Armen Donelian

Baklava, shish kebob, hommus and babaghanoush
Born in Queens in a family with Armenian roots, Armen Donelian has become an active member of the New York jazz scene. For over three decades, he worked with the likes of Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Paquito D’Rivera, Mongo Santamaria and Thomas Chapin. He also assisted Charles Mingus in his final years.

A master in piano solo, Donelian’s pièce de résistance is ‘Stargazer’, an epic jazz composition, showcased brilliantly on his 1984 solo record ‘A Reverie’. In the 1980s Donelian formed the group Night Ark with bassist Marc Johnson and Armenian percussionist Arto Tunçboyaciyan. The music of the quartet can in some ways be viewed a precursor to that of the Pat Metheny band with Richard Bona: ethnic jazz with a strong basis in the piano.
Donelian is an experienced educator. Donelian’s articles on ear training and chord voicings have been published in Downbeat and Keyboard magazines. A Fulbright Senior Scholar, Donelian visited Armenia many times and taught at the Yerevan State Conservatory as a cultural ambassador. In 1998, with two decades of touring experience already behind him, Donelian traveled for the first time to Yerevan, Armenia to perform in the first Yerevan International Jazz Festival, and to present several first-ever Jazz master classes at the conservatory.
In an interview with Cadence Magazine editor Rob Rusch, Donelian looks back on his early years as a jazz artist and on his musicianship. “As a performer, Sonny Rollins would constantly amaze me with his inventiveness, his wit, his stamina, his resourcefulness.”
ROB RUSCH, October 1985
(RR:) Did your parents bring a lot of Turkish and Armenian ancestry culture into your house?
(AD:)  Definitely. I’m of Armenian ancestry, my father was born in Turkey. My mother was born in the States, but her parents came from – I think my grandmother came from Damascus, Syria. We grew up with all the Armenian foods and all that – baklava, shish kebob, hommus, babaghanoush – all these things. I’m not Turkish, because the Turks to the Armenians were what the Germans were to the Jews. There was some Arabic and Syrian influence from my mother’s family side. My father was born in Turkey, but at that time the Armenians in Turkey were really in a state of persecution, and it was just lucky that my grandfather got out of there alive. He had to leave business there; he was in the Oriental rug business.
(RR:) So he was Armenian living in Turkey.
(AD:) Right. I was born in Queens, but grew up in Armonk, New York, where my parents moved. We were the only Armenians in town, so I really felt more American than Armenian. It was only after I moved away from Armonk and started socializing more with other Armenians and other Armenian musicians, in particular, that I began to examine my Armenian roots more deeply and began to appreciate them more.
(RR:) I hear in your playing Bill Evans, Chick Corea and something which to me sounds very influenced by Ornette Coleman, but maybe it’s Paul Bley. Some of your playing, the lines, I could just hear Ornette Coleman playing those lines.
(AD:) That’s an interesting observation. I’ve definitely listened to Chick and I guess all modern pianists have. Bill Evans I’ve listened very little to, until I was about 25, 26 years old. I think I maybe listened to one on somebody else’s record collection. A lot of people have mentioned they heard a similarity between me and Bill Evans. That’s probably because we have a similar musical background. I know he studied classical music when he was young and I did, too. Chopin, Debussy, I studied a lot of Bach and Beethoven as well. I also listened a lot to Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, as well as Paul Bley, John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. I’ve studied with some people, too, that have influenced me –Richie Beirach and Dave Liebman. Richie in particular helped me to synthesize what I knew about jazz from my listening to all these people, and sort of gave me a window to look through. Not necessarily that he told me to go in any one particular direction, but he gave me some options to choose from.
(RR:) When you were growing up, the pop music would have been Beach Boys, early Beatles, stuff like that.  Is that what you listened to?
(AD:) Yeah, some Beach Boys, The Four Seasons, a lot of the Motown sound, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, a lot of Beatles. I follow any kind of music that I like, if it’s good music. I don’t have any kind of condescending attitude about popular music or anything like a lot of jazz musicians have. If it’s good music, I like it, I’ll listen to it. If it’s not good music, I don’t care if it’s what people consider to be the present jazz or the greatest classical composers, I don’t like it. Like Schoenberg doesn’t move me at all. I studied his music in college. It didn’t grab me in the heart.
