Τribute to David Amram, one of the greatest composers, conductor and multi-instrumentalist of our time

Τribute to David Amram, one of the greatest and pioneer composers, conductors, and multi-instrumentalists of our time

David Amram:

The Renaissance Man of American Music

David Amram is an American Original. He has composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works in addition to many memorable scores for film, theatre and opera, and has conducted symphony orchestras on every continent except Antarctica. Among his classic film scores are Splendor in the Grass and The Arrangement (both directed by Elia Kazan); and The Manchurian Candidate and The Young Savages (both directed by John Frankenheimer).   And, the Library of Congress has given Landmark Film Status to the 1959 art film `Beat’ classic Pull My Daisy, co-starring Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg and David Amram, with a masterful music score by Amram.  Its' title song has become a jazz classic and David’s signature song.

David is also recognized as a celebrated jazz, folk, Latin, Middle Eastern and Jewish, Indian and Pakistani, pan African, Celtic and Native American music artist for more than half a century; considered a musical progenitor of `world music’ (decades before the term existed); and has even recorded a country album with himself as singer, guitarist, composer and lyricist.

A pioneer player (along with Julius Watkins) of jazz French horn, he is also a virtuoso on piano, numerous flutes  and whistles, percussion, and dozens of folkloric instruments from 25 countries, as well as being an inventive, funny improvisational lyricist and scat singer.   He has collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Joseph Papp, Langston Hughes, Bob Dylan, Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, Dizzy Gillespie, Dustin Hoffman, Willie Nelson, Eugene Ormandy, Budd Schulberg, Norman Corwin, Charles Mingus, Alan Ginsberg, Candido, Pete Seeger, Lionel Hampton, Hunter Thompson, Tito Puente, Odetta, Alan Ginsberg, E. G. Marshall, Steve Martin and Johnny Depp.  In addition to being one of the founding members of 1950s Beat generation, Amram and author/poet Jack Kerouac pioneered the first public jazz/poetry readings ever presented in New York, soon followed by twelve years of musical collaboration (including the classic film “Pull My Daisy’). One of Amram's recent classical works "Giants of the Night," commissioned and premiered by Sir James Galway, is a flute concerto dedicated to the memory of three American artists whom Amram knew well and worked with: Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac and Dizzy Gillespie.

Friends, poets, musicians, and collaborators of David Amram talk about their experiences, personality and his music.

Interviews by Michael Limnios

Ken Radnofsky (Saxophonist)

David's greatest character trait is that he treats every single person he has ever met as if that person were the most important person in the world.  And I have never seen him be any different.  He has time for everyone, and he believes that EVERYONE IS IMPORTANT.  He cares about all of us more than himself.  So of course, when his house burned down some years ago and there were difficult times, David said to me: don't worry, I'll get your piece done!

That's David.  He's a wonderful soul, with the energy of an eighteen year old, and he writes pure, beautiful music, often that is a picture of a time and a place; often it is NY, Greenwich Village, or in musical homage to one of his friends, like Lord Buckley, Frank McCourt, Arthur Miller or Odetta, as in Sax Concerto 'Ode to Lord Buckley,' or his new piece, for saxophone and piano- Greenwich Village Portraits, which will be premiered world-wide beginning Feb. 15, 2014.

Nick Tremulis (Musician)

I first new of David from his soundtrack for The Manchurian Candidate. The movie was re-released to theatres in America in the ‘90’s as it was pulled off the market in its 1963 release due to the Bay of Pigs and the Kennedy assassination. I was completely blown away by the soundtrack and searched him out through a friend. We hit it off swimmingly and worked together on a handful of shows. Of course we’ve played “Pull My Daisy” together and I’ve read excerpts of “On The Road” as a sort of libretto to his playing. My favorite full circle moment, though, was putting together a full on 13-piece ensemble to perform the jazz theme to “The Manchurian Candidate” with him that we performed with an edited montage of the film running on a screen behind us. The first time ever played live! That we’ve both made music and film for Gregory Corso, albeit decades apart, puts us in a rare club as well.

