Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Armacost, Tim

Saxophonist Tim Armacost describes his childhood as having a pendulum-like swing between hometowns, which included Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Tokyo. This youthful experience instilled in him a travelling spirit, which has shaped his career and his music.

Born on December 8, 1962 in Los Angeles, California, Tim grew up surrounded by music. His father was a professor of political science at Pomona College, and an avid jazz and folk music fan. Armacost was first exposed to the music of his father’s favorites, which included Joan Baez, Ray Charles, Phil Woods, and Oscar Peterson.

His mother was a classical pianist who had a concert career, who mainly taught privately in her home. In 1968, when Tim was six, his father took the family to Tokyo for a two-year academic sabbatical, which sparked the boy's fascination with Japan and its culture.

The family then returned to the Washington D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, but returned to Tokyo for extended stays several times over the next few years.

At the age of seven, Armacost heard live jazz for the first time. It happened to be Benny Goodman at the Wolf Trap Jazz Festival in Vienna, Virginia. He was enthralled, and credits that experience with inspiring him to learn to play music. The following year he began playing the clarinet in his Tokyo private school, but upon hearing the high school jazz band, he was intoxicated by the sound of the saxophone section. He soon switched to the saxophone, and spent hours playing melodies along with "Music-Minus-One" series of play-along records.

Armacost's emotional connection to playing music, plus a competitive drive to best his saxophone-playing younger brother, jumpstarted his desire to practice and improve. Back in Bethesda, his older brother, who played trumpet, introduced him to Bob Israel, a big band leader based in the D.C. area, and Israel hired Tim for his first paying gigs


Armacost returned to California to attend Pomona College in 1980, where he received a degree in Asian studies. He strongly considered becoming either a Japan scholar or a Zen Buddhist priest. He even returned to Japan on a study-abroad program to learn to speak Japanese at Waseda University. Outside of school, he continued his musical education, gigging around L.A. and studying with vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake and trumpeter Bobby Bradford.

Throughout college, Armacost focused on deepening his harmonic knowledge, and by the time he graduated he knew he wanted to pursue a career in music. Feeling unready to try his luck in New York, and also dissatisfied with what he perceived as a lack of devotion and passion in the L.A. scene, Armacost decided to move to Europe. He chose Amsterdam, and began playing out right as soon as he arrived. He also landed a guest-teaching position at the Sweelinck Conservatory, now known as the Amsterdam Conservatory. He was invited back repeatedly for five years, during which time he became a fluent Dutch speaker. He also found that in the years spent teaching the harmonic material he had been studying himself had cemented his own understanding of it.

After establishing a career in Europe, Armacost moved to New Delhi, India for a year, where his wife was doing research for her law degree. Inspired by an Amsterdam performance given by guitarist John McLaughlin, Armacost turned his musical focus towards rhythms. Armacost studied the complex systems of rhythmic cycles of Indian classical music with tabla player Vijay Ateet, who taught him how to incorporate various Indian rhythmic concepts into his own ideas for harmony and composition.

By 1993, Armacost felt ready to leave New Delhi for New York. He religiously attended the jam session at the Dean Street Café lead by saxophonist Craig Bailey. He viewed the session as a laboratory where he could test the harmonic ideas he had been experimenting with, and he found the degree of musicianship there sufficient to hone the execution of his concepts. He continued to tour and record in Europe throughout this period, giving him a chance to perform using the ideas he was testing in New York. Soon he began to establish footing in New York, and he played briefly with big bands including David Murray’s band and the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Aside from the Dean Street Café, Smalls jazz club in Manhattan's West Village also played an important role in Armacost’s development. He attended the first jam sessions there, and it is also where he had his first gig as a leader. In 1995, Armacost was signed to Concord Records as part of a band led by drummer Rick Hollander. The next year he was signed as a solo artist, and two of his career dreams came true: he had always wanted to record with trumpeter Tom Harell and pianist Kenny Barron. Both dreams were realized on two of his first recordings as leader. He played with Barron played on Fire, and Harrell joined him for Live at Smalls.

During this time, he toured under his own name in Japan with mainly Japanese musicians, including drummer Shingo Okudaira. A show at Smalls with pianist David Berkman, drummer Billy Hart, and bassist Bill Moring marked the beginning of a project that would become the New York Standards Quartet, a group that takes songs from the standard repertoire, keeps their forms in tact, and treats them with rhythmic and harmonic freedom and experimentation.

Armacost continues to tour with his quartet of pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Ray Drummond, and Billy Hart. He co-leads the Brooklyn Big Band with Craig Bailey. He tours with The New York Standards Quartet. His latest release, Rhythm and Transformation on Artistshare features tabla player Ray Spiegel. It was funded by a grant from Chamber Music America, and incorporates many of the rhythmic techniques Armacost learned while studying in India. Armacost is currently finishing his M.A. in jazz composition at CUNY Queens College.

Discography as a Leader

Rhythm and Transformation ArtistShare AS0064

Brightly Dark Satchmo Records SJRCD 00055

The Wishing Well Double Time Records DTRCD-163

Live At Smalls Double Time Records DTRCD-131

Fire Concord Records CCD-4697

Contributor: Jacob Teichroew