Bassist Richard Armandi has been a constant presence in the Chicago jazz scene for over 30 years. In addition to being a top-call player, he is a dedicated educator whose extensive résumé includes positions at Triton College, College of DuPage, University of Illinois at Chicago, and numerous private students.
In June and July, Rich will serve on the faculty of the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshop—something he has done annually since 1990. We think this is a perfect time to catch up with Rich and learn more about his diverse musical background.
CJM: Talk about your early exposure to music while growing up on the north side of Chicago. Is your family musical? First, let me thank Chicago Jazz Magazine for featuring me this month. I’ve been a loyal supporter and subscriber since the inception of the magazine. I’m humbled and grateful to share a bit of my background with CJM and the jazz community at large.
Rich Armandi: Although no one in my family is musical, the floodgates of music opened up to me very early—at about four years old. My father got a record player that came with a demonstration recording, and on it were classical pieces like Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev,” the prelude to the third act of Wagner’sLohengrin, Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony, and others. This record was just astounding to me and I played it incessantly. I wouldn’t even let my older brother near the record player. Later, I convinced my folks to get a piano upon which I would play by ear—just banging out little melodies and stuff. I started piano lessons in early grade school but soon lost interest; the teacher would hit your knuckles if you did something wrong. My folks thought I was just giving up. But when 6th grade rolled around, the band director—we were one of the few Chicago grade schools lucky enough to have a band—came around asking if kids wanted to be in the band. I, of course, wanted to. The band director called the house explaining to my mom that I wanted to play the saxophone and that it would be $15 a month. After my mom told him there was no way to afford that, the band director offered use of the school-owned tuba for only $1 a month. So, my mom said “OK, he’ll play the tuba!”
CJM: So, you initially set out to be a tubist. Aside from the instrument being chosen for you in middle school, how did you end up pursuing that path?
Rich Armandi: Well, being a musician was never really a choice, as it consumed every part of me from the get-go. I ended up taking to the tuba right away and became somewhat of a child virtuoso, even though early on I was doing everything wrong technically. My high school, Lane Tech, had a very good music program. I played tuba in the band there. In my junior year I joined the Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago where I received wonderfully extensive experience. I also started playing in a brass quintet sponsored by a trumpet teacher in Evanston. He took two of his best students and added three high school juniors to complete the group. Also during high school, I joined community orchestras like the Skokie Valley Symphony, Elgin Symphony, Lake Forest Symphony, etc. After high school I began studies at Roosevelt University, thinking I’d be a classical orchestral tubist.
CJM: Was there a specific event, performance, or artist that first got you interested in jazz?
Rich Armandi: Early on I resolved that if I was going to play an instrument that wasn’t so common I would be able to play any style where the instrument could be used. This, of course, included Dixieland music, German music, and other ethnic music. Delving into Dixieland got me listening to jazz of various types and I started to become drawn to the bass.
Also, in high school I had a crappy old car to cart my tuba around to all the places I was playing. The car’s AM radio could receive a late-night station out of Rochester, NY, called “The Best of All Possible Worlds.” The host, Harry Abraham, played all kinds of jazz of all eras interspersed with one another: Louis and maybe Clifford then maybe Ornette then maybe Bix, etc. Even though I was thoroughly into classical music at the time, I recognized that this stuff is serious business—it’s not pop or rock—this is some serious art music. Then I got pulled in more by listening to Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, and all the great bass players. I finally got a bass and started getting serious about it around age 23. From there, I started going to summer jazz camps—Aebersold’s in particular—and going around to jam sessions to try to get my chops together. I should also mention that my ear training/music theory studies during and after Roosevelt with Ralph Dodds were essential to my relatively quick transition from a strictly classical musician to a jazz player.
CJM: Talk about your early years on the scene: what kind of work were you doing, who were you working with, who were you listening to?
Rich Armandi: Early on I was doing pretty well as a classical tuba player. In addition to playing in the aforementioned orchestras and chamber groups, I was also starting to do some jingle sessions here and there and other recordings. At the same time, I was trying to get my jazz chops happening. There was a club on the northwest side that specialized in Dixieland music and I started sitting in there with my tuba. I also started sitting in with my tuba at “Jazz at Noon” which was then being held in Marina Towers. I had been playing bass only a short time when I got my first gig outside of classical music with the Teddy Lee Orchestra. It was a Guy Lombardo-type ensemble so they used the tuba, but I started bringing my bass and would play it on the few numbers with a 4/4 bass line. After that, I played a few months in the Empire Room five nights a week for Victor Lombardo—of all people—but these were gigs that helped me get started on the bass and I just kept going.