My favorite thing to do with David, though, is to take him to Greek town in Chicago, (He loves Greek food!) and just ask him question after question about his amazing life. David is a king who has been offered many thrones and always turns them down, preferring to embark on one of his many great adventures into the musical and spiritual unknown. I am proud to be one of his many disciples. Plus when we ring each other up he always calls me, “Pops”!

John Sinclair (Poet) 

I don't think of Amram in terms of "amusing tales" but in terms of inspiration and awe.  For me he's one of our greatest living Americans and a beacon of artistry, intelligence, creative vision and humility. I'm looking forward to sitting in with him next month at Lowell Celebrates Kerouac and then playing a full-scale show with him in Denver at the Neal Cassady Birthday Party next Feb 7. We performed together for two concerts at last year's Kerouac festival in Lowell.

But the funniest thing is that I met David in New Orleans in 1996 at a 48-hour event called the Insomniacathon where I performed with my band The Blues Scholars and looked over when I heard a different sound: Amram had climbed onstage and joined my horn section on the French horn! Not only was I thrilled beyond measure because I was enjoying the chance to perform my fully mature work for my three major inspirations who were in the crowd—Robert Creeley, Amiri Baraka and Ed Sanders—but I had one of the originators of jazz-and-poetry in my band for the night as well! He introduced himself after the set and we've been close friends ever since.

David Amram music continues to generate such a devoted following because it's imaginative and creative without boundary, he performs and directs it with superb excellence and he has a brilliantly warm and personal connection with every audience he meets because he loves being with them, whoever and wherever they are. I love this guy & can't wait to see him in Lowell next month.

David Amram, Pete Seeger and Dizzy Gillespie

Elmira Darvarova (Concert Violinist)

David Amram's music and personality is that of a "Renaissance Man" - he is a "musician's musician", whose compositions touch people in all walks of life, and therefore are accessible to everyone.  While his works speak to everyone in general, they also relate personally to each listener. He imbues his music with very rich melodic and rhythmic material and variety, in every genre in which he works. Because he regards all musical styles with utmost importance, the amalgam of classical, jazz and folk music becomes a homogenous unique expressive language for David Amram. His works continue to generate a devoted following, and will endure the test of time.

Keith C. Bollum (Bellamy Road)

Our non-profit foundation co-sponsored with the Kerouac Project, a Beat Symposium in Orlando, Florida in 2010. David, of course, was on the panel along with Joyce Johnson, John and Mellon Tytell, and Chris Felver, among others. Over the course of the long weekend Amram the Inexhaustible never flagged. Always a raconteur, he loves an audience great or small. The photograph attached shows the amusing effect he has on everyone he meets. What’s not to smile about?

Paul Polivnick (Maestro / Composer)

His incredible enthusiasm and passion for music and the love he has for people are the main characteristics that made him a popular musician and person.

David and I always joke about "The Funspot." When I conducted a piece of his at the New Hampshire Music Festival, he brought his kids with him and instead of staying at a hotel they camped out at "The Fun Spot" in a tent! A memory that makes me smile is the 1st time we met doing Youth Concerts together with the Milwaukee Symphony and watching him get the audience rocking and rolling in synchronized clapping in his "En Memoria de Chano Pozo."

The beauty of his personality, musical and personal is a timeless attraction. And his affection for the music of many cultures is one that is shared by many these days.

John Tytell (Writer / Academic)

In 1997, I was asked to speak on Ezra Pound at a cultural gathering in Goes, Holland that included more musicians than literary types. David Amram wanted to play his arrangement of the Kerouac/Ginsberg collaborative spoof poem, "Pull My Daisy," on the bells of the old Dutch church in the center of the circular town.  Chris Felver and I carried the instruments David needed for a performance later that evening up four flights of uneven, twisted stone steps. Finally, there was a double flight of   steep wooden steps with no railing going straight up to the bell tower.

