In addition to my formal activity in Armenia described so far - both in the classroom and on the concert stage - I exchanged much information through informal contact and social gatherings with students, musicians and music professionals.
Jazz clubs are, of course, a place where all Jazz musicians congregate to socialize, perform, listen, hone their craft, and conduct business of one kind or another. Yerevan has a small but dedicated Jazz scene, with two venues that present Jazz music nightly - Poplavok and Subway. Both are very different and exemplify a general dichotomy in the world of Jazz.
Poplavok is a restaurant with live Jazz music, a stylish tourist attraction with cafe tables overlooking a large pond surrounded by a park in central Yerevan. Its owners clearly subsidize it with outside income of unknown origin, and apart from the fact that well-known pianist Levon Malkhasyan coordinates the Jazz music schedule, Poplavok's relationship to the Jazz artists it presents is indifferent at best. Pay scales are around $8.-$10. USD per night, and the audience is comprised mostly of people whose interest in Jazz is as a backdrop to their conversation.
On the other hand, Subway is a real Jazz club, the place Jazz musicians prefer to go when they're not working. It's a small, smoke-filled room one flight down from street level on a busy downtown thoroughfare. Subway offers little on the menu, allows the musicians to play whatever pleases them, and attracts an audience that listens, knows the music and supports it. Its pay scale, unfortunately, is about the same as at Poplavok.
During March and April, I appeared several times at both clubs as a substitute for one of the regular local pianists, Vahag Hyrapetian (who coincidentally was on tour in Europe during my Fulbright residency).Hyrapetian, an apprentice of American Bebop guru Barry Harris, is a forceful proponent of Jazz in Armenia. Filling in for him gave me the opportunity to quickly re-establish my connection with the community of Armenian Jazz lovers. I played with a trio and in a quartet joined by the excellent vibraphonist Tigran Peshtmajian [fig 41]. However, I limited my performances in these venues due to my other teaching and performing duties and the smoky Jazz club air.
My informal activity also included attending several concerts of classical music. Thanks to my friend Kolya Vardanian, my bassist and a full-time cellist with the Yerevan Philharmonic Orchestra, I received complimentary tickets to performances of Mozart's Requiem on March 23rd and Mahler's 5th Symphony on April 8th. While both performances were admirable, particularly the Mahler for all its intricacies, the conductor occasionally lacked expressiveness and rushed the tempo. The hall was chilly like most public buildings which suffer from a short supply of heating oil.
On both occasions Vardanian invited me to his apartment to warm up a bit with some apr≤s-concert food and conversation with his wife and two young daughters. On the first, his friend Ashrak, an orthopedic surgeon, dropped by unexpectedly. We liked each other immediately, and spent the evening talking and exchanging views on a wide range of subjects. On the second, two trombonists from the orchestra and a visiting rock drummer from Amsterdam joined us for a memorable, impromptu celebration of life.
On April 23rd, Yerevan was graced with another performance of the Mozart Requiem at the Yerevan Chamber Music Hall by a different orchestra and choir under the baton of a different conductor. I was accompanied by one of my students, a flutist whose boyfriend was performing the trombone solo. The hall was again frigid and, for acoustical reasons, it had been rearranged so the the performers would be on the opposite side from where they normally would perform. The acoustics were very clear, if somewhat dry and differing considerably from those at the expansive Philharmonic Hall. It was a well-attended concert, with several dignitaries including the American Ambassador to Armenia present. I had good seats with a side view of the conductor, a small, thin man, elegant and handsome with white, shoulder-length blow-dried hair who announced that the soprano soloist was a last-minute replacement for the original whose voice disappeared that morning. This conductor was very deliberate, passionate and attentive to the many contrapuntal details of Mozart's clear and compelling music. In so many ways, I enjoyed it much more than the first performance.
After the piece was over, there was much applause with the requisite flowers for the conductor and all the soloists. I stood to applaud, after which many others and eventually the entire audience did, and shouted "Bravo!" (something I never do). I was stirred by the dedication of the orchestral and choral musicians who continue to uphold the highest European concert traditions in Armenia despite low wages and poor working conditions.
Privately, I offered lessons to several of the advanced musicians in Armenia who I knew from and with whom I had performed during previous visits. Two in particular, vibraphonist Tigran Peshtmajian and tenor saxophonist Arsen Nersesian, are serious, talented and worth mentioning. Peshtmajian, originally a drummer who taught himself how to play the vibraphone, is a lyrical, fluent exponent in the Milt Jackson/Gary Burton tradition [fig 42]. Nersesian, whose first instrument is also the drums and in addition plays piano, arranges and leads a group called The Wheelers, has the sound of Lester Young crossed with an iconoclastic musical temperament that embraces Classical, Jazz, Latin, Bebop, Hip-Hop and just about everything else [fig 43]. I accepted no monetary compensation for this service which, in any case, was a joy.
On several memorable occasions I was invited by people into their homes and lives to share musical and personal interests during which we ate, drank, discussed and played music together and for each other. This kind of intercultural association has its own reward that is beyond price, and is one of the indescribable benefits of an extended stay such as made possible by the Fulbright Award.
During four visits to Armenia, the Manukyans have become my second family. Whenever I go to Armenia, I see them often. Kosta, the father, plays flute; Sveta, the mother, plays piano and teaches; Nelly, the oldest child, plays flute and piano; Hovik, the youngest, plays violin, piano, organ and composes. All are masters of their craft. Both children are students at YSC. I became acquainted with Nelly in 1998 when, during my first YSC workshop, her father brought her to me to study Jazz. I've spent many hours playing and listening to music and discussing life with them and their relatives over the course of many dinners.
Through Sash Mayilyan, a Jazz guitarist and participant in the YSC master class, I met his brother Boris Andreasyan, also an accomplished guitarist who had spent four years working in many styles as a freelance studio musician in Los Angeles while his wife Gayane and two sons remained in Armenia. They invited me to their apartment on May 2nd for an afternoon jam session with several local musicians and students that turned into a dinner lasting until late in the evening [fig 44].
Anahit Kirakosyan, a vocalist, pianist, performer on several native Armenian Folk instruments and professor of Folk Music at YSC (see Jazz Library above), had become familiar with me through my work with Jazz vocalist Datevik Hovanesian, an ≥migr≥ living in New York City. Anahit graciously arranged a dinner at her home on May 4th during which she played videotaped performances of concerts of Folk music she produced and in which she performed. She concluded the evening by singing several folksongs with me accompanying her at the piano [fig 45].
Ruzanna Simonyan, a pianist, composer and teacher, asked me with her husband architect Arik to have dinner on May 5th to meet their nine year old daughter, Nara, who at the age of seven won First and Second Prizes in the Vilnia (Lithuania) Children's Piano Competition. Ruzanna also offered me sketches of several of her beautiful compositions.
In addition, I can't report all the hospitality I've received from so many people on so many occasions during this and previous visits to Armenia, but several people stand out in my mind as having been especially kind to me: