Artie Barsamian, 83, the ‘King of Armenian Swing’

Mr. Barsamian could create a unique tone on clarinet and sax.

Clarinetist and saxophonist Artie Barsamian never met a gig he did not like. Dubbed the “King of Armenian Swing,’’ he accepted invitations to perform at weddings, banquets, car dealerships, music festivals, and on cruises.

During the early years of his career, which began at age 9 and spanned more than seven decades, he performed virtually nonstop. He was so passionate about music that last May, at 82, he flew from his Florida home to Boston, rented a van, and drove several hours with colleagues to play for a wedding near the White House.

“Artie was a very good clarinetist and saxophonist,’’ said Steve Piermarini of Acton, who first performed with Mr. Barsamian in 1980 at Moseley’s on the Charles in Dedham.


“He was very much a natural musician who had an innate sense of melody,’’ Piermarini said. “Even in his jazz improvisation, one could hear a definite commitment to melodic phrasing, but his biggest attribute, to me, was his sound. He had a liquid tone on clarinet and sax that I’ve never heard in anyone else.’’

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Mr. Barsamian, whose career took him from some of Boston’s swankiest hotspots to the Tropicana hotel in Las Vegas, died of acute myelogenous leukemia on Feb. 22 in Orlando Regional Medical Center in Florida. He was 83 and had lived in Lexington for many years.

“My relationship with Artie goes back to when I was 15,’’ said Bob Raphalian of Norwood, a close friend and fellow musician who plays the oud, violin, and viola.

“I believe what made Artie so good was his unique sound,’’ Raphalian said. “Whether he was playing Armenian music or American music, you could attend any dance or wedding and immediately recognize that it was Artie.’’

Born Antranig Mihran Barsamian in South Boston, he began studying the clarinet at 9 years old while attending the Oliver Hazard Perry School. Inspired by the musical pursuits of his father, Mihran, a violinist, Mr. Barsamian also began playing the saxophone and flute, and mastered all three instruments.


Several years after Mr. Barsamian started playing musical instruments, South Boston High School faculty members asked him to participate in their minstrel show. He was a hit. During this time he also played for the USO.

After graduating in 1946, Mr. Barsamian continued studying music, playing Boston engagements on nights and weekends.

“He studied with Tony Viola and Boots Mussulli, two of the local saxophone greats,’’ Piermarini recalled.

His big break came in 1948 when trumpeter Leon Merian hired him to travel through the Midwest, playing concerts and one-nighters.

Mr. Barsamian returned home in 1949 and joined his father to organize the Artie Barsamian Orchestra.


His first record, “Haigagan March,’’ was well received by reviewers.

Later that year, while playing a Halloween party at a church in Watertown, Mr. Barsamian was summoned home to learn that his father had died suddenly. Though grieving, he vowed to fulfill his father’s wish to keep Armenian music alive in America.

Mr. Barsamian formed a six-piece orchestra that became well known for its Armenian music and recorded 14 albums.

Over the years Mr. Barsamian contended with many health challenges, including cancer, diabetes, glaucoma, and two open-heart surgeries.

A year after his first open-heart surgery in 1978, he realized a lifelong dream and formed his own big band by recruiting students from Berklee College of Music, said his daughter, Laura of Naples, Fla.

“Nothing slowed Dad down,’’ she said. “Despite all his health issues he never stopped loving life. He looked and felt great.’’

“Over the years, I played many exciting jobs with Artie, including small to very elegant weddings, dances, and various other affairs locally and all over the US,’’ Raphalian said.

Mr. Barsamian and his wife of 58 years, the former Cynthia Hamparian, also have a son, Arthur of Orlando. In addition to his wife and two children, Mr. Barsamian leaves two sisters, Virginia Tashjian of Worcester and Varney Haroutunian of Orlando; two brothers, Mike of Westwood and Edward of Naples, Fla.; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Barsamian was close to his children and grandchildren, and named his daughter after one of his favorite songs. To honor him, she compiled a DVD titled “The Legacy of Artie Barsamian.’’

“I adored my Dad, and he adored me,’’ Laura said. “We had a very special relationship. I am going to miss so many things about him, but mostly his smile and gentle love. He always said, ‘Bye honey,’ when we would hang up the phone.’’

His son thought of Mr. Barsamian as his best friend and the brother he never had, and said he will most miss the comfort and companionship his father provided for his mother.

Arthur said he also was grateful for the time he and his father spent together traveling the Northeast installing carpet in hotels and nursing homes in their business, Barsamian Floor Covering, formed in 1986.

“In the early days, he would go out in the field and help install carpet with me and the other guys,’’ his son said. “He’d be right there with his tool belt on, down on his knees just like the rest of us. Eventually, I wanted him to stop working so hard, so in the mid-’90s I convinced him to stay inside and handle the paperwork. He reluctantly retired from floors, but not from music.’’

Music had such a strong hold on Mr. Barsamian that he always kept his clarinet and saxophone beside him on the couch, and he booked gigs as recently as December.

He was still practicing the week he died, his children said.

Yet as much as he loved music, “if I had to describe my Dad in three words, it would have nothing to do with music,’’ his son said. “Those words would be ‘husband, father, and grandfather.’ My Dad was at the hospital when both of my children were born, and he taught Anastasia and Michael how to play the clarinet. Nothing was more important to him than family.’’

In a speech written for school, Anastasia described her grandfather as one of a kind.

“My grandpa always gives me good advice, whether it involves music or my social life,’’ she wrote four years ago as a fifth-grader. “He’s a fantastic grandpa, but he did other things for other people, too. He isn’t just a great person to his relatives. He touches many lives.’’

Laurie D. Willis can be reached at