12 August 2013, 15:18
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Jazz Improvisations in Time and Space

When the voices of children playing under the wisteria subsided and the sun’s last rays turned the neighboring buildings every shade of pink, the only sound was the hushed laughter of young couples strolling the narrow passages of Isahakian Street under the protective umbrellas of old acacia trees. At midnight another sound began to drift down from one open window to another – the majestic low baritone of Willis Conover followed by the equally wonderful singing of other great jazz musicians. It was “The Jazz Hour” on the radio - a magnificent reminder of a world free of political boundaries and restrictions. Unexpectedly, a mature and velvety voice of a girl joined in, a voice resembling that of the immortal ladies of jazz: Ella, Sarah, and Billy. It was the voice of Tatevik.

Armenians who grew up in Armenia have known Tatevik from the time that she was 11 years old. Since her first appearance with Orbelian’s Jazz Band she has left an indelible imprint on Yerevan’s cultural landscape. Tatevik comes from a family of famous musicians. Her mother, Ophelia Hambartsumian, is the “Queen of Armenian folk song” and her father, a folk musician is a master kamancha player Norair Hovanesian. Tatevik chose a purely musical genre for her artistic expression - jazz. For the younger generation she represented something very special – an individual who did something different and with her own style in a time of enforced artistic and cultural conformity. Many young Armenians liked jazz, collected records, and listened quietly to the sounds on their short wave radios. Some fanatically followed the daily “Jazz Hour” with its host Willis Conover. The majority of jazz lovers at this time were in the stage of acquiring jazz culture as consumers, while Tatevik performed for the public and produced jazz. This was during the Cold War era, when one had to strike a balance between the officially approved repertoire and actually playing Western music (if one was brave enough). The attractive, slender and petite girl, always dressed in casual “Western” clothes, became a cultural icon for many. In her daily life, however, this brilliant jazz vocalist was very reserved and publicity-shy.

Tell me about the seventies. How were they for you? Did you have the freedom to choose your repertoire, or you were bound to strike a balance between the official cultural establishment and your own musical tastes?
I can’t say that anyone tried to control me, or told me what to perform. I was free to choose what to perform.

You were the official “First Lady of Jazz” in the USSR for nine consecutive years before moving to the U.S. What did that title give you? Were there any additional privileges, favorable performance opportunities, or special royalties?
Of course, popularity brought me certain privileges. I traveled a lot, and I had the opportunity to perform with the best jazz bands of the time. But that kind of popularity is different from the notion of being popular in the U.S.; the “business” aspect was less prevalent in the entertainment industry of the former USSR. Back then there was great and enduring respect for artists. I was invited to all the jazz festivals, I had my own style, and my opinion was always taken into consideration, both by the audience and by the musicians.

I remember around 1984 a small club opened in the basement of 32 Komitas Street in Yerevan. I was fortunate to listen to many talented, young performers of the time – you seemed so much at ease there…
Of course, I remember it very well. The club was called Azat Zhamants (Leisure Time). Arthur Grigorian, who organized it, was not only my artistic partner, but also a close friend; we collaborated for many years. Arthur created all kinds of opportunities for me, he wrote many songs especially for me. They immediately became hits – “Dzyoun,” “Nor Tari,” and other songs. At Azat Zhamants, there was an atmosphere of unbounded freedom and camaraderie, and we were impatient for the arrival of the evening to come together again and jam. Those were very good times, I will always cherish those memories.

Many of us left Yerevan and moved here, to the U.S., or to other places. What was your story?
It is quite a story indeed… It’s interesting that you mentioned Azat Zhamants, because my story about moving to the U.S. started in that club. In Azat Zhamants I met my husband, Vahram. He came to Armenia from the U.S. with a group of friends as a volunteer for Zoryan Institute, to conduct and document interviews with survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. They learned that I was singing in a club and came to see the show. After the performance they all approached me, and we got acquainted. I invited Vahram and several of his friends to visit me at home, and a very warm friendly relationship was established between us. There was nothing serious at the time, just a spark of mutual interest. Even before I met him, I was planning to visit the U.S. for a month. I wanted to spend time with my godfather’s family who lived in New York and get a little rest. Learning that I was planning to come to New York, Vahram gave me his contact information in New York. We met and spent a lovely time together, and gradually the nature of our relationships changed. We became closer, fell in love, and eventually got married. That’s how I moved to the U.S. It allowed me to settle down, it gave me stability, and the basis for further advancement. I am very thankful to my husband for being such a wonderful person. Vahram supports me in every way, particularly in my music; without him I would never be able to accomplish my goals in life. He is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

