As a child, Armen Donelian absorbed the sound of Armenian, Turkish, Greek and
Middle Eastern music at social gatherings and from the records his father played at home. His early years as a student of Michael Pollon for 12 years at the Westchester Conservatory of Music in White Plains, NY trained him for a career as a concert pianist. His studies included regular solo piano performances and several concertos with local symphonies, and culminated in a 1968 solo piano graduation recital including works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofiev. Around the age of 15, Donelian joined a Jazz group led by guitarist Arthur Ryerson, Sr. and things were never quite the same after that. He was immediately captivated by the Jazz feeling and began listening to all the Jazz masters, including Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John
After graduating from Columbia University in 1972, Donelian apprenticed weekly for two years with Richie Beirach, one of the strongest pianistic voices on the New York scene. He learned how to combine his Classical training with his instinct for Jazz improvisation and advanced composition.
Armen Donelian broke into the Jazz world in 1975 with Mongo Santamaria's vibrant Afro-Cuban Jazz octet. Several North American tours and recordings ensued, including Afro-Indio (1975), Sofrito with three of Donelian's compositions and nominated for a 1976 Grammy Award in the Best Latin Jazz Album category, Mongo and Justo (1976) and A La Carte (1976).
In the following years, he acquired a strong foundation in the jazz arts through engagements and recordings with a host of Jazz luminaries including Sonny Rollins (1977-8), Chet Baker (1977 and 1983-5), Paquito D'Rivera (1984-5), Anne-Marie Moss (1979-84) and others. During his tenure with Billy Harper (1979-83), Donelian received his first taste of international recognition (Europe, Japan, Soviet Union and Middle East) and recorded Trying To Make Heaven My Home (1979), The Believer (1980), The Billy Harper Quintet (1980) and Jazz Jamboree 1980.
Donelian's album debut came with the release of Stargazer (1981) in Japan. A trio with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Billy Hart, the LP received critical praise from Swing Journal for its "wonderful tension" and Donelian's "uncommon talent as a composer.”
In 1984, Donelian embarked on serious composition studies with Harold Seletsky, a master composer in the tradition of Arnold Schoenberg. Several fugues and motets resulted, and these lessons also had a marked influence on Donelian's Jazz writing.
Over the next ten years, Donelian released four critically acclaimed CDs: A Reverie for solo piano, called "A masterpiece" by Swing Jazz Journal (1984); Trio '87 with bassist Carl-Morten Iversen and drummer Audun Kleive, "One of the great unsung piano recordings of the 80’s" according to Cadence magazine; Secrets with saxophonist Dick Oatts, trumpeter Barry Danielian, bassist Anthony Cox, drummer Bill Stewart and percussionist Arto Tunçboyaciyan, chosen #3 Jazz Album of the Year in the 1988 Jazz Hot Critics' Poll, with special mention for its "Epic musicality;" and The Wayfarer with the same band, praised as "Downright haunting" by Downbeat magazine (1990).
In addition to performing and composing, Donelian has been active as a teacher since his teens. In 1986, Donelian joined the faculty of the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, and in 1993 of William Paterson University in New Jersey. With the help of four Jazz Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Donelian earned praise for his leadership of the Rhythm Section Plus One master class series. From 1990 to 1996, the series presented over 55 prominent Jazz masters including Dewey Redman, Jim Hall and David Liebman with Donelian as host and pianist.
Donelian is also a noted author. Training the Ear (published in English by Advance Music, 1992 and in Japanese by ATN, Inc., 2001) grew out of his classroom work and has been called "the most clearly organized and comprehensive package of its type" by the Rutgers Annual Review of Jazz Studies (1994-5). Advance also published Training the Ear Vol. 2 in 2005; and, Whole Notes: A Piano Masterclass in 2011. in 2012, Schott Music Publishers acquired the Advance Music catalogue. Donelian's articles on ear training and chord voicings have appeared in Downbeat (1997-8, 2005) and Keyboard (1997) magazines and the Rutgers Annual Review of Jazz Studies (1997). Donelian is mentioned in Growing Up With Jazz (by W. Royal Stokes), The Bear Comes Home (by Raffi Zabor), Buddhist Acts Of Compassion (by Pamela Bloom) and others.
Always proud of his Armenian heritage, Donelian has performed in several countries in the Middle Eastern Jazz group Night Ark led by oudist Ara Dinkjian, appearing on the recordings Moments (1987), In Wonderland (1996) and Petals On Your Path (1999) with Tunçboyaciyan and either Ed Schuller or Marc Johnson on bass. As an arranger and pianist, Donelian has accompanied Armenian Jazz vocalist Datevik Hovanesian in performances in the USA, France and Armenia. Their album, Listen To My Heart with either Paquito D’Rivera or Alex Foster on alto saxophone, either Portinho or Ben Riley on drums, bassist David Finck, and either Tunçboyaciyan or Steve Berrios on percussion (1998), was produced by George Avakian. With reedman Souren Baronian, Donelian co-led a quintet recording, Positively Armenian featuring drummer Paul Motian, Danielian, Tunçboyaciyan and bassist Ralph Hamperian
Subsequent Donelian releases include the highly rated Grand Ideas solo piano series with Wave / Standards (2000), Mystic Heights / Originals (2001) and Full Moon Music / Free Improvisations (2005); Quartet Language with late saxophone virtuoso Thomas Chapin, bassist Calvin Hill and drummer Jeff Williams (2003); All Or Nothing At All in a duet with Dutch saxophonist/composer Marc Mommaas (2006); Oasis with bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller (2008), Donelian’s working trio for ten years; Leapfrog, a revised quintet with Mommaas, guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Dean Johnson and drummer Tyshawn Sorey (2011); and, Sayat-Nova: Songs Of My Ancestors, a recent two-disc set featuring 18th Century Armenian troubadour melodies recast by Donelian in the context of solo piano and trio with Clark and Schuller (2014).
In 1998, Donelian traveled for the first time to Yerevan, Armenia to perform in the first Yerevan International Jazz Festival, and to present a series of prominent Jazz master classes at the Yerevan State Conservatory. With support from a CEC/Artslink grant (1999) and private assistance from the Hovnanian Armenian School in New Jersey, Donelian initiated the Jazz in Armenia Project, an artistic, educational and intercultural initiative. As a Visiting Professor of Jazz at the Yerevan Conservatory, Donelian led this lively exchange which offered an annual musical program (through 2004) of master classes, impromptu workshops, solo piano
concerts, appearances at local venues with resident musicians and concerts honoring humanitarian efforts in rural areas of Armenia.
In 2002, Donelian was named a Fulbright Senior Scholar in recognition and support of his ongoing work in Armenia. A resident Professor of Jazz at the Yerevan Conservatory for 3 months, he also traveled to Russia, Georgia, Romania and France to present master classes at major conservatories in St. Petersburg, Tblisi, Iasi, Cluj and Paris. As a participant in Jazz Appreciation Month (a State Department sponsored program hosted by the American embassy in Armenia), Donelian performed in major venues including Yerevan Philharmonic Hall, Yerevan Chamber Music Hall, Khatchaturyan Museum Hall and the Vanadzor Music College. With additional grants from the US State Department and the Romanian Fulbright Commission, Donelian appeared as a featured solo pianist in the Kannon Jazz and Modern Dance Festival [Russia), the Richard Oshanitzsky Jazz Festival (Romania) and in a command performance for the American Ambassador to Georgia.
As a Fulbright Senior Specialist (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008) and two-time
CEC/Artslink grantee (2004), Donelian participated in further academic residencies in Armenia, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden and Greece. As a member of the Bobby Sanabria Quartet, Donelian returned to Armenia to perform as a guest of the President of Armenia and the US Embassy (2007). For three consecutive years (2009-11), Donelian was invited to adjudicate graduation juries and recitals in at the Zurich Hochschule for Music and Art (Switzerland). In 2009, with his colleagues in Zurich and at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory (Denmark), Donelian initiated a series of annual academic exchanges with his home institutions, The New School and William Paterson University.
As an ear training and piano curriculum advisor to the Israel Conservatory, Donelian traveled to that country for three consecutive summers (2009-11) to oversee the development and implementation of their fledgling Shtricker Jazz and Contemporary Music Program in cooperation with The New School.
In 2010, Donelian was invited along with four other Jazz faculty members from William Paterson University on an historic visit to Palestine’s Edward Said National Conservatory of Music to present a series of concerts and workshops. A few months later, Donelian was invited to return to the Al Kamandjâti Summer Music Workshop in Beit Jala, Palestine to teach Jazz to the children from the refugee