When Jacob Armen was just 3 months old, his mother, Jenny, gave him a music box. His father, pronouncing the toy too unsophisticated, smashed it to bits. Instead, Albert Armen, a music teacher, preferred to keep a radio next to the baby’s crib, tuned to a 24-hour jazz station. When Jacob was 8 months, Albert began moving the boy’s arm up and down to the music. When his son was 1½, Albert sat him down at a drum set; four months later Jacob was performing in public.
At age 6, Jacob auditioned for Joel Leach, director of the jazz orchestra at California State University, Northridge, and it became clear that more than a severe case of stage-father syndrome was loose in the Armen household. Jacob, jazz professionals agree, is a genuine prodigy. “His ability to grasp different styles was beyond anything I’d ever seen in a child,” says Leach, who had the boy sit in for blues, jazz and samba tunes. Talent like Jacob’s, Leach adds, “comes along once every several decades.”
Since then, Jacob, now 8, has been making a big noise in the jazz world. Last fall, his solo won standing ovations at the Monterey Jazz Festival. This month he headlined a California benefit concert with Louis Bellson, perhaps the greatest living jazz drummer, who says “Jacob could be a giant, like Rich, Ellington and Louis Armstrong.” Vegas has beckoned, but even his hard-charging dad agrees “he’s too young” for that.
So for now Jacob’s main venue is the Magic Lamp, the Pasadena restaurant owned and operated by his parents, both Armenian immigrants. “I like a lot of people to watch,” says Jacob, who plays with a bass and piano and routinely dazzles patrons with two-hour shows. “I get more energy.”
But Bellson, for one, worries that Jacob could be pushed so hard “he winds up hating drums at 15.” Albert recently set his son’s dislocated thumb with a Popsicle stick rather than take him to a doctor: Dad was afraid that a cast would prevent Jacob’s appearance on The Tonight Show. (“You just can’t postpone things like that, says Albert. “Jacob was already in TV Guide”) But Jacob—an honors student who prefers Nintendo and TV cartoons to practicing—has his talent in perspective. Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he replies, “The best drummer in the world—and a lawyer.”