     With the weight of the instruments and the awkwardness of all those steps, the mounting and the apprehension, I was dizzy and quite winded when we reached the tower. The view of Goes and the surrounding countryside was quaint and pastoral. I found it charming that the melody for this slightly pornographic little poem about a diddled phallus (the daisy is a euphemism) would be heard on Puritan bells. Afterwards, we descended carrying flutes and drums. A fountain of exuberant energy, David continued one of his interminable, often hilarious raps, reminiscing about the Kerouac he knew in the 1950's.

Final concert for the Longest Walk 1978 Washington DC Native Americans walked 3000 miles from California to Washington DC. to create awareness of need for education and honoring of treaties: Muhammad Ali, Buffy St Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Harold Smith, Stevie Wonder, Marlon Brando, Max Gail, Dick Gregory, Richie Havens, David Amram (David Amram Archive)

Stephanie Nikolopoulos (Writer)

It was such an honor to read with David Amram at the Cornelia Street Café - only steps from where he and Kerouac did the first jazz-poetry readings in the ’50s.  I was so nervous though!  Even though I had interviewed him on the phone years prior to that, corresponded with him, and been in the audience at some of his shows, I’d always been too shy to introduce myself in person.  The reading went smoothly, but afterwards I was tongue-tied again talking with him even though he’s so friendly and encouraging.

I really admire David’s creativity.  He knows so much about music and is always pulling out all these esoteric instruments to play jazz, folk, world, and orchestral music.  At one point he even was playing two flutes at the same time!  He is full of energy and puts on a fun show that gets the whole audience involved.

His bandmates are also really great.  Kevin Twigg, the percussionist, had hurt his arm on the day of the show, but you would’ve never known it listening to him play.

Douglas A. Yeager (Manager / Producer)

David Amram is a unique personality and artist, who has mastered more than 35 instruments, and has achieved fame as musician, singer, composer and conductor in the fields of jazz, symphonic classical music, world music, folk and blues, Hollywood and Broadway scores, African and Latin music. He is commonly referred to as the "Renaissance Man of American Music." Interestingly, his first live concert he witnessed in New York in 1945 was a Josh White concert. He subsequently became close friends and collaborators with Josh White, Jr., Odetta, Richie Havens, Nina Simone, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Taj Mahal, Betty Carter, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Jack Kerouac, Pete Seeger, Kris Kristofferson and Guy Davis to name just a few. Last Fall, I was with him in Denver when he conducted the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in the live recording of his symphonic composition THIS LAND: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, and on the following day her performed a concert of Native American music in the day, and another concert that night with his jazz band and Josh White, Jr. as his special guest singer/guitarist.

If you look back to music charts in the 1940s, everything we now categorize as blues, country, folk and bluegrass were all labeled as "Folk Music" -- meaning music from the common folk. Any blues, jazz or country song that tells the story of the life of common folk is connected to the folk tree. Similarly, the jazz & poetry art form that Jack Kerouac and David Amram created in the 1950s is connected to the talking blues songs of Woody Guthrie from the 1930s, to the African chants of 4,000 years ago, and to the rap music of today.  It all tells the story of common folk.

Alana Amram (Musician)

People don’t know he is one of the funniest people that has ever walked the earth.  His comics are some of the funniest drawings ever made - they normally come on birthday cards - but occasionally he will bust one out when he is bored - generally during lectures.  I was encouraging him to make a full time habit of painting but he kept giving away the stuff in the gallery as color Xerox’s.

I don’t know what makes people popular.  I know my father is charismatic, brilliant, positive, the hardest working man in music, a beautiful, honest, soulful person who loves playing music with his whole being.