How did you feel professionally about relocating to the U.S.? After all, there are so many talented and professional jazz musicians here. Were you ready to face that kind of competition and challenges?
Of course, nothing came easily. There were a lot of difficulties, and there still are. Many musicians who came to this country were not able to overcome these challenges and returned to Armenia. However, for me there was no other way; the thorny path that I have chosen (and being a musician one always takes a difficult path in life) continued here and probably will continue in the future. But first and foremost, I believe in destiny. Deep inside I always wanted to come to this country. I dreamed of coming for nothing other than the music, but these were just vague, distant dreams. Who would have thought…
Now, I say that I believe in destiny, because my marriage brought me exactly to the place I dreamed about – New York. Also, back in Armenia, I was at a stage in my life when I needed change. Some might not know me well, but I am completely devoid of a sense of superiority, always was and always will be. Moreover, I am extremely self-critical; like many musicians I am my harshest critic. Jazz has always been my life, so I needed to learn more about it, to advance professionally, to get to the roots of this musical form.

But you did perform with the best jazz musicians in the USSR…
It would be fair to say that. Indeed, I was surrounded by wonderful musicians. Igor Brill and his band was one of the best in Russia and my personal favorite. We toured with his band in many cities of the world, both with solo concerts and in prestigious jazz festivals. Even now, when I go back to Russia with my own musicians, we still jam together… Actually, we performed together three times in the past few years.

Tell us about your recent concerts in Russia.
Our first concert in Moscow took place in 2003, fourteen years after I moved to the U.S. I was very nervous before the concert – my Russian was not so good anymore, since I didn’t use it much here in the US. After all, fourteen years had passed; the country, the people, everything had changed. Many musicians moved to other countries. In addition, my artistic name was spelled in a way that was not familiar to the Russian audience. Before they knew me as Tatevik Oganessian, but by the time of my first concert in Moscow in 2003, I spelled my name as Datevik Hovanesian, which is closer to the Armenian pronunciation. Nonetheless, I received a very warm welcome in Moscow. The same happened during my most recent visit to Russia in 2007. The first performance was in St. Petersburg, as part of the International Jazz Festival. I thought, “Who will recognize me after such an absence ?” But when they announced my name, the audience burst into applause. Even before I started singing, people brought me flowers. Gradually, I recognized a lot of familiar faces, noticed my old friends, and jazz critics that I had known before. In spite of the fact that the performances took place in a huge concert hall, the atmosphere was very warm and familiar. Generally, Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) was always my favorite city. In the past I spent a lot of time there. Overall, the concerts were a great success, particularly considering the fact that I presented my Armenian ethno-jazz pieces as well. I was not so sure that the audience would understand my newer work, but it was received unbelievably well. Oh, it was such a pleasant experience.

How can you characterize your unique style?
You see, when I lived in Armenia I performed with various groups, but one thing was constant – I had a classical American jazz repertoire. Although I mostly performed with Russian jazz bands, I always included at least one Armenian folk song. People liked it, they often approached me with questions about these folk improvisations. In a way, I introduced our national heritage to a wider audience with these folk songs. Some reporters even called me an Ambassador of Armenian music. Wherever I went, I presented an introduction about our musical traditions; I spoke about the music of Sayat Nova, Komitas, and our folk traditions. Truly, I did it with a sense of pride. My mother was the greatest mentor in that sense. So when I relocated to the U.S. nostalgia literally choked me at one point. All I needed was a little push for Armenian music, my folkloric identity, to overflow and to transform into a new musical art form. Luckily, I worked at that time with an American-Armenian musician Armen Donelian. I told him how I felt and asked for his help with the instrumental aspects of my project. He immediately agreed. We started with one song, and gradually proceeded until we had sixteen and more songs. Over the course of several years the project resulted in successful concert tours across the U.S. and abroad. During one of the concerts the legendary American- Armenian producer, George Avakian, who was the producer of such jazz giants as Miles Davis, Keith Jarret, and Louis Armstrong, to name a few, approached us with an offer. Being a true Armenian in his heart, he always attended all Armenian cultural events. I have met him on many occasions. He remembered me from my first visit to the U.S. with Orbelian’s Band when I was a little girl. Later, he admitted that from that first encounter he had been interested in my artistic endeavors, particularly in my latest project exploring Armenian ethno-jazz. Even before meeting Mr. Avakian we wanted to release an ethno-jazz CD. After one of our performances here in New York at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, Armen Donelian approached me beaming with excitement and said, “You won’t believe it. George Avakian just offered to produce our CD.” It was a dream come true. When you hear stories like this from others, you think it’s all made up, but in our case the unbelievable happened to be true. The legendary Mr. George Avakian became the producer of my CD Listen to My Heart. I came up with that title, because it was exactly how I felt about my Armenian ethno-jazz creations. And of course, Armen Donelian made critical contributions to the project with his instrumental arrangements.

