It began with violin lessons at the age of five from his father, Andrew. It continued in a home imbued with Armenian tradition and music where, on Sundays, scores of friends and family gathered after church, often bringing their instruments for a day of fellowship and the songs they loved. Wrapped in familial love, the boy could never have imagined the experiences that lay ahead of him, all because of his childish curiosity about a strange looking instrument in his grandfather’s bedroom.
During those early years, John Bilezikjian listened to family recordings his parents had brought with them when they had immigrated to the United States. In particular, the young musician was fascinated by the sound of the oud, an ancient Persian instrument popular on the old albums.
“What instrument is that?” he asked.
In answer, his mother went upstairs to his grandfather’s room to get the elder’s oud. The boy held the instrument in his lap, unaware of its roots that reach back 2,500 years. As he experimented with its 11 strings, he didn’t care that it was the forerunner to the lute or that it had no frets. He just wanted to make the wonderful sounds he heard on the scratchy albums. After that, it’s likely his grandfather didn’t get much playing time as his grandson seldom put it down.
For half a century, Bilezikjian has immersed himself in the study and performance of this instrument, becoming the most distinguished oudist in America. And during a rich and varied career, he never forgot those early gatherings and was determined to preserve the traditional songs of his ancestry.
Folk traditions are dynamic, fluid and constantly evolving. In order to help future generations experience their musical roots, Bilezikjian has worked to record the musical inheritance of the Armenian Diaspora. To this end, whenever he heard another traditional song or melody, he transcribed it into musical notation, with harmonies. He researched the song lyrics, including them in the ever growing collection of sheet music in his personal library. Eventually, he recorded some of them on the CDs, “Armenian Diaspora”, “Dantz Fever”, and “Armenian Connection”.
His zeal for music preservation led him to similar activities in the ethnic and folk music of other cultures as well. Many cultures, especially from the Mediterranean area and beyond have made the United States their home. To keep their ethnic identities alive they turn to their music. And, they very often turn to Bilezikjian to enhance their events with his mastery of these musical traditions. He has collected the songs of many of these groups and woven them into a rich tapestry for the enjoyment of all. His encyclopedic knowledge of this music has made him very well loved among these various nationalities. As a consequence of this mastery, he is in high demand for many multi-ethnic endeavors.
In the course of his studies and preservation efforts, Bilezikjian has amassed a library of books, written music, and recordings equal to many universities. The sheet music and recordings of the Mediterranean area alone fill one wall. His books fill another, includes works on history, sociology, anthropology, and cultural materials.
In addition to his library, Bilezikjian’s collection of folk instruments includes more than 50 ouds. Two of the finest modern luthiers lived in the early 20th century, Emmanuel Manol, a Greek, and Onnik Karibyan, an Armenian. Bilezikjian’s collection includes 10 ouds made by Manol and 40 made by Karibyan. His hope is to help preserve the rich history of the oud, and prevent the work of these artists from being lost.
His library also features several file cabinets filled with original compositions, each piece dated and signed. He carries notation script wherever he goes so that he can jot down musical thoughts as they occur. They have often been the basis for songs he writes for sound tracks, special concerts, and stage plays. Bilezikjian has written and performed the music for many stage productions including “I Ask You Ladies and Gentlemen”, a play by Leon Surmelian, for the Cornerstone Theatre Group, “The Persians” by Aeschylus at Loyola-Marymount University and “Scheherazade” at UC Irvine.
Part of preserving a musical tradition is passing it on to younger musicians. Inspired by his memories of the young boy entranced by his grandfather’s oud in his head, Bilezikjian has taught hundreds of students. He mentors not only their musical technique, but also their understanding of the cultural and historical context of the music.
Film and television productions have tapped into his knowledge of ethnic and folk music instruments. He has used this experience to present to fellow musicians the subjects of writing music for the oud and how to use it to provide sound track material to the film and TV industry. He is a member of an outreach program of the Los Angeles County Music Center Association, bringing this music and these instruments to schools in the Southern California area.
Bilezikjian was the only oudist asked to write an instruction manual by the Hal Leonard Company. Called the “Hal Leonard Oud Method by John Bilezikjian”, the manual offers the easiest way to play this most difficult instrument.
On August 21, 2011, John Bilezikjian will be performing in concert at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center. In celebration of the 50 years he has dedicated to music, the concert will include friends with whom he has performed over the years, including members of his first band, the Halehs, formed when he was 10 years old.
For information on the upcoming concert, please visit www.FriendsOfJohnBilezikjian.com or call 1-855-OUD-DIST (1-855-683-3478).