Armen Husnunts -- Armenia's 1st Saxophonist

Armen Husnunts -- Armenia's 1st Saxophonist

by Armen Manukyan

copyright © 2003 Armen Manukyan

Lack of information about a musician does not mean that they don't exist, especially for musicians from the Eastern Block. Armenian saxophone player Armen Husnunts, for one, is an excellent musician, talented teacher and wonderful saxophone player, performing classical music as well as folk, crossover and jazz.

Strangely enough, communist officials regarded him highly when he was a student in the Yerevan Conservatory saxophone class. What does this mean? What became of the others who played in the USSR before the collapse of the system?

Armen Husnunts: "Up until the 1980s the saxophone in Armenia was considered an instrument of the 'rotten bourgeois class,' and all musicians were considered criminal. The instrument itself was not illegal, but saxophone instruction was not welcome. All saxophonists at that time were clarinetists. There were no saxophone classes in conservatories, and even in symphonic orchestras all saxophone players were listed as clarinetists. Not until 1981 were saxophone classes allowed in a music college.

"I was among the first students of this group. My music education actually started with piano. My father was an economist by profession but he loved music very much. My mother was a music historian teaching in a conservatory. Our house always was full of music -- we were singing and listening to records. At that time French music was very popular and so were, of course, Armenian songs. Jazz was not among my parents' favorites.

"At six I started learning to play piano in music school, as was very common in all Soviet families. I loved music and could listen to it for hours, but I hated to practice. Near the end of music school I became a big fan of the Beatles and listened to their records all day long, trying to play their tunes.

"All this was not very serious, but rather just a hobby. Everybody in my family was waiting for the day I would come to my senses and get a real education to become an engineer or economist.

"My friends were playing in a school brass orchestra. I had heard that they were very successful, performing at different school events and getting numerous prizes, and one they invited me to their rehearsal. We were true friends, but they were kind of jealous of me when they were rehearsing because I was doing something else outside their company and because I knew notes and might learn how to play a brass instrument.

"For the sake of our friendship I agreed to come -- I was 13 years old. The conductor looked at me and asked: 'What kind of instrument do you want to play?' I answered: 'Honestly I don't care, I came because of my friends, just to be together.' 'Okay,' said the conductor, 'take the trombone.'

"I did. But all my friends were playing saxophone (which was the most prestigious instrument among them) and they started to push me to switch to saxophone. The conductor agreed and told someone to bring it. They brought an old instrument and I asked them to show me how to play in D major. I was very lucky: it happens rarely that you can do it from the first try -- that the mouthpiece will fit -- but I tried to play D major and I did it from the first shot. It inspired me so much that I took saxophone home for more practicing. Despite the fact that my parents were skeptical about this, I understood that from then on I would play sax."

Armen Manukyan: Who was your first teacher and how were those lessons given, since there were no special guides, no special literature, not even LP recordings of sax?

Armen Husnunts: "The beginning was very unprofessional. My friends were helping me to play saxophone. The only scores available were for symphonic orche stras. It was exciting that they pushed me to play in orchestra right away. I could tell that I was doing pretty well.

"As a matter of fact, I am very thankful to my director of the orchestra, who insisted that I go back to music school and specialize in saxophone. I was lucky because there was space for me in a new saxophone class at the same music school from which I had just graduated.

"I was not too happy with the idea of starting all over again but I had no choice, and everybody was very insistent. When I re-appeared at the school, the principal was shocked. Meanwhile they asked me to come for a test, which I came for intentionally unprepared. I was asked to play something, but I told them that I didn't know the school program requirement. They asked me to play anything I wanted from my favorite melodies. I played 'Yesterday' from Beatles repertoire, and they liked it! I was accepted to the school.

"My first teacher was Edward Bakhchenyan, a former clarinet player. He made me more interested in this instrument and then I fell in love with it. He also explained to me that without hard work nothing could happen. He introduced me to a jazz music. I started to study hard and won prizes at different competitions. My career as a saxophone player succeeded.

"Somewhere in the second or third year of education Bakhchenyan organized an ensemble of saxophonists, like 'Super-Sax,' which was very popular at that time.

"Our band consisted of five saxophonists and a rhythm group. Our first performance, which took place in House of Composers of Armenia at the all-union competition of young musicians, was very successful. It was a full triumph.

