The Legend of Konstantin Orbelian

Konstantin Orbelian

London | Karine Vann for Music of Armenia

Last week bore witness to two somber events in the Armenian community: the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and the passing of 86-year-old Armenian musician and USSR Peoples’ Artist, Konstantin Orbelian, in his home in Los Angeles, California. 

Orbelian is an individual whose legacy deserves revisiting. Unlike 20th century Armenian musicians Aram Khatchaturian or Arno Babajanyan, Orbelian’s story may not be quite as familiar globally. But it is an important piece of Armenia’s broader twentieth century narrative, one which tells of the search for a new and distinct Armenian identity through a music that was born on U.S. soil: jazz.

Orbelian was born on July 29, 1928 in the town of Armavir, Russia. His musical abilities were recognised at a young age and he was selected early on to attend a school for gifted children in Azerbaijan’s Baku Conservatory. When Stalin’s bloody purges of 1936 arrived, Orbelian’s family did not escape unscathed. His father was executed and two years later, his mother was sent into five years of exile. Because he was now considered a “child of the peoples’ enemies,” the young Orbelian was expelled from his studies at the conservatory, leaving him and his brother, Harry, orphaned with uncertain futures ahead of them. His relationship with jazz music did not start until the onset of World War II, when he was selected to play piano and accordion for the jazz orchestra of Aviation School 8.

Meanwhile, the sounds of jazz in Armenia were just beginning to take shape. According to Soviet historian and jazz musician S. Frederick Starr, the Armenian State Jazz Orchestra, founded in 1938 by Artemy Ayvazyan, was one of the first of its kind to emerge in the USSR and because of its distance from Soviet officials’ watchful eyes (and ears), had the advantage of considerably more freedom to explore the jazz genre than orchestras in Moscow.

Orbelian was formally introduced into the orchestra and over the course of his career, received support and invitations to perform from leading figures in both jazz and classical music spheres in and outside of Armenia. He was a favourite of Aram Khachaturyan, and his classical compositions received praise from canonic Soviet composers like Dimitri Shostakovich. Orbelian received an offer to act as pianist for Leonid Utesov’s famous jazz band. Though the position would have ensured him a comfortable salary and lasting recognition, Orbelian declined, choosing instead to breathe new life into Armenia’s State Jazz Orchestra, which had declined somewhat since its initial success.

Orbelian’s leadership resulted in the replacement of 18 band members and the selection of an entirely new jazz repertoire, which, up until that point, had played only popular songs. According to Armen Tutunjyan, jazz drummer and historian at Komitas State Conservatory, revitalising the repertoire and taking advantage of Armenia’s large and diverse musical diaspora were some of Orbelian’s largest contributions.

'We have to applaud Orbelian… his progressive step was including jazz compositions in the band’s set list. Even though we didn't have Armenia-born jazz musicians, we had other Armenian musicians and improvisers living in cities outside [diasporans]. And Orbelian used to invite some of these good soloists to his band, and so the first sounds of jazz, we had in the band of Konstantin Orbelian in 1956… That's why we could call Orbelian the ‘founder of jazz performance in Armenia.’

On many occasions, Orbelian risked his freedom and safety to promote jazz music on Soviet territory. He played a vital role in help in transporting American jazz recordings into Soviet territory at a time when a common saying in Russia said, “You are playing jazz today, but tomorrow you'll sell out your country” (quote from Armen Tutunjyan). Orbelian was accused of “ideological sabotage” and of promoting a music which many considered “alien to the Soviet people.” Tutunjyan recalls the underground market that developed and the risks involved:

In Yerevan, there were people who secretly traded music products. They called it ‘Music on Bones.’ This plastic material, which they used in X-Ray technology, they made records on this. And you could see on the sheets, in the light, somebody's bones. These people who did business in music, they actually sold the music of Elvis Presley on these sheets! You could meet these people on the corner of Yerevan’s streets, but it was not allowed… Because there were people watching, trying to arrest them. It was prohibited.

The next thirty-six years witnessed the Orchestra’s travels “representing Soviet jazz” to more than thirty countries in Eastern and Western Europe, the Near East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In 1975, the Orchestra took an American tour consisting of twenty-five concerts in major cities from coast to coast. A review from the New York Times glowed: “The Orbelian orchestra has shattered the myth about the prohibition and secret existence of Soviet Jazz.” (quote taken from Orbelian’s website). 

Orbelian’s leadership appeared to be, for the first time in history, bringing together not only all of Armenia’s best and brightest musicians and composers, but also its musical styles. Orbelian was the arguably the first – but certainly not the last – to compose jazz repertoire using the sounds of Armenian folk music.

Orbelian’s contributions to music and culture had lasting consequences for Armenia’s visibility within the marginalising scope of Soviet history – a history that often overlooks the histories of its smaller nations. While his story may not ring bells of recognition for every Armenian across the globe, the reality is that one would be hard-pressed to find an area of modern Armenian culture has not been touched by his influence in some way. Therefore, we can remember Orbelian through the sounds of contemporary Armenia and be grateful for his life’s dedication to it.