The Second JAM in Yerevan, Armenia

The Second JAM in Yerevan, Armenia

by Armen Manukyan

copyright © 2003 Armen Manukyan

EDITOR'S NOTE: In 2002, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, jazz journalist Howard Mandel (that's me!) toured Armenia and Kiev, Ukraine in celebration of the first Jazz Appreciation Month endorsed and funded by the United States government and separate entities (all identified at Armen Manukyan, deejay, polyglot and music lover, proved to be among the most knowledgable, devoted and curious of the musicians, educators, diplomats and media representatives Mandel met. Activities last year included a "Poetry of Black Americans Reading Contest"; concerts by saxophonist Virginia Mayhew's trio (concentrating on Louis Armstrong material, with a modernist slant), Fulbright fellowship pianist/educator Armen Donelian (solo and trio), and drummer Armen "Chico" Tutunjan (with fine vibist Tigran Peshtmajan); a jazz trivia contest, a jazz painting competition, photo and text exhibitions, educational lectures and an arts press symposium.

The following is Manukyan's report on the second JAM in Yerevan. --


The second Jazz Appreciation Month was presented and sponsored in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, April 9 to 20, 2003, by the Embassy of the United States to Armenia. During these days nearly all Armenia's existing jazz bands, groups and soloists took part in concerts. The events were very widely higlighted by local newspapers, TV channels and FM-stations.

The concerts took place in the Hall of the American University of Armenia and in the recently reconstructed concert hall named after composer Aram Khachaturyan, who is regarded as the principal internationally-renown Armenian. The opening ceremony was held at the AUA. U.S. Ambassador John Ordway spoke, encouraging Armenian musicians and jazz fans to actively participate in this JAM.

The first on the stage performed the Armenian Big Band of Armen Martirosyan. A number of swing standards and compositions of Martirosyan in ethno-jazz style were very enthusiastically accepted by the audience.

Next, pianist Levon Malkhasyan's quartet played "Autumn Leaves," Oscar Peterson's "Blues in F," and variations on Babadjanian's (Armenian composer of Soviet times) tunes, and pianist Vahagn Hayrapetyan's trio played "I'm beginning see the light," "Tea for Two," "Billie's Bounce." Malkhasyan, one of the Yerevan jazz veterans, played this time with some very young musicians, in the easy swing style; Hayrapetyan presented his regular hard bop trio (Kolya Vardanyan, bass, Alex Agamiryan, drums).

The second day -- again in the Hall of AUA: the Band of Armenia Radio and TV band, conducted by Ervand Erznkyan. Traditionally this band plays more pop than pure jazz numbers ("Strangers in the Night," "Besame Mucho," Sinatra's "My Way" and other dance evergreens). The second set was played by Chico & Friends, the quartet of the drummer Armen "Chico" Tutunjan with vibist Tigran Peshtmajan, Simon Dolmazyan -- bass, Armen Alexanian -- guitar. It was good old jazz -- tune ("Memories of You," "Lady, Be Good," "Exactly Like You," "Bouncing With Bud") Chico has played as long as I have known him, approximately 20 years. He plays standards and bebop, in a clear way. Peshtmajan has his own melodic and harmonic ideas, setting him apart from other vibists. This band sets the standard for many Yerevan bands.

Unfortunately, because of heart problems affecting sax-player Armen Husnunts, his well-known Armenian quintet Time Report could not play as scheduled.

Next events took place in Khachaturyan Hall. Karen Gasparyan's bop trio, sax-player Arsen Nersisyan's "Cactus" Latin jazz sextet, and guitarist Armen Petrosyan's flamenco-jazz sextet showed their art to the Armenian jazz fans.

The JAM organizers planned two special events. One, of course, was the final jam-session and the other one a swing dance party, where two big bands played swing tunes one after another for three to four hours in the most prestigous restaurant of Hotel Armenia. A lot of people gathering in the restaurant were happy to dance to great late 1930s - early 1940s tunes like "Chatanooga Choo-Choo," "Moonlight Serenade,"" Begin the Beguine," and "Sing, Sing, Sing."

Special attention should be paid to the guest Ambassadors of Jazz from the USA, the Mike del Ferro trio. The guests presented a program titled "Belcanto -- Opera meets Jazz." From its name one can easily understand that it was famous arias (from Carmen, Traviata, etc.) arranged in jazz style. Pianist del Ferro exhibited good personal technique and good melodism, playing in Bill Evans' manner.

But as happened during the first JAM in 2002, the guest musician Ambassadors of Jazz could show nothing interesting; the arrangements were not original, but very routine. Nothing to attract jazz fans. My personal opinion is that an average Armenian band can play on the same level, and some of them are much more interesting and bright than the guests. I think that the organizers should change the policy in inviting musicians of the second tier for the JAMS.

I understand that everything depends on money, but maybe it is better to invite an artist (even without his band) to show something to local musicians, to encourage them, to play with them, than to bring some group just to say that the American musicans were present at this event.

Besides the pure musical events, the Painting Competition and the Jazz Theory Competition were held.

Another thing which is worth mentioning: After long discussions and even hot debates between me, organizers and some of the local musicians, the Organizers allowed to play at the JAM two young quartets -- "Western" and "INTO." The first one plays crossover, pop-jazz, smooth jazz. The second one -- INTO -- was called the great debut of the JAM and the most interesting group of today. They became heros of the TV and radio programs, and of the newspaper articles. Since they recorded in December 2001, they changed their personnel. Pianist Ruben Satyan, cello and bass player Artem Manukyan [the writer's son -- ed.], and flutist Aram Hovhanisyan remain from the recording; clarinetist Martin Ulikhanian is gone, and Eduard Harutunyan is officially inducted to play exotic percussion -- tablas and Latin instruments, besides Armenian ones. The music has become more Oriental. As the result of their success, INTO was invited to play at the private party organized by Mrs. Ordway, the Ambassador's wife.

Also notable: Unlike the previous jazz events in the Armenian Republic, this time a large number of jazz female vocalists (though not even one male) participated in the JAM. They were local pop singers transformed into singing jazz, mainly, and their level is amateur, not higher, unfortunately. The last real jazz singer in Armenia was Datevik Hovhanesyan, who has lived in the USA for nearly the last ten years.

Every day the Halls were over-crowded, and people talked about JAM in the streets, public transportation, eductional institutes and offices. Very bright posters and program leaflets were designed, printed and distributed. All streets were decorated with these posters.

No question -- JAM is a very important and useful event for Armenian jazzmen, for the development and popularity of jazz in Armenia. And Armenian jazz fans have to say "Thank you" to Kimberly G. Hargan, Hasmik Mikaelyan and Sosi Kakosyan (Public Affairs Dept of the Embassy) for the good organization and great job!


C o m m e n t s

CDsto Armenia 1 of 2
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June 23, 03

The JJA wants to design an ongoing project to distribute contemporary recordings for review to jazz journalists in remote areas of the world. If you have ideas about how the organization can best collect donated CDs on a regular basis for assured shipping to Yerevan, among other locales in Eastern Europe, please contact me:

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