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If you've ever served a cup of coffee in Fresno, from Starbucks to the Revue to Kern Street, you know Armen Nalbandian. Next to jazz, coffee might be the most important thing in his life - excluding his beautiful wife Gabriela. On this day he's getting his fix at the Starbucks in Fig Garden. He's running behind, as per usual. After about half an hour of waiting, he casually strolls up and flashes a smile that's equal parts heart-warming and mischievous, and suddenly the time is not an issue. Those who know Armen know that look well. He's ready to have fun. "Let's do this," he says without breaking the grin on his face.
It's hard to begrudge a few minutes to a man with so much on his plate. Currently Armen is the Musical Director and Resident Artist of the Fresno Art Museum. With his program, Rhythms of Art, Armen performs two hours of his own original jazz compositions, all based on featured art at the FAM, each month.
"What's most important to me is that more people are exposed to a higher level of jazz. It's a jazz that's rehearsed. You know, presented as it should be. It's in an actual concert hall, not in the back of a bar someplace where nobody listens to it. I think it's essential to present the music as being as important as it deserves to be."
Rhythms of Art exposes Fresno to not only a higher level of jazz, but to a one-of-a-kind musical experience that has never been done anywhere else in the world. Armen is the first person to compose original music based on visual art and perform the compositions on a monthly basis. Even for the most seasoned musician, this would prove to be a daunting task.
"I'm really proud of the fact that we've premiered more than 100 original compositions. That's a lot of music if you stop to think about it. We do two hours of original music every month. In the pop world, Michael [Jackson] releases a new album every ten years. Stevie [Wonder] releases a new album every 20 years. Prince releases a new album every 100 years. There's maybe three or four really good songs and the rest is garbage, but it's still seen as an achievement - the new record release, a total of ten songs. And here I am writing two hours of music every month. Go ask any musician, regardless if they're a jazz musician or otherwise. I know that if another musician told me that they were composing two hours of new music every month, I'd be impressed. It's hard."
He finishes his mini-rant about pop music with the same grin on his face that's been there since he first walked into Starbucks. There's not a trace of arrogance in his statements, only a sense of pride in what he's been able to accomplish so far, not just in his own career, but in the Fresno community as well.
"We've done all kinds of stuff. We did a Christmas concert, a Mother's Day concert, and a Valentine's Day concert. We did a show to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina that raised $3000. We've done a concert to raise money to fight breast cancer. We've done a lot of community outreach. We've gone to retirement homes and given concerts and lectures - so it's not like we just play for the elderly, but we stop and take the time to talk with them too. In January we start the Jump for Jazz program. It's done in conjunction with the Fresno Art Museum and the goal is to teach kids about jazz history. It's an education, but it's about more than school books. They're going to be able to hear the music live. They get to play with the instruments and feel like they're a part of jazz history, which they are."
Despite what seems like only the best of intentions, Armen is faced daily with obstructions in his path. The biggest setback, it would seem, is trying to get people to come out to see him play.
"Life is difficult. It's hard to live today, because there's so many things that conspire against us. You live in a country where your government lies to you. I'm not saying anything anybody else hasn't. They lie to you. You barely can afford your rent. You can't afford gas just to drive across town. You have to mortgage your house just to buy coffee at Starbucks, you know what I mean? It's seriously difficult just to survive. And then to say, 'I'm going to take my Thursday night and go listen to some jazz,' well that's a hard commitment to get from people. But man, I'm sure there's 150 people in town who can."
The people, though, aren't necessarily the ones to blame. It seems like Armen also struggles with limited media coverage. Outside of a few small write-ups in the Fresno Bee and a stray article here or there in Fresno Magazine, there hasn't been very much press for the Rhythms of Art program. In a town where the media thinks the Big Fresno Fair is big Fresno news, getting somebody to cover jazz is like pulling teeth.
"The problem is that despite being a very large city, Fresno has a stigma of being a 'small town' and people have a very small-town mentality. Jazz is commonly treated as a second class citizen. People have such preconceived notions of what jazz is, and there's such a stigma attached to it, that people have already made up their minds without hearing the music. 'Oh, they're just making it up as they go along!' and stuff like that. The hard part is to break through all of that and get people to come out to the shows and see what we're really about. And hopefully they like what they hear and they keep coming back."
Getting people to keep coming back is the key. So far the shows are doing well. They average around 80 people per performance. Getting 80 people to pay to see jazz in Fresno is a pretty remarkable feat in itself, but Armen's passion for what he does won't give in to contentment and complacency.
"I'll step down from this position in a year or two, when I feel things have been thoroughly established. I hope a worthy cat comes in and takes over as Musical Director and continues with the program. I think they'd be crazy not to. But I think it's especially important to create an institution that's self-fulfilling. I hope we can get these people to keep coming out, and that the audience is swinging. I hope that at some point the auditorium we have is not large enough and we have to move to a different venue, whether it's off-site or we build an even bigger auditorium. That would be great. The concerts can generate money, and hopefully we can get more nationally recognized than we already are. Really, I just want Fresno to hear some good music and understand what they're listening to."
As he says this, he looks to his side and happens to see the Starbucks exclusive Herbie Hancock album and gets that grin on his face again. Time for some more fun.
"The problem today is that people don't listen to music. Music has become the background for everyday life. People listen to music when they drive, or while they read, or whatever. I don't believe in background music. Do you watch a background movie? Do you read a background book? Nobody just sits down and actually listens to music. If they did, they probably wouldn't be listening to the junk that they do. Maybe from there people could grow a real understanding and appreciation for music. For example, what's that Jimi Hendrix song? "Purple Haze" right? If you go out on the street and ask people if they know "Purple Haze" and what they think of it, of course they all know it and love it. But if you ask them why they love it, you'll just get a blank stare. They've all been told their whole lives that "Purple Haze" is a great song, so when they hear it on their car radio or whatever they're like 'Yeah, I love this song!' I'm not saying that it's not a great song, I'm just saying that most people don't even know why they like it. There needs to be an understanding there, and from there you get a real sense of appreciation. That's what I want when people hear me play."
As if this whole rant were an elaborate set-up, as soon as he finishes that sentence, the opening notes of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" play over the speakers inside the Starbucks. The teenage girl blending Frappucinos stops dead in her tracks and squeals with delight, "I love this song!" Armen leans back in his chair with a satisfied smile on his face and takes another sip of his coffee.
"This is a good song, man."
Rhythms of Art is held the last Thursday of every month at the Fresno Art Museum.