b. 1 December 1950, New York City, New York, USA. Of Armenian descent, Donelian studied music formally from an early age, chiefly at Westchester Conservatory of Music, White Plains, New York, and also at Columbia University in New York City. Meanwhile, he also assimilated folk music of Armenian origin as well as that of neighbouring countries in the eastern Mediterranean region. Although his formal musical education was classical, from his early teens he was also interested in jazz and played in a band led by guitarist Art Ryerson, Snr. Following his graduation in 1972, Donelian began playing jazz in New York, including spells with pianist Richie Beirach and percussionist Mongo Santamaría. With the latter he recorded and also provided compositions, some of which were featured on Santamaría’s 1976 Grammy Award-winning Sofrito.
Through the late 70s and early 80s, Donelian worked regularly with noted jazz artists such as Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Billy Harper, Eddie Gomez, Billy Hart, Paquito D’Rivera, Anne Marie Moss and Jerry Tilitz. In the mid-80s, he resumed his studies, this time concentrating on classical music, meanwhile continuing to play and record jazz. In the late 80s and early 90s, he was with Night Ark, touring extensively in Europe and the Middle East as well as the USA, and he also worked with vocalist Datevik Hovanesian. Among the many musicians with whom Donelian has worked and sometimes recorded are bass player Carl Morten Iversen, drummer Audun Kleive, saxophonists Thomas Chapin, Marc Mommaas and Dick Oatts, trumpeter Barry Danielian, bass players Anthony Cox and Calvin Hill and drummers Bill Stewart and Jeff Williams.
Since 1986, Donelian has been active in music education, including being on the faculty of the New School Jazz Program and New Jersey’s William Paterson University. He received four Jazz Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts during the 90s and in 2000 was awarded a Fellowship in Music Composition from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, which allowed him to continue developing his classical concepts. In 2002 his educational work in Armenia was recognized with a Fulbright Scholarship, which led to visits to countries in eastern Europe and of the former USSR. A Fulbright Senior Specialist Award in 2003 took him back to Armenia for yet more educational projects. He has also conducted master classes in the USA and Armenia. Among Donelian’s books is the two-volume Training The Ear (1992 and 2003).