Jack Kerouac, Dody Muller and David Amram NYC 1959

Frank Messina (Poet)

David Amram taught me how to listen, to pay attention. And again it wasn't formal study, it was just being on stage with him for so many years. He's had a profound effect on my life as a performer and a band leader. I also learned a few secrets from the Zen Buddhists, who taught me how to relax, meditate and focus on positive things. Life is filled with so many distractions and energy-sucking elements. I've learned how to determine what is important, and what is a waste of time, and let things go, and move on. And that philosophy has allowed me to focus on enjoying life, celebrating this miracle, and helping others along the way. It has also helped me hear the music, to pay attention and contribute something worthy to my listeners.

David Amram has been a dear friend and mentor for many years. Since first meeting him in New Orleans in 1994, to our performances in the Netherlands at the Meer dan Voorden Festival, at the London International Poetry and Song Festival, and in so many cities across America, David and I have remained very close. His unique gift of friendship and humor make him a great teacher, even if he's not trying to teach you anything. When David speaks, you can feel your brain developing folds. You not only learn from David, but you unlearn. Amram tends to wear people out because he's so kinetic. And just as Einstein's theory of relativity says energy is never destroyed, Amram spreads his energy to everyone he meets and it continues forever, deep into the night and into the universe. You just can’t out-do the man. You’ll crash and burn. Meanwhile, David will still be out there playing, talking with people, or composing his next symphonic variation. He's also one of the most hilarious people I know who manages to take difficult situations and turn them into a funny learning experience, even if it's at his own expense. David has taught me to listen, to pay attention, and to keep my mind open.

Ron Whitehead (Poet)

What do you think is the main characteristic of Amram’s personality that made him a popular musician and person?

David Amram is one of the most amazingly gifted individuals in the history of the planet. David uplifts and inspires everyone he encounters. He is one of the greatest composers greatest musicians greatest people of alltime. Music is the language of angels; it is a gift to us humans. David is music incarnate. I am honored that we are friends.

David is one of the most hilarious people I've ever met. He can tell true life stories, and jokes, til beyond the end of time. Even when David is telling non-humorous stories I find myself smiling listening, for hours, to his stories. David is a master storyteller. He leaves the listener spellbound. David taught me that listening is the greatest art of all.

Every memory of every performance of every recording session of every phone call of every email of every hangoutology with David makes me smile. David is a spiritual alchemist. He transforms time and space into rhythm, rhythm, that magical element that lifts us all to new spheres of being of understanding of experience. David is a musical shaman, a healer.

David is The Best!!!!

Jim Tullio (Musician)

David Amram’s relentless energy and pure love of music, he never stops, he's always on and present....one of a kind

In the 70's I played a gig with David and Steve Goodman at "the earl of old town" in Chicago and the afternoon before the evening show we all had some time to kill. David decided to go and see the Bob Dylan film "Renaldo and Clara" (which was a painful 4 hour so called epic). When he returned I asked him how the film was and being friends with Bob he didn't want to say anything negative about it. So his response to me was..."it was in focus and edited". Always thought that was the funniest thing while staying totally neutral and loyal to Bob.

David is the real deal, the genuine article so to speak. Anything that pure will live on and on with no boundaries.....

Bob Dylan and David Amram

Andy Clausen (Poet)

David Amram's personality is one of eternal youth and openness to possibility. I think the attribute that draws me to Amram's work is virtuosity, the man can play anything but bad and he could probably do that if it was warranted. When I say anything, I'm talking about instruments (give him a few seconds to figure it out) and genres around the world.

Much of his work is encouragement for others to make their own music, write their own lyrics and poems. He's also still at an advanced age, what is vulgarly called a "chick magnet." He also had good friends, talented ones, Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Ray Bremser etal.

