Fulbright Lecturer Armen Donelian Takes Jazz on the Road to Armenia



Photo by Judy Benvenuti

Composer and jazzman Armen Donelian is heading eastward to Russia and Armenia this March to perform and teach as a Fulbright Scholar. After a week of concerts and master classes in St. Petersburg, Donelian will travel to Yerevan, Armenia to teach for three months as a Fulbright Lecturer at the Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory.

Donelian is not a pioneer bringing jazz to Armenia. American jazz has been played there since the 1920s. “I think [Americans] really don’t understand or realize how important it is,” Donelian says. “Especially in countries such as the former Soviet Union, where it was broadcast by the Voice Of America radio for many years, jazz is seen as a symbol of freedom and in some ways defiance of the political system that existed there until the collapse of communism. And still that feeling about jazz continues. People love it and see it as an expression of their own freedom.”

Since its introduction, jazz has taken on its own life in Russia and Armenia well beyond the occasional visiting foreign artists or imported recording. Each country also produces a number of their own musicians, a talent pool Donelian hopes to foster during his time abroad. “There are quite a number of excellent jazz musicians that have come from Russia. And now that records and other cultural exchanges are more feasible, you see a lot of young people playing jazz in Armenia and Soviet Georgia and a lot of other places. There are jazz clubs opening there now, jazz festivals. It’s quite more present there than one would think.”

Though historically jazz remains firmly rooted in America, countries all over the world have adapted jazz into there own national music, says Donelian. “The whole element of improvisation, and jazz language per se, is fused in that music, but its roots are definitely in America.”

But the development of the genre in a particular geographic area often depends on the availability of recordings and the frequency of performances by international performers, Donelian explains. “In places like Russia and in Armenia, there haven’t been as many [performances] as in some of the western European countries over the years just because of the lack of cultural exchange in those countries. That’s part of the reason why I’m going on this trip-to actually be there and work with the students there and play with the musicians. It’s an opportunity that they don’t often get with visiting musicians.”


Donelian with students
Photo courtesy Armen Donelian

The barrier is basically one of economics. “There’s not enough support to bring in foreign artists. And that influence that would have been gained is then missed. So, that’s why the Fulbright program is such a great opportunity for me to be a kind of cultural ambassador in that way.”

The Fulbright will also quite literally buy him more time, allowing him three months to work on a much deeper level with students and to travel to various cities throughout Armenia. He also plans to develop a long-term curriculum in jazz with the faculty at the conservatory. Ultimately, he says, this trip will hopefully be “a broadening and deepening of what I’ve done there before.” He plans to develop new master classes and try out ideas for use in clinics and workshops when he returns to the United States. “It will be an opportunity for me to use it as kind of proving ground for some of my ideas that perhaps I’d like to use in clinics and workshops when I come back to the States. So there are many levels to it.”

Donelian has already made several trips to Armenia in recent years and found that Armenian jazz musicians bring their own distinctive voice and experiences to the music. However, he says, “that’s always the case. That’s the beauty of jazz. It allows for the personal expression of the performer, because jazz is a very inclusive and wide-open kind of music.”

Donelian, born to Armenian parents in New York City in 1950, says he was personally motivated to begin this project out of a curiosity about his Armenian roots. “Part of what I wanted to do was kind of reconnect with my heritage through the language and through the music. I played with Armenian musicians in groups over the years but I always felt that I’d like to go to Armenia some day.” But it is also, he feels, “another way to utilize what I have learned as an instructor at the New School for the last 15 years and what I’ve done in my professional life in New York since 1975 to benefit the musicians over there and also to stretch myself a little bit.”

Donelian will be back in his teaching role at the New School by fall term, but even before he leaves for this trip, he is already looking forward to future returns. “I’m sure that it’s going to be a continuing project and that I’ll be going back again.”