Guitar Man Baboian keeps plucking along

by Tom Vartabedian

Published: Monday January 17, 2011

John Baboian.

Belmont, Mass. - With all due respect to the musical group Bread and their 1972 hit song, "The Guitar Man," John Baboian has etched his own imprint in the musical world.

The 55-year-old string impresario draws the crowds and steals the shows. He can make you smile and he can make you cry.

Like the lyrics go, "Night after night, who's going to treat you right? Baby, it's the Guitar Man."

One would think that after so many decades, Baboian would be a household name. If you attended Berklee College of Music in Boston during the last three decades, you may have crossed paths with this professor and composer. He's nothing short of an icon there.

The same could be said for local concerts and church venues. The image is out there. The reputation may not. Baboian takes his unsung role in stride as an accompanist and leaves the spotlight to singers and other headliners.

It's only after hearing him play that you might say, "Who's the mustachioed guy on guitar with the adroit finger work?"

Not Iakovos Kolanian,the equally-talented Greek-Armenian, whose CD "Shoror" features wonderful Armenian folk music for guitar.

Make no mistake about it. Baboian is a proud Armenian who hails from strong family roots and promotes his heritage at the pluck of a guitar string.

"When I was very young, I heard Armenian music in my house," he recalls. "My father is an amateur musician playing brass instruments. I remember him playing Armenian songs on his cornet and baritone horn. Both my parents sang with the Armenian National Choral Society of Boston. Music was part of me then and still is to this day."

Growing up in the 1960s in Watertown, Baboian couldn't avoid hearing the emergence of rock and pop music. The guitar, in particular, hit him with its interesting sounds. His dad started him on trumpet but Baboian quickly convinced him to buy a guitar --- and the legacy began.

"At Berklee, we have 1,000 guitar players and they're all different. I always tell my students they are the mixture of many musical styles and musicians they have heard throughout their lifetime. Mix them all up like ingredients in a soup and out you come. Go play the gig. Do the music and don't worry about the rest. That's the job for a versatile side musician. That's how I'm preparing my students."

Baboian is often seen accompanying an Armenian dance band, seldom taking a solo space. As a result, he's more drawn to oud players who could improvise like jazz musicians.

"I have a great memory of seeing virtuoso George Mgrdichian in a New York concert back in the early 1970s. I still hear his arrangement of ‘Anoush Karoun' when I play my version."

Over the past 25 years, Baboian has collaborated with the venerable Artie Barsamian, especially at his Big Band concerts. Among other Armenians who have impacted his career are David Azarian, Paul Motian, Leon Merian, Armen Donelian and the noted singer Datevik Hovanesian.

"As Armenians, we are such a culturally rich people with participants in all aspects of the arts," he maintains. "So it's no wonder we are also involved in the jazz world."

Once during a concert in Costa Rica, the only Armenian in that country sought him out after seeing his name in print.

"He greeted me in Armenian and called me brother," said Baboian. "It seems that wherever we go, Armenians tend to find each other."

If he could host any Armenian for dinner, past or present, it would be Gomidas Vartabed.
"When I play his accompaniment parts with singers, the written piano parts fit so beautifully on the guitar," Baboian says. "I wouldn't be surprised if Gomidas Vartabed wrote some of his music on a stringed instrument."

He's been to Armenia twice --- once during the Soviet era in 1987 and again two years ago.
The first time was as a music counselor with a high school arts group, visiting schools outside of Yerevan and meeting Azarian, the great jazz pianist who later came to America and started teaching at Berklee with Baboian. Azarian died in a tragic auto accident five years ago.

He remembers tears flowing from his eyes while flying over Mount Ararat that year. Seeing the great biblical mountain for the first time left him emotional.

In 2008, back he went with Datevik to perform at the Yerevan Opera House, along with some jazz clubs around the city. While in Yerevan, Baboian got to hold Berklee auditions at Levon Malkhasyan's Jazz Club.

"Levon is one of the most famous jazz musicians in Yerevan and I feel fortunate that I got to sign his wall of fame," he says.

Baboian's impressions of the country remain extremely favorable.

"Yerevan has changed dramatically. It's much more cosmopolitan and progressive as a nation. Datevik is well known in Armenia and we were treated very well. We did a television interview and I felt very good about being able to communicate with reporters in Armenian."

Baboian credits his Armenian education to Sahag Mesrob Armenian School in Watertown where he attended as a student.

"One of the great memories of that trip was visiting the Garni Temple," he noted. "There was a man playing the duduk and because of the great acoustics inside that structure, the sound was vibrant. Datevik started singing with him, creating these beautiful Armenian sounds."

Baboian was born, raised and educated in Watertown. After marrying in the early 1980s, he and his wife Lisa moved to Belmont and remained there ever since. They have three children: Alex (23), Jonathan (20) and Christina (17). All are musicians to some extent.

Except for a short time when he worked for his father as an apprentice optician, Baboian's whole life has been devoted to music and teaching. What influenced him most toward jazz was hearing Dizzy Gillespie in concert, as well as two other idols, Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix.

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