Finding Donelian

One thing leads to another, if you’re lucky. Bear with me; we’re backing into this. I was reading Thomas Vinciguerra’s Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition feature about the 50th anniversary of “The Girl From Ipanema.” When I saw a reference to “…the 1962 album Jazz Samba by Stan Getz and Charlie Parker,” I nearly lost my mouthful of coffee.

Parker was nicknamed “Bird,” but the great alto saxophonist died in 1955. The Jazz Samba album seven years later was by the guitarist Charlie Byrd. It featured Getz. “Bird” for “Byrd” and the assumption that Charlie Byrd was Charlie Parker may not be a common error, but there was a time when the WSJ’s fact checkers would have caught it. Fact-checking standards, like so much in journalism, seem to have slipped. But that’s not the point.

I was about to send a corrective comment to the Journal, but discovered on the paper’s website that several other readers had beat me to it. That’s a sign that the paper’s subscribers are hipper than their conservative aura might suggest, but it’s not the point, either. I looked up Thomas Vinciguerra, the author of the “Ipanema” piece, and discovered that, among other accomplishments, he is the editor of Columbia College Today, the magazine of a distinguished New York institution of higher learning. I went to Columbia College Today’s website hoping to learn more about Mr. Vinciguerra. I did not, but I noticed on the contents page under Alumni Profiles was “Armen Donelian, ’72.” That’s the point—serendipity. Track down one piece of information and you might google yourself into something even more interesting.

Jamie Katz’s profile of Donelian includes facts about the pianist’s formative undergraduate years that had escaped my attention, including the one that another prominent jazz pianist was at Columbia with him. Here’s an excerpt:

Donelian also played in a talented lab band in the basement of Dodge Hall, led by the brilliant alto saxophonist and pianist Marc Copland ’70. Sam Morrison ’73 also played in the group; a few years later he was with Miles Davis. Meanwhile, Donelian worked evenings at The King’s Table, a restaurant nestled within John Jay Hall, playing solo piano while the young gentlemen of the College dined in style. Unlike the student cafeteria just steps away, The King’s Table even had tablecloths.

“Armen is a great player and he’s a sweetheart — absolutely one of the good guys in the business,” Copland says today. As students, he remembers, they would improvise sophisticated duets in a two-piano practice room in Dodge. “Once we monkeyed around and played a mock classical duet in the style of Beethoven. We went on for five or 10 minutes and then fell off the piano benches, laughing.”

After graduation, Donelian played with a country rock band and, on Copland’s recommendation, began studying privately with renowned pianist Richie Beirach. “He opened the door to me, combining the harmony of contemporary music — Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky and Berg — with jazz,” Donelian says. In 1975, legendary Latin jazz percussionist and bandleader Mongo Santamaria auditioned Donelian to fill the piano chair once occupied by such world-class players as Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Though he did not have experience playing Afro-Cuban jazz, Donelian got the gig and was on his way.

To read the entire piece about Donelian, go here. To hear him play, don’t go anywhere. Listen to this from an album of his compositions for solo piano:

Donelian’s website has sound clips and further information about a musician whose acclaim is not in proportion to his talent. The same may be said about his pal Copland.

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  1. Ken Dryden says

    Thomas Vinciguerra’s gaff iin his Wall St. Journal article makes a strong case for restoring copy editors to publications. Maybe he acquired ‘Jazz Samba’ as a download from a music trading website instead of buying the CD.

  2. says

    I have a profile of Armen Donelian in my 2005 book Growing Up With Jazz (with photo) based on an interview I taped with him in my home back in Silver Spring, Maryland (before Erika and I moved to West Virginia in 2007). He was in D.C. for a concert at the Armenian Embassy. He really has an interesting life and career history and a fascinating ancestry. And he is truly great jazz musician.

  3. says

    Mr. Donelian is truly one of the “nice guys” – saw him play at Firehouse 12 in New Haven with the band from his most recent Sunnyside CD, Leapfrog (recorded the previous year at the Firehouse) and he was energized by both his excellent colleagues and an appreciative audience. When we chatted after the gig, I was taken by his humility and praise for the contributions of his group.