(RR:) What do you think is the fascination that people have with Schoenberg? Or Stockhausen?
(AD:) I think it is the amount of control that you exercise over the music, the power. People are so fascinated with that control. So obsessed with it that they fail to see another aspect in the music. I don’t know, they might tell you something else. They might say this is the most passionate music because it combines all of the elements of the soul.
(RR:) I’ve talked with numerous classical players, and one of the things that fascinates them in jazz is being able to control the emotional part and express that.
(AD:) Well, that’s true, because a lot of classical musicians grow up with the notes always in front of them.
(RR:) Improvising is a revolutionary idea to them.
(AD:) The thing that they don’t realize is that ‘classical’ composers of the early years were also good improvisers – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. Even up to Liszt’s day they were noted for their cadenzas… But to be able to do that spontaneously is another thing. But it didn’t really start happening in jazz on the same level as classical music, I think, until Charlie Parker. He was the one that really broke through to that other level of really becoming technically on the same level as someone like a Liszt or Paganini, but still speaking in the vocabulary. It was at the same time very technically developed and also very emotionally expressive. Up until that time you had jazz which was very emotionally expressive, but still wasn’t maybe quite on the technical level as Charlie Parker.
(RR:) Well, I think people like Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong -
(AD:) Well, yeah, okay, Tatum. He was another one.
(RR:) And certainly Louis Armstrong’s choruses are quite brilliant..
(AD:) Louis Armstrong had such a magnanimous heart and soul in his music that I think no matter what he said in his music it would come across. That’s the strength in his music.
(RR:) You started out ‘classical’; you say you were quite involved with listening to pop music. So, where does jazz or improvised music get into this?
(AD:) Well, even from the beginning I always knew that someday I would be playing my own music, even when I was seven years old.
(RR:) At seven years old, did you have any idea what jazz was?
(AD:) Not really, I didn´t really start listening to jazz until I was about 16 years old. Before that I heard some Dixieland music, and whatever I got from the television or the radio, which wasn´t too much in the way of real, pure jazz. When I was 16 I started listening to some Art Tatum, Bud Powell. I was studying with a teacher at the same school where I was studying classical music. He told me I should listen to Art Tatum. So I went out and I found a few Art Tatum records. One was called The Art Of Art Tatum, some reissues of same Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton. Those are actually my first jazz records.
(RR:) You were a fluent pianist at 16?
(AD:) In terms of classical music, I was, yeah, I was pretty fluent… Bach preludes. I did a graduation recital from Westchester Conservatory of Music, where I attended. That was a separate school. I started at the Conservatory when I was seven years old, I studied for three years with one teacher and then I switched to another teacher and stayed with him for nine years. It´s a small music school that´s geared for anyone who wants to study. The standards are the highest.
(RR:) Is this something you wanted to do, or were you pushed into it by your parents?
(AD:) No, wanted to. When I was about six I used to play these things by ear on a piano we had in our basement. My parents did say, “Oh, our boy has talent. Let´s give him piano lessons.” But it was something that I wanted to do. I was enthusiastic. I was looking forward to it. When I started I really gobbled it up.
 (RR:) There are a lot of people who find Tatum and Oscar Peterson to have tremendously great dexterity and ability who do not seem to spend enough time with the emotional development.
(AD:) I understand that point of view and I would say in one way I agree with it, but in another way I don´t. Yeah, it´s true, Tatum is not going into areas that Paul Bley would go into or that Ornette Coleman would go into. But if you look back at the milieu that Tatum grew up in, he was really a pioneer. He was the first to play –at least the first black man- to play music on a technical level that was equal to a concert pianist’s, and still be improvising.

 (RR:) At least the first one who was documented on records.
(AD:) I guess, yeah. Also you can’t criticize somebody’s personality. You can maybe criticize them for their work, but Tatum’s music is an expression of his personality as it is with all musicians. When people say he does not delve enough into the emotional areas that is like criticizing his personality. It is not really a valid criticism of Tatum. It may be one of his shortcomings, in which case, yeah, then maybe Tatum does not offer that.

(RR:) Did you make a conscious decision then to move into jazz?.
