21 November 2014, 12:46
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A Jazzman's Journey: Our Interview with Vahagn Hayrapetyan

The city is still buzzing from last night's Herbie Hancock concert in Yerevan’s Opera Theater. Inspired by the incredible skill and personality of this legendary American jazzman, ImYerevan has decided to dig up an interview with local jazzer, Vahagn Hayrapetyan, who has helped shape the face of jazz music in Armenia today. In this interview, he describes everything from his personal journey with jazz, to his experience teaching Tigran Hamasyan, to his most despised jazz tunes, and everything in between.

What was the moment you realized you wanted to play jazz?

My first jazz experience as a player was in 1979, when I went to Poland with my mother. It was my first time in a live jazz club. A friend of ours asked if I could play something. It was the first time I had ever seen a Fender Rhodes piano. And so, I started playing. And there was one old man, and it turned out he was a very famous Polish saxophone player, Yanusz Muniak. He came and started playing with me. I was 11 years old or something and he told me one thing. He said,  “Man, by the time you become a real jazz musician, I’ll be a very old man.” But he was old already! [laughs]

Anyways, I met him again years later, when I was in a jazz festival, and I reminded him. And he remembered. But after that, I said to myself, “Man, that gives me a lot of hope because it means that I have the ability to become a real jazz musician.” So, that turned me on.

 

What would you say are the main differences between jazz in Armenia today versus how it was during the Soviet years?

Dedication. People were more dedicated to music then, than they are now. The ideology, you know? They had the ideology. It’s not only, “Oh, let’s play something modern so we can be famous and make more money.” That was not about that at all back then. It was all about love. We used to escape from our school lessons, like, jump from the balconies and go play somewhere. Regardless of whether we’re gonna get paid or not.

To me, in Soviet Armenia, there was even more jazz then than there is now. They used to have jazz festivals here. Not a real big international jazz festival, but smaller ones, and a lot of people would come from outside. For example, in 1979, I saw B.B. King here with the big band in Yerevan. Also, from Russia, they used to come all the time. We used to do, what we called, a  like a Soviet, a Union Jazz Festival from around the whole Soviet Union… Georgia, even Azerbaijan, and Russia, all the way, you know, St. Petersburg. We used to do serious jazz every year. Recently, though, we’ve only had this “one year of jazz,” dedicated to “70 years Armenian jazz.” I don’t get that ‘Armenian Jazz’ thing. To me, when an Armenian’s playing jazz, that’s Armenian jazz, you know? 

But back in Soviet time, there was no internet, nothing. No records, nothing. We used to travel from one city to another city to buy a record. We’d pay an enormous amount of money – in that time – you know, like I would pay a hundred dollars for a record. [laughs] Here, it was better than in the rest of the USSR, though. Because the Armenian diaspora is everywhere, I could just ask my cousins in France to bring me some jazz records. There used to be a Willis Conover jazz hour I listened to on Voice of America radio station. I used to have a little radio that I would hide under the pillow because my grandmother always told me, “They’re gonna come after you! They’re gonna take you!” Like, the KGB. [laughs] Because she was from that period. She was like, “Man, you have to be careful! Don’t listen to that Voice of America. They know! They’re gonna come and take you!” So I was hiding, and it was very bad reception of the broadcast and lots of interruptions. 

 

It’s well known that you’ve lived in New York City. When did you go and why?

I went to New Orleans for the first time in my life in United States when I was 25 years old. It wasn’t my first time in the US, but it was my first time by myself, all alone. A young boy, who doesn’t speak good English. I had signed a contract with this label to record an album in New Orleans and my plane ticket was Yerevan – Moscow, Moscow – New York, New York – New Orleans. But I didn’t know what was going on, so I missed my layover flight to New Orleans and had to take a Grey Hound bus the rest of the way. [laughs] It was like 2 days of, craziness, like 50 hours. So that’s why my first album’s called “Trip to New Orleans".

This image is the cover of Hayrapetyan’s first album, “Trip to New Orleans” where he went by the shortened version of his name ‘Vahag Petian’. This image is the cover of Hayrapetyan’s first album, “Trip to New Orleans” where he went by the shortened version of his name ‘Vahag Petian’.

