Some people work for years to learn and master a skill, while others have the ability to catch on rather quick. But when you’re a 22-month-old playing drums for jazz bands, winning international talent competitions, and getting phone calls from Prince, you’re no longer just a fast learner, you’re a child prodigy.
“I pretty much didn’t have a choice,” says multi-instrumentalist Jacob Armen. “It was my dad’s crazy vision. I was eight months old and he started tapping my right hand to the down beat of music and when he let go, I carried on and I didn’t fall off beat until like four measures or something.”
Granted, every toddler bangs on pots and pans growing up and most parents will nod along and pretend like their kid is the best drummer in the world. But in the case of Armen, his parents knew their child was destined for greatness. His father, also a musician, was fully invested in the idea of his son being a drumming prodigy, while his mother took a little more convincing.
“She just was all about that old school, regular childhood, but my dad was convinced that we had to take it a step further,” says Armen. “I’m very blessed that I had that nurturing and that I was never forced to do what I do. I would religiously wake up and practice for 45 minutes out of love and I stayed consistent with that and everything just took off from there.”
Armen’s parents owned restaurants where he and his father would perform. His father, recognizing his son’s talent, decided to contact Joel Leach, director of the jazz orchestra at California State University, Northridge to have him to come see “this drummer who could play all these polyrhythms and all these styles.”
Leach was intrigued, but upon finding out that this drummer was a six year old, he wanted nothing to do with Jacob. Nevertheless, he visited the family’s restaurant and gave Jacob the chance to prove him wrong. Immediately after the performance, he asked Armen’s father to bring him to CSUN the following Monday.
“As we arrived there, we see all these news channels – Channel 4, Channel 7, Channel 2 – everybody was there. He had [CSUN’s] jazz band there and said that they are going to play this song, and once they’re done, I’m going to go and play it.”
“I didn’t even know this song. It was kind of like a set-up,” says Armen. “I end up hearing it and I kind of knew where all the punches and everything were and it worked out. A lot of things happened from that point, so he’s like a mentor to me and I’ll never forget that.”
Shortly after being “discovered,” Jacob Armen went on to perform for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, just three weeks before his 7th birthday.
“I had dislocated my thumb the night before while playing basketball with my very aggressive brother,” Armen recalls. “I had it all wrapped up, but the show must go on. That’s the reality. You have to have that mentality no matter what, it has to go on, and I learned that from a very young age and that’s still very strong with me until today.”
And as if gaining attention from Carson himself wasn’t enough, Jacob managed to win over the The Purple One as well, while on a trip to Italy to represent the U.S. in a talent competition. He ended up winning the competition, but what came next was probably a tad more special than that.
“Next thing I know, my brother is calling us, ‘You guys are crazy. What are you doing over there [in Italy], you should be here. Prince called! You know Prince? HE CALLED! HE CALLED!’ We asked him what Prince said and he was like, ‘I don’t know, I hung up on him,’” he says and immediately bursts out in laughter.
Luckily, Prince and his team called back and and told Armen they’d like to fly him out to Minneapolis to meet him.
“He discovered me because we did this show called “The Drum Show.” It was on PBS and it won an Emmy and it constantly aired for years. So, Prince saw that show and the rest is history. I went there and I signed to his NPG record label, and for almost seven years I was under his label and management.”
Under Prince’s label, Armen released his first album at the mere age of 13, an experience he feels was “a perfect scenario” because he was given the freedom to musically express himself, without having to mold into a specific genre. Prince saw pure talent in Armen, stating that Armen was “the most frightening drummer” he had ever heard.
“Prince, having the mind that he had, he was all about not only the arts, but he really was an advocate of pushing those boundaries and allowing yourself to be free musically and expressing yourself,” says Armen. “ I am completely anti-label and anti-anything that just tries to conform you into this little box, I can’t stand it. [Prince] allowed that freedom for me to express all these different genres and styles into one album, which at the time was not normal.”
Armen went on to release a second album in 2001, titled “Breakthrough,” after which his priorities as a USC student, as well as a life threatening accident, forced him to have to put a hold to producing a new record.
“It was just a process of me getting back to where I need to be. Doctors telling me I have nerve damage and,” he pauses. “They say what they say, but unless God comes and tells me personally that you can’t do what you’ve been doing your whole life, ain’t nobody gonna stop me.”
And now, 17 years later, Armen feels that he is back and better than ever as he prepares for the release of his third studio album, “When Drums Conduct,” along with an album release concert at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on September 8, which will be presented by Armen’s very own independent label, JAAB Records, in association with Glendale Arts.
“This album is very dear to me because I’m dedicating it to my dad for everything, from my heart to him,” he says looking down, recalling the last 36 years of his life and all the experiences that date back to the day his father put a tape record in his crib to expose him to music right after he was born.
“I’ve done a lot of shows, but as far as having something of this magnitude where it’s not only a launch of this album, but also this vision that’s very dear to me. Also, it’s my hometown, so it just all worked out,” his face lights up. “There’s been a lot of heart and love put into this project in every way, it’s been very positive energy to bring this to life.”
The show’s theme is “A Celebration of Rhythm” and Armen intends to live up to that title’s expectations by bringing artists with him on stage that specialize in various genres to celebrate the universality of music in all sorts of styles including jazz, rock, world, classical, hip-hop, everything, and even latin-jazz.
And though he’s been almost forced into his career since he was a toddler crawling around in diapers, Armen could never imagine pursuing anything else.
“That’s the weird part,” he says as his voice gets higher, as if he is in disbelief that his childhood hobby turned out to be a full-blown career. “I’ve had passions for other things, like when I was younger I told everyone I wanted to be the best drummer in the world… and a lawyer,” he chuckles.
“Obviously, the lawyer part didn’t work out, but I still am a drummer and I’m pretty hard on myself when it comes to working on the craft. I live and breath music and art and rhythm, so I just can’t see me doing anything else… I think it’s a little too late for me now anyway.”
It’s incredible to see the passion Armen has for his craft, even after almost four decades of practicing day in and day out.
“I don’t think there’s anything that comes close to the feeling I get doing music and sharing that with people, he says. “I feel what it does to people. I’m also a fan of music, so I know when I go to events or when I listen to music, it just hits me so hard. Those emotions, those feelings are irreplaceable, you know? I feel it’s outside of you, it comes from above.”
According to Armen, creating music for a living is simply his “way of life” and that’s why he lives and breathes it.
“Expressing art, and giving that energy, is a gift for all of us and we all have it in our own ways. It doesn’t have to be through music; somebody could do it through dance or through writing. It varies and it’s really broad, but to create – just the ability to create – is such a gift and to be able to share that and to have that energy amongst us as humans is so powerful.”