(AD:) Yeah, yeah. It was a strong pull on me at that point. I was still unclear with what I was going to do with my life. But it was a burning desire at that point to find out more about this music, see if I can really play it. I put all my energy into it.
 (RR:) Do you feel that the classical background was a disadvantage?
(AD:) There are some things that I did not learn as soon as I would have if I had just gone straight into jazz and had been immersed in jazz from the very beginning. Yet there are some things that I that I had to unlearn –dependence on written notes and a certain kind of rhythmic stiffness. But there were a lot of advantages that a lot of jazz musicians spend many years, maybe sometimes most of their lives, trying to make up for –lack of reading ability, lack of knowledge of harmony and technique. I feel that classical music did help me more than it hurt me. I always knew that I was going to play my own music, anyway. I say that with a smile, because no matter what music I study, I always know that eventually I am going to play my own music or I am going to take what I want out of it.
(RR:) After Columbia, when did you start becoming professional?
(AD:) Well the chronology is like this: immediately after Columbia, I started studying with Richie –1972 to 1974. At the time I was also rooming with a bass player in New York. We were both going through a lot of musical development at that time and he was studying with a bassist named Frank Tusa, who at that time was working a lot with Richie. We took a few double lessons with the two of them and learned a lot about playing duos.
At the time I was breaking into the jazz scene, doing some duos. My first professional engagement was in 1975 with Mongo Santamaria. I found out from a friend of mine that Mongo was looking for a pianist and I auditioned with his musical director at the time who was Justo Almario. He is a very talented saxophonist from Columbia in South America. He is now living in Los Angeles. I joined Mongo’s band, toured with him, did about four albums. Mongo is a father figure to a lot of musicians, gave a lot of musicians their first start.
(RR:) A lot of jazz musicians, too.
(AD:) Yeah. Chick Corea, Hubert Laws…a number of people. So when I got the gig with Mongo I felt I was in heavy company. I was honored. I learned a lot about rhythm and time and about Latin culture and I learned about professionalism and stamina. This guy is now in his late 60s or 70s, but he is still doing it. He is out there on the road and when he plays he really hits it.
(RR:) You were also with a group called Cosmology?
(AD:) Briefly, yeah. It was a kind of fusion group. We performed around New York with Cosmology and we put out this LP on Vanguard. That was after I finished working with Mongo. Then I was working with a number of other people, freelancing. I worked with Chet Baker, Lionel Hampton, Ray Barretto…
(RR:) You fooled around with fusion and Latin music; why did you not go into studio work?
(AD:) I did some studio work at the time. I did things with Roy Ayers and Bernard Purdie. It did not move me. It paid well, but it was not what I wanted to spend my time my time pursuing. Once I saw what it was into, well, what is more important, my time or the money? So I steered out of that.
(RR:) Do you avoid it now, or does it just not come to you or would you take it if it came to you?
(AD:) I might take it, if it came to me, depending on what kind of work it was and  who was on the date. But for the most part, I don’t take it, and I don’t seek it. It is not easy. It is hard to make a living. But, at some point, I guess it was during this freelancing period where I did become exposed to some studio work that I realized that it was not what I wanted to do.
(RR:) Are you able to make a living as a creative artist?
(AD:) Make a living, well, I survive, which is not to say that I am on the street or anything. I do some teaching, I do some performing, I do some composing, I accompany. Between all these different areas I get by and I play the music that I want to play. I do not have to compromise myself that often.
I myself have been working with two different kinds of ensembles. One is a trio with piano, bass and saxophone. That’s been with Ratzo Harris on bass and Dick Oatts on saxophone and a percussionist from Turkey, Arto Tunçboyaciyan –he’s Armenian. I also have done the quintet with Dave Liebman on saxophone, but he is not always available, plus I have been working with Dick and I really like his playing.
(RR:) How is that different when you go from one group to another? In your own group you are the musical director as well, what kind of input do you put in another group?
(AD:) Well, you cannot just sit back and let someone tell you what to do, but there’s a different role that I play as a sideman than when I work as a leader, When I work as a leader I am the one who is responsible for the material, the presentation of the group, the promotion, the program, the ensemble itself, who is going to be in it and so forth. When I work as a sideman my responsibility is to help the leader do his or her job. Many times that involves doing a lot of the same things that I would have done as a leader, but doing them for someone else. Or at least giving advice or support to the leader.