David can rap to his jazz keyboard for a long time, improvised verse after verse and they make sense and often effervescent with wit. I was running an event, time constraints lots of acts and I had the highly disagreeable task of cutting him off. He was wonderful about it and thanked me from the stage. "Now, " I thought," that is a gentleman." I recall in 1995 David was on stage with Earl Bostic's daughter Keysha and sitting there with my buddy Ray Bremser and Ray was in ecstasy bobbing his head to the beat, more excited than I'd seen him in years and Amram had a smile as wide as Broadway.

Will Dailey (Musician)

The first time I played Farm Aid with Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews I was a little intimidated. David Amram was one of the first people I met. I didn't recognize him at first but it was as if he was there just to make me feel comfortable, happy and part of the team. At the end of the night everyone got on stage to sing with Willie Nelson. Even after a great day and great set I still couldn't believe I was about to walk out and sing with everyone. I was still expecting someone to grab me and kick me out of the place! David Amram was on stage with his is trademark big smile and brought me out to share the microphone with him. I'll always remember that moment crystal clear.

When it comes down to it, he is very versatile. He has a tradition of being open to everything and anything in music since day one. That's when you know someone really has music running through their being. He brings energy and life to anything he's working on.

Catfish McDaris (Poet)

In August 1998 near Ginsberg’s farm in Cherry Valley, NY I met David Amram. Charles Plymell lived there in a stone house built for Samuel Morse, his casa acted as headquarters for the huge Beatnik read and gathering. (Morse is famous for the Morse code precursor to phone texting) Amram brought his beautiful daughter, we shook hands and he gave me his business card from an organic goat farm selling milk, cheese and eggs. His daughter lined up a dozen of his CD’s on a table where my books were. I asked Ray Bremser about him, he said he played back up for Kerouac and with lots of jazz greats in New York City. I tried to decide which CD to buy. Ray suggested I ask his daughter. She liked one he made when he slipped into Cuba. David started playing two long ornate flutes simultaneously. Everyone got goose bumps, he turned the air into magic.

David Amram at the Five Spot Cafe in New York City, 1957 Photo by Burt Glinn

Lora Lee Ecobelli (Actress / Writer)

David's music is very soulful and comes from some sacred place inside him. He is a very open and giving musician whose many adventures in life come through his beautifully lyrical and passionate music. You can close your eyes and be transported to the many places and cultures around the world that influenced him. He also has an uncanny way of capturing deep and complex emotions in his compositions that resonate inside people. People "get" his music and the things that he may not be able to say in real life come thru his music.

Life with David was always interesting and there was never a dull moment. He is the most enthusiastic and gregarious person in the world and the most adventurous person I have every met. His kinetic energy is contagious.  At the drop of a dime, he is willing to dive into almost anything if it involves music. A typical day with him could be hanging out with street musicians till the wee hours of the morning then driving 15 hours to conduct a symphony somewhere and in between, making phone calls to his many friends around the world while composing new music in his head!  David is the king of multi tasking!

There were so many gigs over the years but I think one of my favorites was when he traveled to Cuba with Dizzy Gillespie to perform as good will ambassadors. When they came back to America, an exchange tour was planned by the State Department with the many Cuban Jazz musicians that they had performed with in Cuba.  That show was breath taking and almost beyond words. Talk about soulful! These brave and courageous musicians literary played their hearts out in a free county.  It was incredibly moving. Afterwards several of the Cuban musicians including Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera defected. It was a magical and historical event.

Ted Drozdowski (Blues Musician)

During the Kerouac Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts, my band the Devil Gods was supporting John Sinclair and the jazz master David Amram jumped on stage playing only penny whistles, and I swear he played penny whistle like Coltrane played sax and I had to follow his solo, and somehow I played something beautiful and sharp toned like I’d never played before. He had inspired me to reach deeper inside. I guess it was good, because when I saw him five years later he still remembered me.

