John Baboian: Armenian Soul in New England’s Jazz World


John Baboian with Datevik Hovanesian

John Baboian with Datevik Hovanesian

By Olya Yordanyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON – Guitarist, composer and educator John Baboian brings a bright Armenian voice to New England’s world of jazz music.

Sixty-year-old Baboian, of Belmont, is a freelance musician who does various gigs in the US and other countries playing jazz, rock, classical and Armenian music. At the same time, he is a guitar professor at the Berklee College of Music, his alma mater, and has been on faculty there for 36 years.

Baboian is an accomplished musician, but being naturally humble, he does not speak a lot about his achievements, his compositions and arrangements, many of which have been heard on a number of TV series, including “The Sopranos,” “All My Children” and “Seven Days.”

Music runs in his family. His father played several brass instruments, which were always around the house. His sister, June, is also a highly regarded vocalist in the greater Boston area.

Growing up in such an environment, Baboian’s decision to choose music for a career was not a surprise. He just needed to pick up the right instrument. Baboian initially chose the trumpet, but his love for the guitar soon prevailed.

“The late 1960s was a very big guitar time. And I wanted to play the guitar, like everybody else wanted to play the guitar,” Baboian said. “And we found out pretty quickly that the guitar was my instrument, not the trumpet.”

The experience at Berklee made Baboian change his musical genre.

“I started out as a rock guitar player — Jimi Hendrix was my idol — and then became a jazz musician, because I heard Dizzy Gillespie and some other musicians,” Baboian said.

After graduating Baboian got a teaching position at Berklee and soon started his Master’s degree at New England Conservatory, where he particularly focused on composition, writing songs and short orchestral pieces.

Baboian has also been composing from a young age; for him it is a natural process, a genuine continuation of improvisation.

“Jazz musicians in general tend to be composers, because what we do is we improvise, and improvisation is a spontaneous composition,” Baboian said, stressing that improvisation is an essential part of jazz performances.

Baboian thinks that regardless of creative nature of jazz this genre of music usually does not attract large audiences.

“Jazz is a music outside of the normal channels. It is not popular music, it never will be,” Baboian said. “It is there with classical music.”

Born and raised in Watertown, Baboian has strong ties with the Armenian community and feels connected to his roots. He teaches at Belmont’s First Armenian Church on Sundays.

Baboian said he grew up with Armenian music and its influence can be heard in his performances.

“Regardless of the fact that I am a jazz musician, there is no change in the fact that my roots come from Armenian music too. And even though it is not primarily what I do, I think there is the soul of Armenian music in everything I do,” Baboian said.

He believes that ethnic elements are seen in music people from various ethnic background play, even if they are not “immediately evident.”

“So someone who comes to hear me play jazz might say that’s not really Armenian music. Well, maybe not in most oblivious of terms, but I was influenced by Armenian music as much as by anything when I was young,” Baboian added.

Baboian regularly collaborates with Armenian musicians. In the late 1970s, Baboian, together with clarinetist Leon Janikian, was part of the Watertown-based Armenian Performing Artists group, a community orchestra, comprised of about 30 semi-professional and amateur musicians. In the 2000s he was working jazz singer Datevik Hovanesian from Armenia.

Traditions and love for music has been passed through generations in Baboian family. His three children play musical instruments, but only two of them decided to pursue music professionally. His elder son, Alex Baboian, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, is a guitar player, who currently lives in Berlin. His daughter Christina is a multi-instrumental musician, who also wants to study at Berklee.

Teaching and playing various gigs with on his own or with his John Baboian Ensemble always keep him busy. Baboian recently returned from a jazz camp in Brussels, his third year teaching there. Closer to home, he is running the Berklee Jazz Series at the Arsenal Center for Arts in Watertown. The ninth season will kick off with Berklee New Orleans Jazz Band under his direction on September 28.

For more information about Baboian and his upcoming performances, visit http://www.johnbaboian.com/.