Souren Baronian

Souren Baronian, Fusing Cool Jazz and Middle Eastern Music


By Harout Arakelian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

“World music is ‘in’ today, and I was at the bottom end of this thing, I was doing this music in the ‘50s! There was Latin fusion and Cuban stuff with jazz, but that was about it. I was one of the first ones to fuse Middle Eastern music with jazz. I was there, man!” – Souren Baronian

Pan-Africanist and pan-Islamist impulses among African-American musicians in 1950s New York City resulted in East-West fusion recordings by significant and seminal jazz artists like Randy Weston, Yusuf Lateef, and Ahmed Abdul Malik, parallel to recordings by immigrant entertainers like Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak and Mohammed El Bakkar, who, looking toward a Western audience, produced their own kind of blended Middle Eastern Americana. The music of Souren Baronian, meanwhile, organically synthesized his experiences as a second-generation Armenian-American with his devotion to supremely cool jazz .

A magnificently produced three-disc set released by Modern Harmonic titled “Souren Baronian – The Middle Eastern Soul of Carlee Records” includes all 12 of Baronian’s earliest recordings with the Nor-Ikes Band of 1949 to 1952 as well as two LPs he self-released on his own Carlee label accompanied by vocalist Bob (Boghos) Tashjian, Middle Eastern Soul featuring oudist Haig Manoukian and Hye Inspiration featuring oudist John Tarpinian. A carefully produced Record Store Day release in a limited edition of 1400 copies on colored vinyl with a new interview with Baronian in the notes, it is essential.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Born in Spanish Harlem in 1930, Souren grew up surrounded by music – the Latin sounds of his neighborhood, the ethnic Armenian music his parents played on a windup Victrola, and the fact of being geographically embedded in what he recalls as “the jazz center of the world.” In his early teens he was deeply devoted to Lester Young and Charlie Parker. He hung photos of them on his wall and, along with his friend and fellow Armenian-American jazz enthusiast Paul Motian (later a world-class and widely-recorded drummer) got himself into their gigs as well as performances by Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, and many others of the jazz elite of the time and place. At the same time, Baronian was also enamored with the recordings of the Turkish clarinetist Sukru Tunar. At the age of 16 he sought out and studied with Turkish clarinet player Safet Gundeger, a performer in the 8th Avenue “oriental” clubs that catered to speakers of Turkish, Greek and Armenian.

Souren’s father Mesrob Baronian was born 1890 in the village of Nbshi in Palu, Historic Armenia. He married Heghnar (Helen) in 1908 and immediately welcomed their first child, Margaret. Mesrob planned to temporarily leave his new family and arrived in the United States in 1909. But due to the horrific events of the Armenian Genocide, the Baronian family was separated. It would be nearly two decades when Mesrob would finally find his wife and daughter in a refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria.

By 1926, Helen and Margaret joined Mesrob in New York and soon after welcomed two sons, Harry in 1928 and Souren in 1930.

Mesrob was a community leader and a member of the Armenian Democratic League of America. Souren’s first gigs were at Armenian community events, where his audience expected both Armenian songs and American dance music, laying the groundwork for the rest of his career. The Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, which held annual Armenian concerts where young Souren played, is now remembered as the location of Malcolm X’s assassination.

Souren arranged Armenian concerts and enlisted Paul Motian among others for the “American” part of the program. On one occasion Gerry Mulligan jammed with the group. Souren’s taste in jazz ran toward the avant garde saxophone player Lee Konitz, the pianist and composer Lennie Tristano and, in particular, Tristano’s sax player and protege Warne Marsh. He approached Tristanto and ultimately studied with both him and Marsh. (Another amazing point of contact between Baronian and jazz royalty: During a military stint in Korea, he was in a band with Cannonball Adderley.)

“The Nor Ikes, along with the Vosbikians were the first bands made up of Armenians born in the United States. After a while we said, ‘Let’s make a 78!’” – Souren Baronian

In 1948 the oudist and butcher Charles “Chick” Ganimian approached Souren Baronian about forming a band. They took the name Nor-Ikes (“New Dawn” in Armenian) at Souren’s father’s suggestion. When the band entered the recording studio in late 1949, they consisted of Baronian, and Ed Malkasian on reeds, Chick Ganimian (who later played on some ‘60s Eastern-jazz fusion LPs by Herbie Mann) on oud, and Aram Davidian on drums. Their first record redefined Armenian-American music, delivering a fresh new sound. A reinterpretation of an Armenian folk song, “Khun Dzorin Dzar” (The Apple Tree), the Nor-Ikes produced a uniquely jazz-inflected Armenian-American style. The Nor Ike recording sessions were halted when Souren was drafted in the US Army. Later recordings  by the Nor Ike band included Steve Bogoshian on the clarinet. The band resumed their recording sessions upon Souren’s return in 1951 with songs such as Chem oo Chem, Dari Lo Lo and Shek Mazer Ov, derived from their immigrant parents’ generation, swung hard for a new generation.

In addition to the Nor Ikes material on the new Middle Eastern Soul set, highlights include Baronian’s compositions with lyrics by Bob Tashjian – the exciting and playful Eench Anem (What Shall I Do) and the smoothly flowing Siroon (Beautiful). Groovin’ Hye lives up to its name – a groovy dance tune that combines Armenian, Anatolian, American, and Balkan sounds while being wholly original. The final number on the compilation is another dance tune composed Baronian, named for his father, “Mesrobi-Bar” (Mesrob’s Dance).

Souren-Baronian-Taksim-Barbes-Photographer-April -Renae

Modern Harmonics, which produced the 3 LP/CD set, specializes in eclectic reissues. Among them, last year, they reissued the 1969 classic Middle Eastern Rock by John Berberian and the Rock East Ensemble, a band in which Souren Baronian also played. Through his journey, Souren Baronian became a trailblazer in Armenian-American jazz and folk music. A master of the saxophone, clarinet, and dumbek, he added duduk and kaval to his repertoire after a trip to Armenia.

Currently, in his early 90s, Souren can be heard performing in New York City and the surrounding areas with his band Taksim.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: