the refugee camps.
“In 2000, as a sub for Dave Liebman at Manhattan School of Music, I met Marc Mommaas,” Donelian narrates. In 2002, they began a partnership when Donelian invited his former student to perform in a concert honoring the victims of 9/11. Due to their friendship and musical chemistry, Donelian and Mommaas continue to perform as well as teach together. In 2006, Donelian released All Or Nothing At All (Sunnyside), a live duo concert CD made with Mommaas in 2003 at the New School Jazz Performance Space in New York, along with liner notes penned by Liebman. The recording received an outstanding review from Downbeat: Their deeply intuitive connection is its own reward...When Mommaas solos [Donelian] seems plugged right into his brain waves, perpetually altering his accompaniment to propel and caress the saxophone lines.
In 2007, Donelian and Mommaas started the Hudson Jazz Workshop, attracting students from around the globe. In 2009, they founded the non- profit Hudson Jazzworks, Inc. to help support the evolution of this educational initiative.
While a member of Night Ark, Donelian performed in a Boston concert produced by drummer George Schuller, son of the late composer Gunther Schuller. In 1994, Donelian met and taught with David Clark, Professor of Bass at the Berklee College of Music, at the Vermont Jazz Center. The trio has grown close since they began playing regularly in 2004. Donelian’s 2008 release Oasis (Sunnyside) eloquently documents their empathetic chemistry, causing Jazz Times to remark: When Donelian sits down to make a piano trio record, he does not wear his academic erudition or his ethnicity or even his chops on his sleeve. Instead he blends his influences into a seamless, balanced whole. Oasis quickly establishes a high level of musical discourse and never falters from it.
As a composing and playing vehicle, Donelian has a longstanding attraction to the quintet format as shown previously on Secrets and The Wayfarer. In the early 2000s, this fascination strongly reasserted itself through inspiration received from his student- turned-colleague, Mommaas; and from two other former pupils, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and guitarist Mike Moreno, both rising stars of their generation. Donelian composed an intricate, dense body of work inspired by their prowess, rounding out the group with veteran bassist and longtime colleague Dean Johnson. After rehearsing and performing in several New York-area venues, in 2011 Donelian produced Leapfrog (Sunnyside), of which All About Jazz declared: Leapfrog proves to be light years beyond many other albums that wear the modern jazz label, because the individual contributions and the confluence of the group are of equal value, and Donelian deserves plaudits for balancing that equation and producing such a work.
Donelian first encountered Armenian music as a child, then in his professional work in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and again in Armenia. As the Leapfrog band was gestating and Donelian’s Oasis trio was in full swing, Donelian began experimenting with the classic, revered songs of the 18th Century Armenian troubadour, Sayat-Nova. He had obtained sheet music for them in Armenia in 2002 and studied them at home for over 10 years, arranging and performing them in both solo piano and trio formats with longtime partners Clark and Schuller. Audiences in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere received these interpretations with enthusiasm. In 2014, Donelian released them on his 13th album, Sayat-Nova: Songs Of My Ancestors (Sunnyside), of which Downbeat observed: Armen Donelian has prepared a deeply felt – and often strikingly beautiful – tribute to this distant master. There are countless exquisite moments to be found within these extended meditations.