(RR:) In many ways I would think it would be much easier not being a leader.
(AD:) Yeah. That is true, but in other ways it is much harder, because like I said, from the very beginning I knew I wanted to play my own music. And when I am working as a sideman I can get very frustrated sometimes because there are certain things that I would like to do a certain way and the leader wants to do them their way. If I am a sideman I have to defer to the leader on some issues, which is not easy. But I think it is something that is important to learn how to do.
(RR:) Why do you base yourself in New York?
(AD:) Two reasons. One is because of the stimulation, the cultural and musical stimulation of New York. And the other is because of work opportunities that arise in New York.
(RR:) But that is mostly as a sideman, right?
(AD:) Yes, I guess I would say. That’s why it is not easy to make a living. But there’s something to the energy of New York. I do not know what it is. Maybe it is the adversity. Maybe it is all the negative factors which you have to learn to overcome, which strengthen you and make your music strong.
(RR:) How does it make your music strong?
(AD:) Your music is an expression of your personality. It is an expression of who you are. When you have to deal with such a place as New York it makes you stronger as a person. It sounds a little masochistic, in a way. And it might be, I do not know. But I look at the end result and I see music that comes from other areas. But part of me has also always been disgusted with New York and has just wanted to leave it.
(RR:) I think it is more in the mind of the beholder than any real thing.
(AD:)  Part of it is also that I live at a place called Manhattan Plaza, which is a subsidized housing complex in New York (West Side) and it is a very nice place to live.
(RR:) That is where Mingus used to live.
(AD:) In fact, I lived right next door to him.
(RR:) Did you have some role in the end of his life in his music there?
(AD:) Yes, I did. I did some transcribing of some of his music and put it on to tapes and sent it to Joni Mitchell.
(RR:) How did that come about?
(AD:) I just happened to be living next door and I was a pianist. Maybe it was because I knew Paul Jeffries. Paul was helping Mingus at the time. Somehow Paul had asked me, or Sue (Mingus’ wife) –I forgot how it worked out- but, anyway, I wound up recording some stuff on tape for Joni Mitchell and used these tapes as reference tapes for the album that she did of Mingus’ music.
(RR:) What did you think of that album?
(AD:) I liked it. I thought there was some interesting stuff on there. Of course it wasn’t the way Mingus would have done it, but then it was not a Mingus album.
I have respect for Joni Mitchell. I think she is one of the few of these pop/folk people of the 60’s to come through with a more individualistic style and one of the more creative and one that has a more encompassing outlook. She looks to areas outside of her own music for inspiration and for recsources. She had an open attitude.
(RR:) At this time, was Mingus able to function at all physically?
(AD:) He was in a wheelchair. It was a very sobering experience for me.
(RR:) Could he write?
(AD:) He could not lift a hand. I went to shake his hand and all that he could do is just barely lift his arm, his hand was limp. It was sad. But still there was a spark in his eye and a fire in his voice, because he got frustrated, he used to yell and scream when things were not right. It was an enlightening experience for me. He was mostly talking about the present.
(RR:) The music of the moment.
(AD:) Yeah. At least to me. I do not think that I am a person that he would have really talked to much about anything except the music at that point because I did not know him before that and I did not really ask him too many questions about it.
(RR:) Did you feel that he felt that this was a compromise on his part, the very fact that you were there? Did you feel that he resented you in any way or resented the situation?
(AD:) No, I think he just felt helpless and frustrated, physically, because he was not able to articulate his ideas himself.
(RR:) Did he hum it to you?
(AD:) I think what happened was he sang some things to Jeffreys, and Jeffreys them down according to what he interpreted as what Mingus was saying. Then I played them. Sometimes Mingus would say, “Well, that wasn’t right” and that was what was written, not what he sung, and other times it was me, I just was not interpreting the music right. One thing that was funny, he made me put on the Metronome as a click and leave that on as I was recording these things, you know, just to make sure that Joni knew where the beat was all the time (laughter). I think it is a very easy thing to misinterpret things. I do not know if you have read Joni’s liner notes, but she mentioned that click track on there and she said it was at first she could not understand, but after a while it just drove her crazy and she loved it. It made her realize where the music really was rhythmically.
