"For the first two weeks I taught four hours a day at the Conservatory without air conditioning in 90-degree weather," reported Jazz pianist and composer Armen Donelian, who spent June, 1999 in Armenia. Donelian initiated an exciting new musical program there called The Jazz in Armenia Project.
The Jazz in Armenia Project fulfilled its twin educational/artistic mission with a Jazz master class from June 14-25 led by Donelian at the Yerevan State Conservatory (YSC), a solo piano recital by Donelian at the Yerevan Chamber Music Hall, and several other activities.
"Twenty-five avid Jazz instrumentalists and vocalists attended the workshop (see fig 1), with visiting duduk and kimanche (folk instrument) players raising the class size at one point to 40. It was all hard work and a big success." The workshop concluded on June 25 (see fig 2) with a Jazz concert at the Conservatory featuring the students joined by several local Jazz professionals.
The trip was made possible by a generous $3,300. donation from Mr. and Mrs. Vahakn and Hasmig Hovnanian of the Hovnanian Armenian School (New Milford, NJ) who provided the initial funding for the Project. "The Project benefited from Mrs. Hovnanian's interest in my idea," Donelian said. "Her support encouraged me to continue and follow through with it."
Donelian also received a $2,500. grant from Artslink CEC International Partners, which stresses the potential for interactive dialogue and cross-cultural exchange in its review criteria. "I had an anthropological impulse in mind," Donelian mused. A recipient of six Jazz Performance Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Donelian envisioned teaching and performing Jazz in the smaller towns and cities of Armenia. "The thought of bringing new music to new students and audiences always intrigues me, especially when American Jazz and Armenian people are involved."
On June 28 two students and four of the Yerevan Jazz pros - David Minasian (trombone), Tigran Peshtmajian (vibraphone), Simon Dolmazian (bass) and Sasha Agamyan (drums) - accompanied Donelian to the city of Vanadzor (Armenia's third largest city) to present a Jazz workshop (see fig 3) and perform at the High School for Music. Minasian, a former student of Donelian's in the New School Jazz Program (NYC), has been living and studying duduk in Armenia for the last year, and has learned to speak Armenian fluently during that time. The group was escorted by Professor Aram Satian of the Conservatory who arranged the performance. An avid throng of 100, many of whom had never seen or heard a live a Jazz performance before, attended the event. Mrs. Janna Gervorkian (see fig 4), Professor of Piano at the school, grabbed the stage after the concert was over and surprised everyone with a ragtime selection which brought people to their feet. Besides his teaching activities, Donelian presented a solo piano concert at the Yerevan Chamber Music Hall on June 19. Equipped with a Steinway concert grand (see figs 5 & 6), the hall has wonderful acoustics and regularly features vocal and chamber groups. Donelian's performance drew several lengthy standing ovations from the captivated crowd of over 300. Among the pieces he played were Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," Chick Corea's "Windows," Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" and Duke Ellington's "I'm Beginning to See the Light." Donelian also presented several compositions from his own CDs including "Stargazer," "Harem Girl" and "Metropolitan Madness."
"Armen Donelian's technique and manner of music interpretation are superb and made a deep impression on Armenian Jazz fans," said Nika Babaian, of N.A.B. Artists Management, the concert promoter. Babaian's roster of artists includes the top Armenian classical artists, composers, chamber and early music ensembles and the Armenian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. "Donelian's concert was one of the best musical events held in Armenia during the 1998-99 concert season."
A memorable Donelian performance - with Arsen Nersessian (tenor saxophone), Kolya Vardanian (bass) and Armen "Chico" Toutounjian (drums) - occurred at the Kinderdörf Orphanage in the town of Abovyan (20 miles outside the capital city of Yerevan) in celebration of its 50th Anniversary (see fig 7). The Austrian-based institution adopted many children from the disastrous 1988 earthquake that leveled the Armenian town of Spitak (see fig 8). Readers may recall former Soviet President Gorbachev abruptly ending his visit to the USA then to observe the devastation there.
Donelian offered two impromptu workshops at the invitation of Artur Yeghikyan of the Armenian Percussion Art Union (see fig 9) and Aksel Bakuntz of the Yerevan Jazz College. He also sat in at jam sessions in several Yerevan bistros including Poplavok and The Sydney Bar.
Due to the tremendous response to Donelian's work, Dr. Armen Smbatian, rector of the Yerevan Conservatory, named him Visiting Professor of Jazz. Smbatian invited Donelian to return twice a year to teach at the Conservatory, consult with the Jazz Department and prepare an assistant to oversee his course of study during his absence.
Donelian also strengthened his relations with promoter Babaian who has an active interest in Jazz. His non-profit company, Cadence Music Centre, seeks to develop business ties with organizations in Western Europe and the USA interested in hosting Armenian artists abroad and presenting Western artists in Armenia.
Babaian summed it up this way: "The two-week top-level master-classes given by Donelian at the Yerevan State Conservatory and the concert and meeting with Jazz musicians in Vanadzor proved that Armen Donelian is a great professional and kindest human being. During the month he spent here Armen became an important part of the cultural life of Armenia. We greatly appreciate his activities and would be happy to host him again and again in our country."
Donelian is seeking ongoing financial assistance from interested donors to make The Jazz in Armenia Project a regular occurrence in Armenia.