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Drummer Jacob Armen, 7, Going to Beat the Band

February 09, 1989|LEONARD FEATHER

Everybody wants Jacob Armen, the Buddy Rich of the 1980s.

The Berklee College of Music in Boston has offered him a scholarship. His parents have been turning down television offers right and left (with an occasional exception such as "The Tonight Show," on which he will be a guest tonight of the avocational drummer Johnny Carson).

Armen has played his drums to standing ovations at the Monterey Jazz Festival and the National Assn. of Jazz Educators Convention in San Diego. However, during an interview with Jacob and his family at their home in Glendale, Genny Armen said of her son: "We want him to succeed, but everything will happen in time. He can wait a while."

He can afford to wait, for Jacob Armen will not turn 8 until Feb. 22. He is an honor student in the third grade at a private school near his home.

The age of maturity in jazz seems to be sliding slowly backward.

Jacob's father, Albert Armen, explained the boy's early start: "I turned on a jazz tape and put it next to his crib. By the time he was 8 months old he was keeping perfect time with his hands."

Said Genny: "I told Albert, 'Don't do that! You will ruin him!' But he kept on doing it."

At 18 months Jacob Armen took his seat at a drum set, his father sat at the piano and they played a duet. "Four months later," Albert said, "he played 'Hava Nagila' with my orchestra at a church in Montebello. That was his first public appearance."

Perhaps because of his Armenian ancestry (his parents, born in Iran, came to the United States 27 years ago), the prodigy showed a seemingly innate feeling for picking up the odd musical time signatures common to that part of the world. "I wrote a piece in 9/4 time, which is tricky for most grown-ups," Albert Armen said, "and Jacob was breaking it up into the most complicated patterns of 5/4, 7/4, 3/4--all instinctively."

Trumpeter Bill Berry, with whose orchestra the youngster played at Monterey last September, said: "His time sense is incredible. He proves that there has to be more to it than talent or study--it may be something genetic."

Jacob's musical tastes were formed early, with help from his father. He ignores rock, concentrates on jazz and listens to it avidly on the radio.

Joel Leach, director of the jazz orchestra at Cal State Northridge, said: "Jacob's father called me up at the university and told me his son had heard my orchestra on the radio and wanted to sit in with us. I had no idea how old he was, but when his father said 6, naturally I was intrigued. He invited me down to his restaurant, and Jacob just amazed me. Nothing throws him--he can play cross-rhythms that the most advanced professionals have trouble with."

Jacob recalled that Leach gave him a copy of the Cal State Orchestra's record of "Giant Steps," the John Coltrane composition. Jacob played it soon after with a college band, and will be playing it tonight on the Carson show.

"Professor Leach told Louie Bellson about me," Jacob said, "and then brought him to my father's restaurant. I played for him for an hour and a half, then we played together. Louie Bellson is my friend."

Besides Bellson, who are his favorites? "A lot of people. Steve Gadd. Gene Krupa--I've heard his records--and Buddy Rich. And I like Dave Weckl--he's with Chick Corea."

For almost two years Jacob has been sitting in regularly on weekends at his father's Magic Lamp Restaurant in Pasadena.

He has an 18-year-old sister, an honor student at UC Riverside, and a gifted brother, 15, who is captain of a high school basketball team. They both play drums, but do not have present plans to take up music professionally.

As for Jacob, he does have an ambition.

"I would like," he says, "to be the best drummer in the world."

It's going to be hard to find anyone who will bet against it.

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