(RR:) Did he challenge you? He had a tendency to almost challenge people to try to find out their credentials to make them prove themselves to some standard he had in his mind, sort of running the gauntlet. Did he do that with you at all?
(AD:) Yeah. It was a challenge to just sit there and play his music the way he wanted it. Do you mean did he try to intimidate me?
(RR:) Yeah.
(AD:) No, he did not. I have heard stories about him maybe doing things like that, but I do not think that is what he wanted to do at that point. And at that point of his life I do not think he had it in his heart to do that.
(RR:) You said he had a spark in his eye. What was that spark?
(AD:) It was a spark of life.
(RR:) Did it manifest itself? Was it something you perceived in the eyes? 
(AD:) Yeah. Like I said, if there was something that he wanted from Sue his wife, he would yell, “Hey, Sue, get in here! This thing is not right…” Or something like that. I mean, Sue is a strong woman, too. She is nobody’s fool.  But I think the disease, because it rendered him physically helpless, it took a lot of that edge off that he had before.
(RR:) What was the year that this happened?
(AD:) This was in the fall of ’77. He died in January of ’79, but I think this happened in ’77 some time. Sue paid me for the recordings. I was just doing a service to Charles, this had nothing to do with the record company. Of course, this was just a brief episode, but I will remember it for the rest of my life. I really do not know how important it is in my development, except that I had a personal experience with Charles, which is important.
I do not know how many people know about this. I do not talk about it. It is just a personal anecdote that I will cherish. What was funny is that at time I was also working with Sonny Rollins. I forget what the date was, but Charles had a birthday. Sue gave him a surprise party. The way it worked out was Paul Jeffries and I were over at Mingus’ place on the pretext of rehearsing some tunes or something and Sue had arranged it so that everyone would arrive while we were there and then Paul and I would play “Happy Birthday” as they came in. I did not even know Sonny was coming. Sonny and Charles were very close. Sonny came in and everyone else came and we started playing “Happy Birthday” and Charles was very moved. He did not say anything. He was speechless. And Sonny came over and he just sat down and the two stared at each other; right into each other’s eyes without looking sideways. It must have been for about eight minutes like that. And finally, Charles kind of blinked and looked the other way. From what I could tell, there was a very strong connection between Sonny and Charles. I guess because they grew up in that era –the ‘50s.
(RR:) How did you get with Sonny Rollins’ group? 
(AD:) Again, I found out through a friend that I had in a rehearsal studio in New York that Sonny was holding auditions. This was during that I was freelancing after Chet and Cosmology and all these other people. I auditioned with Sonny  and there were two other people auditioning, they were both guitarists and there was already a guitarist in Sonny’s band. Sonny, at the time, was playing around with the idea of using guitarists as well as replacement for the piano. And when it came to ballads the other guitarists could not really cut it and Sonny likes to play ballads. I think that might have been one of the reasons why I got the chair.  
(RR:) How does he conduct an audition? Does he play?
(AD:) Yeah, he plays. We play just like we would be playing at a set. And everybody plays a tune with him and gets a chance to solo.
(RR:) What was the role of Sonny Rollins’ wife Lucille on his music, or on the band, or on the Sonny Rollins you saw?
(AD:) She was the one that took care of the business. I think she is a central figure in his life. She always struck me as a very warm person, someone on whom Sonny depended, but maybe he did not say he did.
(RR:) Who do you feel was making decisions about the music, the direction the music was going?
(AD:) It is hard to say with Sonny.
(RR:) You are not sure it was him all the time?
(AD:) It might have been him, but I am not sure of the reasons why he was making those decisions. Let us put it this way, as far as the musical material, I did not have a whole lot of liking for some of the material that he chose. A lot of it seemed to me very repetitive.
(RR:) Why do you suppose he chose it?
(AD:) I suppose he chose it because he wanted to get across to a larger audience.
(RR:) You felt that he was actively trying to do that.
(AD:) Yeah. I felt Sonny always had a desire to get across to a larger audience, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but for someone of his stature and creativity in terms of his playing, improvising, it was certainly a surprise to see him play material that was not challenging.
(RR:) Did you have any moments of inspiration from him while you were playing?
(AD:) Oh, more than moments, I would say hours. As a performer, Sonny would constantly amaze me with his inventiveness, his wit, his stamina, his resourcefulness. There was one anecdote which I will never forget. We were playing up at Jazz Workshop in Boston. It is downstairs, it had a restaurant downstairs and the people in the kitchen had a problem with the plumbing. Water was leaking on the floor and it came through the floor and was dripping on the sound booth onto all the electric equipment. This was on Friday night, first set, the house was packed and everybody’s sitting there listening to Sonny Rollins and we were like 20 minutes into the first set and all of a sudden all the power went out in the sound system. No mikes, no electric piano, no electric guitar, nothing. No electric bass, Sonny was using electric bass. So the only people that could play were Sonny and drummer Eddie Moore. So Sonny, turned around and said, “Eddie, drop out.” So Eddie dropped out and Sonny played by himself for 20 minutes until they got the power back on. He was phenomenal. He just kept playing and playing.
(RR:) Why did you stop working with that group?
(AD:) I worked with him in 1977 and 1978. The way it worked out in the end was that we had an engagement at the Gate for two weekends. I took the first weekend. And he was supposed to call me and he never called me, so I called and I said, “Well, what is happening?” He said “Well, I am going to try somebody else.” Sonny might at the time have been looking for somebody who was more deferential. At that point, maybe I was playing too much, too long. Or maybe it had something to do with a recording company that I was unknown, had a strange sounding name, or something like that.
(RR:) Did you find Sonny Rollins was aware of what critics were saying?
(AD:) I was not really too aware of what he was thinking. I do not think he paid too much attention to what critics were saying. I think he paid more attention to what record companies were saying.
(RR:) You also played with Sonny Stitt. He made very little demands, right?
(AD:) Well, it is hard for me to generalize, because I only worked with him twice. That was at the point that Stitt was still involved with drinking, but shortly after he quit. Then I heard him again, about two years later in Norway doing a jazz festival. He really sounded good. And as a human being there seemed to be a lot more warmth and generosity coming out. But at the time I played with him, he did not make too many demands personally, but it was kind of demanding working with him because of this other factor –drinking. It made it so that you had to…
(RR:) Cover?
(AD:) Yeah, in a way. Overlook.
(RR:) How does Billy Harper regard a sideman? Does he want you to come up to his level?
(AD:) With Billy Harper it was on a much more equal level.
(RR:) Did he want it head-on?
(AD:)Yeah. He wanted everybody to really hit it. And I found that very challenging, I mean, you had to be strong with Sonny Rollins, too. But Sonny found it really hard to articulate verbally what he wanted. I do not think I really truly understood what he ever wanted from me, which is unfortunate, because I passed through that band not really knowing why he hired me, not really knowing why he fired me. With Billy I could talk about things. Also Billy’s arrangements were much more challenging.
With Billy I learned a lot about the spiritual thing. Not that I had not had any yearnings or awareness about it before that, but being around somebody like Billy it is inmpossible not to be affected by his state of mind and his ideas and the way he feels about things, especially from the music.
 (RR:) There seems to have been very little reflective glory that has jumped to you with your work with Sonny Rollins and Billy Harper. It does not seem to have propelled you into a more household name. How do you account for that? Is that politics or lack of pushing on your part or overshadowing by the leader?
(AD:) I do not think that it is lack of pushing. It might be that I have worked with strong leaders. I have a tendency, I guess, to be overshadowed.
(RR:) Do you have a sense now of an Armen Donelian piano personality?
(AD:) Yes I do. I feel it is still changing and it is still growing and it will probably always be, I hope. I do not think that I can be the one to kind of sit there and look at myself and say “Well do I have a musical personality which is worth people spending seven or eight dollars an album for?” Maybe for people who go right into playing jazz, improvising right away, they get to this sooner. Maybe it is something that I am coming into a little late. I have been a little late, but I have always gotten there.
(RR:) Yet the scene is littered with sixty year-old musicians who have been out of the scene for 20 years.
(AD:) Well, at this point, it looks like things have been getting better all the time and I have a lot of reason to be hopeful.
(RR:) Do you enjoy a jazz life?
(AD:) Well, I would enjoy it more if I would make a little more money at it, but I certainly enjoy the music and I enjoy the people in the business…. Definable personality, that is a tough one.
copyright 1985 cadence jazz magazine  used with permission