Hachig Kazarian: Detroit’s Clarinet Virtuoso

Aram interviews Hachig Kazarian from Detroit, whose clarinet defines the Armenian-American clarinet sound which shaped the musical experiences of entire generations of Diaspora Armenians living in the United States for much of the 20th century. Having attended the famed Juilliard School of Music in the 60’s, Kazarian was a key member of the widely acclaimed “Kef Time bands”. Kazarian’s music fuses Middle Eastern melody and rhythm with a Big Band sound, defined by his virtuosic improvisation and command of the clarinet – and is particularly notable for his ability to mind meld with many oud masters of his time.

Topics include:

  • Kazarian’s introduction to Middle Eastern clarinet music through Zurnaji Haig in Detroit, Michigan, and the traditional village dances that actually had lyrics to them and how he learned each region’s songs for different crowds that would hire him to perform.
  • Discussion of the lack of awareness of the origin of many of these songs.
  • Kazarian learned exclusively Armenian songs at first, but then broadened to various styles of Middle Eastern music such as Turkish and Greek music over time by ear and through schooling.
  • As a youngster, Kazarian was an outlier in terms of the ages of musicians that performed in his style.
  • Kozani Bar and the Lafayette Bar were mainstays of the Greektown music scene where Kazarian networked, performed with and listened to performers. Aside from Jimmy Nazaretian and a Bulgarian santur player, the musicians were exclusively Greek.
  • Discussion of the Armenian custom and practice of learning, mastering and being interested in music of other cultures.
  • Kazarian then dedicated his time to classical music and studied this motif at the prestigious prep school for performing arts – Cass Tech (Diana Ross and other Temptations members were students that were Kazarian’s peers at Cass Tech). Kazarian credits much of his early learning and improvement to his time at Cass Tech.
  • Discussion of early use of quarter tones and lack of knowledge on the topic.
  • Lack of musical development in Armenian music due to weakened nationhood – and the adoption of Soviet Armenian sponsored folk music and the adaptation of this kind of music. Also, with a lack of material, original music was arranged and added to repertoires for bands.
  • Kazarian wanted to play in a symphony orchestra setting, and began studies at Julliard. He funded his living expenses by playing in middle eastern music club such as Egyptian Gardens, Arabian Nights, Istanbul, Port Said, the Britannia, Kifisya and others – and all the clubs were very diverse and international – but a common language of Turkish given all the cultures and geography of their ancestry. Port Said would have luminaries like Leonard Bernstein drop in to check out the music.
  • Kazarian would give legend Udi Hrant a ride home after his performances, and shares some stories on interacting with him, including almost going to the Catskills with Hrant at age 13 to learn the basics of middle eastern music. The Catskills generally referred to getting away from the city in a retreat like recreational setting for Armenian and Greek families on the East Coast of the US – and some of the young musicians got their start in this setting performing and gaining experience.
  • Discussion of the Kef Time recordings and moving to Las Vegas with Richard Hagopian and Buddy Sarkissian after Kazarian graduated from school. Good times at the Flamingo, the Bonanza and the Frontier Hotel.
  • Kazarian then spent time in California in San Francisco, Fresno and the surrounding towns playing in middle eastern night clubs. Then Jack Chalikian got involved with the group on kanun as well. Recordings were made in the Kef Time vein for Las Vegas, Fresno, Hartford and Detroit.
  • Kazarian developed his own unique style over time by listening to various recordings and practicing his own technique of playing “neat and clean”. He advised against copying which can lead to exaggeration in playing style.
  • Kazarian would watch the muzrab hand of the oud player to gauge timing and rhythm, and would mimic this movement – especially for establishing meter.
  • Kazarian places importance on feel and embellishment as most of the songs are simple in his opinion, and advises listening to as much as one can in different styles, and learn your instrument to the point where you know a song well enough that it becomes second nature. Practice slow to “say something musically”, as meaningful music tends to not be as fast. Learn music theory and expand your vocabulary. The awareness needed when playing in a group.

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Comments (8)

  • Avatar
    Levon Berberian Reply

    This is so great thank you very much!!! Been missing this style lately as I grew up with it in the San Francisco Bay Area alongside with the eastern style Armenian music. Also shifted from playing clarinet to oud now.

    June 20, 2019 at 3:12 pm
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    Patti Javizian Reply

    Wonderful interview with Hachig, very interesting and informative, learned a lot 🤗

    June 20, 2019 at 6:18 pm
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    Leon Janikian Reply

    What a great pleasure it was to hear Hachig discuss his career and his performance history. He is without a doubt one of the most influential performers and clarinetists in our genre. His knowledge and expression of his musical philosophy is, for me, right on point. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing this interview, thank you…and thank you Hachig for your years of superb musicianship.

    June 20, 2019 at 7:55 pm
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    Vahe Magarian Reply

    Wonderful! Thanks for this post. Hachig is a true master artist and I have enjoyed listening and have had the opportunity of accompanying him on the Dumbeg many years ago.

    June 23, 2019 at 12:19 am
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    Richard Hagopian Reply

    What can I say? Hachig and I have entertained thru out the U.S., and Canada together for over 50 years, not to mention our good times in Las Vegas. There are many good clarinetists, however, there is only ONE HACHIG KAZARIAN! Hachig is my brother and soul brother. Continue my brother. Asdvadz kezi yerchanig, aroghch giank da. Seerov yev harkank nerov.
    Your brother in music,
    Richard A. Hagopian

    June 24, 2019 at 1:55 pm
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      Levon Berberian Reply

      Varbed Richard you too are one of a kind. Thank you for all your contributions to Armenian music and specifically Western Armenian music. Yerchangutiun yev aroghchutiun guh makhtem tsez.

      June 25, 2019 at 1:19 am
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    Gregory Vartanian Reply

    Hachig is a brilliant, talented musician and a friend. I would love to see more of this type of professional presentation.

    June 24, 2019 at 2:17 pm
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    Richard Megregian Reply

    i first heard Hachig play at an Armenian Wedding in Simon Javizian’s Ardziv Band jn the 1950’s. I knew then I was listening to something special. Little did I know how special Hachig’s music was. Thanks for all the good music Hachig,

    June 27, 2019 at 9:53 pm

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