You have performed in many countries around the globe – if you could remember a single, most memorable performance, which one it would be?
Armenia, undoubtedly. In 1998, I returned to Armenia for the first time for two solo concerts and participation in the International Jazz Festival. Until that moment my ethno-jazz program traveled in many countries around the globe, and everywhere it was received with a great success. However, this was the first time that Armenia could hear its native traditional songs in a completely new musical form – as ethno-jazz. Coincidentally, Listen to My Heart CD was just about to be released by Sony Records.
Time-wise, everything worked out pretty well: the record, the festival, and the two solo concerts. The public was very excited, that was a true triumph. I remember President Kocharian giving me a standing ovation. Everyone there loved my interpretations of Armenian folk songs. My mother, the Queen of Folk Song Ophelia Hambartsumian, completely accepted my work, which was very important to me personally. Last but not least, after so many years living abroad, I came back to Armenia for the first time with my husband, Vahram, so it was a true family reunion. That was the most memorable experience for me. I have had many performances all around the world, but if I had to chose just one – that would be it –Armenia, 1998.

Yes! I attended your concert of that same program here in the U.S. The audience was literally in a sort of a trance - meditation state.
I was in a trance state myself, never mind the audience. Besides, a new genre was created – a genre which the new generation of Armenian jazz musicians picked up and continued. Even some dance groups stage their shows using it. Armenian ethno-jazz has gained a large number of followers over the years. I am happy - it means that my music took off with a life on its own.

Who were your teachers in jazz? Your idols in jazz?
Usually, when this question is posed to a female vocalist the anticipated answer is another female vocalist. However, it was not so in my case. My older brother was the driving force behind my affection towards jazz. He is a professional violinist, a huge jazz fan and he listened to a lot of instrumental jazz and vocalists as well. Following his footsteps, I too started listening to the great masters of instrumental jazz, such as Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, big bands, and, later on, a French group called the Swingle Singers who made wonderful jazz interpretations of classical music, Bach, Mozart, etc. Then gradually I started listening to vocalists – Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dianne Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and others. So all of that developed into a love not only for jazz music in general, but also a love for improvisation. People often compare my style to Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. I think that all of them were part of my musical education. All of these musicians, in their turn, had their own teachers as well. I listened and learned their solos from beginning to end, literally copying them. And of course, I could not avoid the fact that, one way or another, my style, the modulation of my voice and so on, reflected these influences. No one can avoid this in their developmental stage; the important thing is to reach a certain point and then to create your own style. It’s not worth it to remain an imitator for the rest of your life.

I know you are an educator. Who were your best students and who are you most proud of?
First of all, a wonderful American -Armenian singer Kim Nazarian. She was one of the first students who took jazz improvisation classes. I worked with her over the course of several years. Now she is a member of the Grammy Award winning vocal jazz ensemble called New York Voices. Over the years we have developed a very close friendship that continues even today. Also, I had several talented students of Brazilian descent who performed in the style of Brazilian Jazz and gradually gained popularity in New York and beyond - Ana Lu, Marianne Ebert, Deborah Watts, and many others.

You are collaborating with a new generation of talented young Armenian jazz musicians – you performed with Thelonious Monk Piano Competition Award-winner Tigran Hamasian. What do you think of them?
Tigran is talented, extremely talented. But there are many other talented jazz musicians in Armenia – notably Michael Zakarian –I call him the “Armenian Bill Evans”, Vahagn Hayrapetian, bassist Nikoghaos Vardanian (Kolya), and many others. It’s heartening to know that there is a new generation who will continue the tradition of Jazz music in Armenia.

What do you like aside from music?
I am crazy about gardening. Every spare moment I get I spend in my garden, that’s my therapy.

Tell me about your artistic plans – what is your calendar for the year 2008-2009.
In my life everything seems to be planned except the artistic part of it. My life as a performer just happens, I get invitations, I travel, and I perform. In September I will take part in the “Women in Jazz Festival” in New York organized by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Then I will travel to Armenia to take part a huge celebration of 70 Years of Jazz Music in Armenia, which is an amazing accomplishment for Armenians and their musical traditions. This time I am going to present a newer program that includes ethnic-jazz along with Brazilian and American standards.

Thus, Datevik’s wonderful improvisations continue through the years and across the continents. Audiences continue to enjoy her fascinating vocal journeys that connect our national heritage with the global modern day rhythms. Indeed, Datevik is the First Armenian Lady of Jazz.

Yerevan Magazine, Winter, N3, 2008

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