During this time I was learning lots of tunes. I started taking lessons with local greats like Larry Gray and Bill Harrison. Nick Schneider and Eddie DeHass were early mentors as well. I would play a lot of bebop and modern tunes with saxophonistMike Finnerty. I was also starting to do quite a bit of jobbing work on electric bass. Plus, I had a sizable number of students at various high schools in the Chicago area so I was doing pretty well making a living from just music.
It took me 11 years to get my bachelor’s degree. While that was nearing completion, I managed to take a leave of absence to go out on the road for a few months with basically ballroom bands. It was great experience and I met some great guys a result.
CJM: Through the years you have played with countless musicians in a wide variety of settings. Can you talk about one or two artists, as well as a specific experience, that helped define your playing?
Rich Armandi: With regard to the tuba, the great virtuoso and pedagogue Arnold Jacobs was in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for many years. His playing is probably my main influence. I also studied with him for many, many years and got the benefit of a truly great, great teacher. With regard to the bass, I started going to the Jazz Showcase to check out live performances of great jazz artists. Larry Gray would be the house bassist for some of the traveling musicians—he was a great inspiration mostly because he made it look so easy!
Little did I realize how long it would take to make it look that easy! Also, seeing some of the great bassists that would come through Chicago—Ray Brown, for example—was always thrilling to experience. I had some lessons with Ray that were defining for me.
CJM: Tell us about your teaching experience—which ranges from private students, to jazz and brass ensembles, to university lecture courses across Chicagoland. Was teaching something you initially planned to do?
Rich Armandi: I always felt the desire to be an educator. I started teaching right out of high school. At that time, I had quite a few private students on all the brass instruments. Immediately after receiving my master’s degree from Roosevelt University, I started teaching low brass and bass at Triton College in River Grove, and at Concordia University in River Forest. At Triton I also had a jazz combo. In 1990 I started teaching at College of DuPage—again, being the low brass and bass guy. For the past four years, I’ve been teaching jazz history for non-music majors at UIC. And I’ve always had a bunch of students that would come to my home studio for private lessons.
CJM: How did you first get involved with the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Camp, and what is one of your favorite musical experiences from the camp?
Rich Armandi: Soon after I took up the bass I was playing here and there with Shelley Yoelin, who had been on the faculty of the Aebersold camp for a few years by then. He suggested that I attend the camp, which I did for about nine years before I got on the faculty in 1990. I was the grateful recipient of the tutelage and encouragement from the likes of Rufus Reid, Todd Coolman, Chip Jackson, trumpeter Bobby Shew, Hal Galper, David Baker, and Jamey himself. As far as favorite musical experiences, almost every day I get to play with others on that magnificent faculty so I’m very thankful for that—it’s a real joy! Playing for the students on the faculty concerts is also great because they’re so enthusiastic.
CJM: You’ve been a part of many musical situations and band configurations during your career. What is a notable memory from one of your more unusual gigs?
Rich Armandi: I had a couple of stints playing tuba, as well as electric and upright bass, at a Japanese theme resort near Nagasaki in ’94 and ’96. It was a great gig in that a typical day I would play with the brass quintet, then we would add drums to the brass quintet for a mini big-band approach. We did shows alongside a contingent of singers and dancers that changed every few weeks, with the best arrangers in Japan writing for us. For a time we had a salsa band. We would trade sets with a steel pan band from Trinidad. We were working outside and unfortunately one memorable day I was the recipient of a bird’s business from above…Oy!
I’ve been playing with the Chicago Cubs Dixieland Band for the past few years and once in a while there’ll be some doofus who tries to throw a peanut or something into the bell of my horn…I guess the tuba is always a target!
CJM: Do you or have you done any composing or arranging?
Rich Armandi: Not so much really, but when I was in Japan I did make an arrangement for septet of Chick Corea’s “Tones for Joan’s Bones” that turned out pretty good. I think it’s something I should do more of, but I’ve always been focused on learning tunes and expanding my repertoire.
CJM: What gigs, recordings, and/or projects are on your horizon?
Rich Armandi: In January, I completed a recording of a bunch of Dixieland tunes on the tuba along with trumpeter Joe Lill, trombonist Audrey Morrison, clarinetist Kurt Bjorling, drummer Mike Lill, and Gus Friedlander on banjo. I’ll be playing with the Cubs Dixieland Band when the baseball season starts. Of course, I’ll be teaching at Aebersold this summer. Basswise, so far, I don’t have a lot on the horizon, so I hope the phone starts ringing!