"I met the pianist Khachik Sahakyan there, with whom I am playing still in the band Time Report. Thanks to Edward Bakhchenyan, I was connected to jazz music as a performer. Before I was listening basically to rock like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, some jazz-rock like Stevie Wonder and then I stepped into a new era of jazz.

"I remember very well, when my father brought an LP of the Moscow record label Melodia's Duke Ellington meets with Coleman Hawkins. [Originally recorded by Impulse! --ed.] It was absolutely different from what I was used to listening to, and I listened to it over and over again -- this music caught me. When I began to play sax myself, the influence of my teacher, and the whole atmosphere around me was encouraging me to listen to more jazz music, especially music with the saxophone incorporated. I started with Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, and Lester Young. I loved Louis Armstrong and dixieland."

Manukyan: We were talking about your first step in your career as saxophonist. How was this first step?

Husnunts: "I graduated from the school and completely dedicated myself to this quintet. The jazz we were playing was very simple, I would say even primitive, but very effective from commercial point of view. Every week we were performing on a TV show accompanying young singers. Most of these songs were pop songs, and our bandleader tried to bring a scent of jazz music into it.

"My next step was participation in the Yerevan Conservatory Big Band. That was my first experience in big band. We were young musicians but we all worked hard. We played 'In the Mood' by Glenn Miller. It was very good experience."

Manukyan: How did you become a professional musician?

Husnunts: "When the Yerevan Conservatory opened a saxophone class and I was accepted. Which means I became the first legal saxophonist of Armenia. We were learning to play saxophone and be called a saxophonist, not a clarinetist who can play sax.

"It was very nice that I was first, but I was suffering because all my teachers were not professional saxophonists. They were very good clarinetists, and could not give me good advice on how to play saxophone -- many things I had to figure out by myself. It was a time of searching and trying. There was not enough information or literature.

"We were vacationing in a small resort town and I was playing sax all day long. Everybody was sick of my playing. Someone brought news that a very famous Soviet saxophone player Georgiy Garanian was also vacationing in the neighborhood. I visited him and played a few tunes, asking him for advice.

"Of course he did not like how I played and gave me tons of advice, which I used for a long time. All his advice had to do with technique, methods, training and so on. He gave me a wide perspective of work, and after he returned to Moscow where he lived he sent me some books on how to play saxophone published in Bulgaria, scores, etc. I always wondered how a kid of 13 or 14 had been learning to play sax by himself, without teachers and sheet music, so then I tried to go deeper into the theory of music.

"In Conservatory we -- me and Khachik Sahakian -- organized a quartet and played jazz with such a small band. We played mostly compositions of Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, and Dave Brubeck. We were 17-18 years old, full of enthusiasm, playing all day long, performing in front of students and jazz fans and renting small halls. By the way, the halls were always full. We wanted to play jazz and the quality of the performance did not matter to us at that time.

"Then I was recruited into the Army, where I played in a special orchestra. This orchestra was performing only at special occasions such as meetings of foreign guests at the airport, parades, and other government events. It was 1985, during Gorbachev's perestroika when many political changes had happened in the country and we played a lot. In fact the orchestra was very good and consisted of very professional musicians.

"Then I was transferred to the orchestra of IA of USSR. This one was even better; we played not only marches and anthems, but some symphonic and classical music also. I played second alto-saxophone in this orchestra in many prestigious concert halls of the country."

Manukyan: What about the jazz in this two-year period? I don't think you could play a Parker or Coltrane composition in the orchestra of IA of USSR.

Husnunts: "You know, I was lucky again. By that time one of the oldest and most experienced jazzman of Armenia, Alexander Zakharian, moved from Yerevan to Moscow. I knew him from Yerevan and started to visit him often. Every time when I had a chance I visited him at home. He supplied me with records, scores, guidance, and consultation. When I came back from the Army I felt more confident."

Manukyan: That's when you had invitations from different bands?

Husnunts: "Not really. I went back to my old band. The musicians from this band, which was conducted by Khachik Sahakian, began to play for some folk-pop star that had no connection to jazz. It was a period of more commercial performance and playing just for making money. We were doing dozens of different recordings, accompanying different singers in different genres."

Manukyan: When finally did you start to be a serious jazz musician?

Husnunts: "In 1988 I was invited to the best jazz orchestra of USSR, conducted by Constantine Orbelian, and I played with them about a year. Even though I had some experience, this orchestra gave me some more, and then my dream came true: I got into Artashes Kartalian's jazz trio.

"It was my lifelong dream to play with this band. This band was one of the best in Yerevan and they were looking for a saxophonist. They were just waiting for some young musicians to be mature enough to play with them and I was lucky they chose me.

"Artashes Kartalian tried to play jazz with some kind of Oriental rhythms and motifs; he was the first in Armenia to do this. It was what's now called ethno-jazz: it was acoustic jazz, not jazz-rock. I am very thankful to him that he gave me this exposure to such music. We played a lot together at that time doing many recordings and performances, but it happened to be a tough time for the former Soviet republics, and the economic situation convinced many musicians to immigrate to the US.

"I was again alone. In 1992 a very famous drummer, Armen 'Chico' Tutunjian, gathered a band with some young musicians by the name Chico and Friends. This band was very different from Artashes Kartalian's band. Chico prefers to play classical jazz in its pure form. And here I found that I don't have enough 'words' to express my emotions and thoughts using this 'language.' I decided to go back and learn to play Parker and Young."

Manukyan: About three or four years ago you and Khachatour Sahakian established a band that was playing ethno-jazz. Is it a reversion to old dreams?

Husnunts: "When I played with Chico, I met Vardan Arakelian, who played on bass, and with Khachatur we were thinking about organizing a band that would play the music we liked most, and there we were with the our very own group; Tigran Peshmajian, vibraphonist joined us, and we played in the club Down Town."

Manukyan: Did you play as good as now?

Husnunts: "No, but we played very bravely and with great pleasure. At the beginning we were four: sax, bass, percussion and vibraphone. Sometimes Khachatour Sahakian accompanied us. Suddenly we understood that we must have a band with permanent musicians. There were some minor changes, but finally we have a band, which is known now as Time Report."

Manukyan: You went through different bands, which were playing pop, traditional jazz. How did it happen that the band you established is now playing ethno-jazz?

Husnunts: "From my childhood I loved Armenian composer Komitas, even more than Mozart and Beethoven. Evidently it's my very strong Armenian genes, then the themes of genocide, and stories told by the relatives. All this created very colorful and deep emotions. I always wanted to play exactly this type of music. And if not to forget that I also loved to listen to rock music, such a conglomerate has been born. Khachik Sahakian also wanted to play this type of music. That's how it happened."

Manukyan: You are a jazzman. Do you think that the music you are playing now is considered jazz?

Husnunts: "First of all, for me, jazz is an improvisation, which means that it's a music that was born right now, at this moment. This gives me a sense of great sincerity. It's like a meeting of two people; like you preparing yourself for a speech ahead of time to avoid the mistake. But if you meet the person suddenly, usually you don't have time to make something up, so you speak out of what you think. Same thing in jazz. And if I listen to my records, I remember exactly what was in my mind at the time I played. This is what I value most."

Manukyan: What is your opinion about experimenting with folk music and folk instruments?

Husnunts: "I think it matters if this is really necessary from a creation point of view. Sometimes it is just a matter of experiment, commercial or exotic. It could be very attractive, nice-looking, but has no essence, no core inside. From my point of view, it should not happen. Everything has to be natural and sincere."

Manukyan: What instrument was your first one? Was it Soviet-made, and were there any domestic-made ones?

Husnunts: "No, it was German. I'll tell you one story about it. At the first day of my work in a musical school, the principal brought three absolutely new Soviet instruments and asked me to give a try at playing something. So I did, and hardly could make any clear sound; their quality was horrible."

Manukyan: What instruments are now in use by the Armenian musicians, and where are they getting them?

Husnunts: "Mostly everybody is using German or Czech made instruments. They are not the best quality, but still you can play music with them. The real good instrument is hard to find here. You have to ask friends who are traveling abroad to buy there."

Manukyan: What instrument are you using now?

Husnunts: "My alto and tenor are Selmer Super Action VI. I think that these are the best ones in the world. All stars are using them. Frankly I don't own them, the orchestra does. My own instrument is Ducher. I brought it from Sweden. It's cheaper and lower in class, but still hard to find in Yerevan. There are no other options."

Manukyan: Does the life of saxophonists become better with the change of political climate?

Husnunts: "No doubt. More video records, scores and guidebooks are now available. But the market is still chaotic; there are no system of teaching, no real good school and no teachers. I think that there is no demand for all this stuff like instruments and accessories, and no stable market. While the whole economical situation is unstable no one would seriously thinking of bringing more instruments, which cost thousands of dollars, when the average salary is $20-$30 per month."

Manukyan: Okay, Armen, let's go back to music. What do you listen in you spare time at home?

Husnunts: "Well, when I am at home and just relaxed, I can listen to classical or old big time jazz. I don't listen to rock music at all. If I am exercising or want to get some new information -- then it's different. I love Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, etc.

Manukyan: Soft jazz is very popular now. Have you ever thought about trying to play it? This type simultaneously is commercial and popular and welcomed by any auditorium.

Husnunts: "Our first two recorded albums were exactly this style. That's how we started. It was some sort of transition period, from traditional mainstream to a type of music we are playing now. Time to time we are still playing soft jazz. By the way, one of the American radio stations has aired a composition from our second album.

Manukyan: I know you have principles, but let's imagine that you would be offered a lot of money for playing music which you don't like. Would you play?

Husnunts: "Probably, yes. I'll explain why. First of all, the financial situation of our musicians is very hard, and we are taking any offers. Secondly, even if it is a bad music, it's still music and somebody has to play it. I am, as a professional, always trying to keep it up and play my party as best as possible. Refusing to play is, I think, unprofessional."

Manukyan: In which countries and halls have you performed?

Husnunts: In Georgia at the International Jazz Festival, where musicians like Jean-Luc Ponty, Michael Urbaniak and Billy Cobham were performing also. In Syria, at the first Euro-Arab Jazz Festival; in Germany at World Exposition Expo-2000; in Russia, Lebanon, Sweden, and a few times in the US, at the jazz clubs Catalina and the Baked Potato (Los Angeles area). I was jamming with such musicians as Joe Sample, Arto Tuncboyadjian and Chick Corea at Yerevan Jazz Festival 2000."

Manukyan: What did you feel when you were performing all night long at Yerevan club Poplavok with Chick Corea?

Husnunts: "It was a night after the festival. We finished playing and could take a rest, but there happened to be an opportunity to play with Chick Corea. Naturally, I could not possibly lose it. To say that I was excited is to say nothing. We were playing Armenian music, well known, which I played many times, and everything must be okay. But Chick Corea began leading improvisation of this Armenian folk music on his own, and we were trying to follow this direction. We did it really well, and listeners were happy, too."

Manukyan: Besides performing with Time Report, you are directing the State Jazz Orchestra of Armenia and also playing in State Symphony Orchestra of Armenia. How can you do it?

Husnunts: "Well, with the big band I am basically doing rehearsals. The music arranging and performance on a stage is directed by Armen Martirosian, who is chief conductor of the band. I started my collaboration with the Symphonic Orchestra about ten years ago, playing saxophone. I traveled with this Orchestra to a few countries, playing repertoire by Leonard Bernstein, George Besset, Morris Ravel and other composers. This was, you understand, just a job and not a vocation."

Manukyan: Are you still teaching?

Husnunts: "No. I tried to teach in musical school, conservatory, I had private students, but it did not work, because of the nature of my performing activity. I was absent for a long time, and my students were burdened by this. So I quit."

Manukyan: And my last question: What kind of music, do you think, musicians will play in the next century? Looks like everything has been played already.

Husnunts: "I think the real musicians will play the real music. Those who have to 'say' something will continue to do so, no matter what genre, or type of instrument -- acoustic or electronic. What matters is that this music has to be sincere and soulful. Parker, Coltrane, Ellington will definitely remain. All innovation, which was created just for experiment, will remain -- as an experiment. If the musician has nothing to say to the people, he would never become a real musician. The content, that's what matters."

Armen Manukyan is a broadcaster and jazz correspondent based in Yerevan, Armenia. See also his report on Jazz Appreciation Month 2003.

C o m m e n t s

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