Musician John Bilezikjian dies at 66; master of the Middle Eastern oud

John Bilezikjian obituary: Musician mastered the oud, an 11-string Middle Eastern instrument

John Bilezikjian, a masterful player of the Middle Eastern oud whose eclectic career included performances and recordings with Leonard Cohen, Little Richard, Robert Palmer, Luis Miguel and Placido Domingo and programs of traditional Armenian music as well as appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Pops and Los Angeles Mandolin Orchestra, has died. He was 66.

Bilezikjian died Jan. 19 at his home Mission Viejo after a long bout with kidney disease, according to his close friend and frequent musical companion Barry Fisher.

Bilezikjian's expressive playing of the oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument similar to the lute, can be heard in more than 82 film and television soundtracks, including "Schindler's List" and "The French Connection."

Beyond his mastery of the oud, Bilezikjian's instrumental virtuosity was extraordinary, reaching from the difficult-to-master 11-string oud to the violin and beyond. In a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times he claimed he could play 40 different instruments, including guitar, drums, zither and lute. "But the oud," he added, "is my life."

Though he was often described as "America's oud virtuoso," Bilezikjian was modest about his skills, jokingly referring to himself as "just an old country oud player."

The music that attracted Bilezikjian's interest was equally far reaching. "I have no restrictions," he told The Times, describing a concert in which he played Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez and a medley of themes from "Chariots of Fire," "E.T." and "Star Wars."

Bilezikjian's audience was worldwide, his role as a major figure in the genre of world music affirmed by his authentic interpretations of the music of Armenia, Turkey, the Arab world, Greece, Russia, Israel, Eastern Europe, Spain, Asia, Latin America and beyond.

In addition to his instrumental diversity, Bilezikjian also sang in as many as a dozen different languages.

John Haig Bilezikjian was born Feb. 1, 1948, in Los Angeles to Armenian parents and a musical family environment. His father was a classical violinist, his grandfather played the oud, and his mother was a singer.

His fascination with music began to blossom before he was 5. Displaying an early aptitude, he was accepted into a children's ensemble, playing the ukulele. But hearing his father play the violin was a constant distraction.

"I went to my mom," Bilezikjian recalled in an interview for the Fretboard Journal. "And I said, 'Mom, I want to play like Daddy. I want to play that violin." And the next day I had a violin in my hands."

By the time he was 10, under the guidance of his father, he had acquired sufficient mastery of the violin to play the Paganini Caprices. The close proximity of his grandfather's oud, however, opened yet another musical vista. And once again he revealed more musical aptitude, quickly beginning to master the challenging demands of the 11-string oud, teaching himself by listening to his parents' old 78 rpm recordings of Armenian music. A year later, he was playing both the violin and the oud in his own band, the Halehs.

While performing around Los Angeles with the Halehs, Bilezikjian attended San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge), earning a bachelor's degree in violin, oud, performance and composition.

After graduation, he decided to take charge of his post-collegiate career.

"I said to myself," Bilezikjian told the Fretboard Journal, "I'm going to call Paramount Studios, and I'm going to ask if I can come down and audition with my oud."

The result was a meeting with composer Lalo Schfrin, which led to the presence of Bilezikjian's oud in Schifrin's theme music for the hit television series "Mission: Impossible." It also opened the door to the world of studio music for films and television. In the busy, decades-long studio career that followed, Bilezikjian's oud playing became one of the unique timbres in background music for every kind of media. But he wasn't limited to the oud and the violin, also playing mandolin, balalaika, tamburitza, dombra and bouzouki.

In the late '70s, another important career track opened for Bilezikjian when he received a call from Leonard Cohen's office. Bilezikjian claimed to have had no idea who the singer-songwriter was at that time. But they hit it off musically in a creative relationship that lasted until 1988.

Bilezikjian's career lasted well into his final years as he continued to celebrate the Armenian music that was at the center of his art despite the onset of the kidney disease that took his life.

His music, in all its many forms, can be heard on numerous recordings on Dantz Records, the company he founded in Laguna Hills.

Survivors include his wife, Helen; sons John Bilezikjian and George Bilezikjian, stepsons Mason Walton and Morgan Walton, and three grandsons.

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