Richard Barone (Musician)

The concerts for Occupy were fun. Always, there was a tone of seriousness and the desire for change, even though the music itself was uplifting. This is the secret power of protest songs. It was wonderful to collaborate with David Amram, whom I had met previously – first through avant garde filmmaker and archivist Jonas Mekas and then through Pete Seeger. I love it when he joins me on flute, which he has several times, especially on “The Sidewalks of New York.” When Michael Moore recorded his song for the Occupy album, the Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” I was asked to come oversee the session. He had a wonderful band including Amram and Tom Chapin, and we all ended up singing background vocals on the choruses. A very memorable session. Joining Michael onstage at the CD release concert in New York was a thrill. A magical night for sure. At the Moore recording session he said, “The moment is here and it’s here to stay” about the idea that the public were finally raising their voices in displeasure with the economic condition in the United States, and that now there was no turning back. I liked that line so much that we used it in our song on the album, “Hey, Can I Sleep On Your Futon?”

Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso during the filming of “Pull My Daisy” 1959, Photo by John Cohen

Jane Traum (Homespun Tapes)

What I can say about him is that I think he is truly an amazing musician. When he is on stage I feel like he has the ability to make you feel like you become part of his musical world. He brings you into his exotic realm of sounds and rhythms and you feel totally comfortable and like you have discovered something new about your own musical boundaries. As a performer and a person he is wonderfully inclusive. On a personal level he is always warm and loving.

Norbert Krapf (Poet)

David is the kind of guy who loves to work with any artist of any kind. He is a great democrat, a universal spirit. You can feel the fun he has as he does it, the love, excitement, inspiration, the spirit between himself and others. I met him at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in June 2008, just weeks after becoming Indiana Poet Laureate. I was assigned to recite “On Hearing Nearing’ from Kerouac’s "On the Road" as part of the opening of the scroll manuscript of that novel owned by Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, with backing by David and two Indy jazz musicians. I had never worked with David yet felt by the end of the piece I that I had known him forever. I also got the chance to work with him when he backed some of my poems on the piano at the Woody Guthrie Festival in Woody’s hometown of Okemah, OK in 2011. Without any rehearsal, he did improvised backing of poems by a number of poets for close to two and a half hours. At some point, he made a very memorable remark. He said that when young musicians ask him how he backs poets so well, he gives them this advice: “Just listen to the poem, and if you are not moved to play anything, then don’t play anything.” David is so deft and sure of what he does. As a musician, he has great respect for silence. I could almost hear him listening.

George Wallace (Poet)

David is a mentor, an inspiration and a friend. He's helped me to expand what I do as a spoken word performer and is probably the main reason I jam with musicians on stage or otherwise, and think of it as one of my 'things.' He's helped me add my voice, and the voices of other poets, to performance festivals from New York to Florida, Oklahoma to Lowell Massachusetts. I love the guy -- his generosity, talent and peripatetic energy continues to inspire me. Amram's the man who helped me understand that it's all about the jam. Hangout-ology, he calls it.

David is one of the key figures in my growth as a spoken word artist and poet. He has been a mentor, a colleague and an inspiration. Beginning in 2000 he directly worked to open doors for me so that I could explore the world of Beat literature and culture, as well as the innovations in music and the visual arts which happened in New York City and beyond in the 50s. It was through David that I was able to establish relationships with the Woody Guthrie Festival, the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival, and with individuals and groups related to the Beat movement nationwide.

His precepts about spontaneity, musical erudition and the 'hangout-logy' which underlies the vitality in a true community of artists have been guiding principles for me. He opened my eyes through his steadfast insistence on redressing the false notion that Beat writers were anything less than serious, purposeful and dedicated artists grounded in a rich cultural and aesthetic soil. David has been an endless wellspring of insight and knowledge, 'ebullient' if it's okay to use a big word for it, and to me, he's nothing less than a guru. I've spent many many hours, over a period of many years, learning 'at his knee.' And he continues to inspire me.

David's story speaks for itself. He's one of the good guys. He wears the white hat and has invested his life fighting the good fight. God bless him for it!

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