But on my way back from New Orleans, I decided to change my ticket. I came to New York and said, “Okay, I’m just staying for how long, however long I have my visa.” So I stayed for 3 months and stayed with a friend, an Armenian sculptor, until I met more friends – great jazz musicians in New York. 

My first night in New York, I put my suitcase in this guy’s apartment in Queens and said, “Okay, I’m going down town.” I didn’t know nothing about New York. My first time, alone – all alone. Very little English. I took an N train, but I didn’t know where the hell I was going, like, “N Train? N Train? Okay, but where, who, why?”

Old map of NYC Subway from the 1970s, an overwhelming sight for young Hayrapetyan, who had little to prepare him for his visit to the Big Apple. Image from http://untappedcities.comOld map of NYC Subway from the 1970s, an overwhelming sight for young Hayrapetyan, who had little to prepare him for his visit to the Big Apple. Image from http://untappedcities.com

So, I said, “Okay, enough. Let’s get out from here and see where I am.” [laughs] I’m looking around and I know nothing. So I go and buy this TIME magazine. And there’s two homeless guys down there on the street, listening to Charlie Parker, with a big tape recorder. I said, “Wait a minute, man, where can I find good jazz, like jam sessions? This kind of music, I wanna find good music.” They said, “Man, you have to go to Smalls!” Smalls is a jazz club, in the Village. So, they gave me directions, I paid him 5 bucks – it was a lot. I assumed if they’re listening to this music, they’re probably musicians. So I took another train and all of a sudden, I appear in Greenwich Village. Village Vanguard is here, Sweet Basil is there, Blue Note is there, Smalls is there, Fat Cat is over there. I thought, “Oh, my God – this is where I wanna be!” Exactly! The first night – but the jam starts real late, like midnight.

Some of the famous NYC jazz clubs Hayrapetyan mentions in our interview.Some of the famous NYC jazz clubs Hayrapetyan mentions in our interview.

When I got there they hadn’t started yet. There was a big line and I saw there was a $20 cover charge, so I ask the door guy, like, “Can I stay until the end?” And he said, “Well, if you stay alive, you can stay!” So I stayed the whole night, until 6AM. I jammed, I played with them, with these guys. And we became friends, like really good friends. Ari Roland, Blake Nassau, great musicians. All these people. So I played all night with those guys, and they seemed to like my playing. We hung out all night and morning. And then I asked, “Hey man, I wanna find Barry Harris,” and I found out all these people studied with Barry Harris when they were like 10 years old. 

 

That brings us to our next question. How did you land the opportunity to study with the famous jazz pedagogue Barry Harris?

The next day I went to this Charlie Parker concert. Every year in the summer time, on his birthday, they do like a birthday concert. But I got there late because I didn’t know the directions. I got there when the Jimmy Hit Big Band was playing last few numbers and I see Barry Harris playing with the Big Band. And I say, “Wait a minute, man, that’s him!” And I see all the people from the night before at Smalls, the club musicians, everybody was there. And when the band finished playing, everybody ran to Barry Harris.

Famous jazz pedagogue Barry Harris. Image from www.jazzwax.comFamous jazz pedagogue Barry Harris. Image from www.jazzwax.com 

And I was standing there, just waiting until the crowd passed until he was free. Because a bunch of people were around him, talking and asking questions. And when everybody left, he looked at me. I was standing there in the corner, all by myself, very shy, thinking, “That’s him. That’s Barry Harris.” So he looks at me and says, “Young man, what do you want?” And I’m like, “Man, I’m Avo’s friend.” “Avo? What Avo?” And I start to remind him about a mutual friend that we had. He’s like, “Ohhh!” He just gives me a big hug and when I hug him, I start crying. And when he saw that, he’s like, “Are you a piano player?” I’m like, “Yeah.” And he took a big piece of paper, wrote all his numbers, all the addresses that he’s teaching, like all details. And he says, “I will see you in my class tomorrow!” And that’s it! 

So, I went there the next day to his class, and the day after that, he called me and said, “You come tomorrow to my vocal choir rehearsal.” So I went to the rehearsal, then I started helping him out with comping [piano accompaniment] while he conducted. And at some point he said, “Man, I might not let you go.” [laughs] That, I will remember all my life. I was sitting next to him at the piano and he’s like, “Man, I might not let you go.”

He loves me. I don’t know why, but he loves me. So that’s how I met him. 

 

One of your students, Tigran Hamasyan, has gone on to be quite successful on an international scale. What was it like to teach someone like that?

Tigran was 11 or 10 years old, when his uncle brought him to my house. And he was playing half of the “Autumn Leaves.” Only the first half. Anyways, yeah, Tigran was a young kid. You can still find him on YouTube when he was young. Even then, he was still swinging. 

A shot of Hayrapetyan's well known student, Tigran Hamasyan, performing at Cafesjian Center for the artsA shot of Hayrapetyan's well known student, Tigran Hamasyan, performing at Cafesjian Center for the arts

You know, Tigran was so interested in that music. He would come to my house for a lesson. I didn’t even count how many hours we did because I was interested. You know? It was interesting for me. And it was interesting for him. Like, “Let’s do this, let’s play this. Learn more songs.” By the time we would eat dinner in his house, he would have transcribed the whole Bud Powell solo.

But he is a practice guy. I am not. He is. He’s a serious practice guy. We used to do 2 lessons a week for, I don’t know how many, hours, I didn’t count. And he was so quick. You know, I would give him something, and the next time he would come, he was already ready. So fast forward a year or two later, he was subbing me in the clubs. He was 15 years old! I would go for a tour, and I would send him to sub me in the clubs because he was the only one who could play. It was good experience for him and he was making great money. [laughs] By the time he was 10 or 15, he was doing pretty well, you know? [laughs]

 

Didn’t you have an opportunity to live outside of Armenia? Why did you decide to stay?

To me, you should stay true to your roots. You know, like the apricot tree? It’s here, and in the states, apricots have a different taste. That apricot tree belongs to Armenia, you know? That taste? That – I don’t know – that color? That smell? We belong here. And when you disregard that, something’s gonna happen. 

I never had that wish to leave. To go and live somewhere else. Because, first of all, I’m traveling a lot. And secondly, I belong here. This is my place. Here, I am who I am. I don’t want to be Americanized, Europeanized. I don’t want to be and I can’t be. Because I belong here. I drink this water, I drink this coffee. This water, you cannot find anywhere. It comes from here, it comes from the mountains.

Vahagn Hayrapetyan himself, manning the keys.Vahagn Hayrapetyan himself, manning the keys.

What would you say to young people living in Armenia today who want to play jazz?

First, you’ve gotta understand if you’re doing it because you really like this music, or if you’re just want to be part of the crowd. Because for me, nobody taught me how to play jazz. I was already playing jazz by the time I met all these festivals. Because I was listening, I was aready playing jazz festivals by the time I met Barry Harris, I was already playing. But then, when I met him, he showed me another view. He opened different doors. But I knew what was going on where musically.

But most importantly, it’s not about the money. That will come. Especailly if you want to go to the U.S. at any point. I went really deep into that scene, which is pretty hard. You can break your neck very easy. You have to know what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. But once they see that you’re dedicated, when you’re there and they see that you’re trying, it gets better. But if they see you’re just coming to bullshit and show off, they’ll just throw a chair on your head, that’s it. That will be the last time you can be there. It’s a very hard scene, especially because it’s primarily in the black community and there’s a feeling like, “White mother****ers coming and stealing our music!” [laughs]

It takes years for people to work up to the greats in jazz. For example, when I first heard Monk, I was like, “What is this cat doin’?” But then, after years, I was like, “Oh my god, what is this cat doin’?” Oof! The same expression, but in a different way, you know? Like when I start to really get into it, transcribing and stuff. Wow. His songs? They are the simplest songs. He’ll have an 8 bar melody song. He’s the simplest, simplest piano player – one of the simplest. But he’s the most rhythmic, and the most harmonic revolutionizer of music, you know? He revolutionized all this stuff, but he went at it another way. Once you’re there, and you’re serious about it, things will take care of themselves. 

You know, one time, a clever man told me, he said, “Man, if you take care of music, music will take care of you.” 

 

Check out Hayrapetyan's New York Yerevan Quartet, as they play a jazz arrangement of the well-known tune 'Yerevan-Erebuni', it'll take you're breath away and help you to understand Barry Harris's feeling towards Vahagn Hayrapetyan: "Man, I may never let you go!" 

 

 

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