Interviews

David Amram, author of Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac

 

The composer David Amram has been hailed by the Washington Post as “one of the most versatile and skilled musicians America has ever produced.” Since Leonard Bernstein appointed Amram as first composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic in 1966-67, he has become one of the most acclaimed composers of his generation, listed by BMI as one of the Twenty Most Performed Composers of Concert Music in the United States since 1974.

Amram is also known as the musical collaborator of the great mid-century American author Jack Kerouac, whose book On the Road is considered to be the artistic soul of the 1950’s.  Their work together blended poetry, jazz, blues, theatre and what is now considered performance art into an unforgettably intoxicating stew that became a life-changing experience for the many thousands of people who witnessed it.

David Amram celebrates his friendship with Kerouac in Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac, and discusses their life and times with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a July 17, 2002 interview.

 

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Gregory Corso (back to camera), Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram, Allen Ginsberg

1959

photo by John Cohen

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JJM   I appreciate your participation. I can’t say that I am an expert on your era, but I have followed it as a casual observer for most of my life.

DA I wouldn’t consider myself to be an expert either, but I was there. I was part of it, and I am still part of it today in terms of what it means to a whole new generation of people who are interested in the enduring energy, achievements, spirit and creativity that exemplified our era. I wish to share and pass down some of my generation’s traits, and encourage young people to create their own art, music, and literature.

JJM Who were your childhood heroes?

DA  One of my first heroes was Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1937, when I was six years old, I was taken to hear them, and I fell in love with that whole group of musicians and all the music I heard, including the performance of Peter and the Wolf. A few years later, my Uncle David took me to the Earle Theatre to hear Duke Ellington. I learned from my uncle that jazz, like symphony music, was built to last. So, I was introduced to the idea of making music by these two men, who were among my early heroes. I also admired the first oboist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Marcel Tabiteau. In 1976, I wrote a piece in his memory for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Trail of Beauty, based on American Indian music. I just wrote a new piece for the flutist James Galway, Giants of the Night Flute Concerto, which was written in memory of Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac and Dizzy Gillespie. I was lucky enough to play with all three of them, and they all knew one another. What I have tried to do during the course of my lifetime is honor many of the people who influenced and inspired me, and in the process of honoring them it will hopefully create even more interest in their work, as well as being a thank you letter from me for their support when I was very young.

JJM You wrote in your book, “I knew the time I spent with Jack (Kerouac) was always precious. Regardless of who we were with or what we did, not a moment was ever wasted.” How would you characterize your friendship with Jack Kerouac?

DA  He heard me play with Charles Mingus before we met and knew Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie — a lot of the same people I did — all of whom appreciated him as much as I did because he was such a down-home, egalitarian person. We had common interests in the beauty of the French language. We both had a tremendous love of jazz. We shared dreams of getting married and having a family, living in the country, leading an idyllic life. We used to talk constantly about that, even though we were running around all over the world, not quite getting to that point. Jack almost did. I was fortunate to, later in life. We both had that strong sense of family and heritage and tradition, and we both shared a love of being with people and paying attention to every single person that was there.

Even before he had one book published, Jack was one of those people you could feel was very special. He was a great listener and story teller. It was also fun to play music with him because he would on occasion improvise words and rhymes, and I did the same thing. Sometimes he would play the piano and I would do the rapping of lines, and other times he would play the bongo drums I had lying around my apartment, and we would play together. He was a very good natural jazz singer — a scat singer. This was something he wouldn’t do much publicly. He mostly read, including other people’s work in addition to his own. He was very generous in that way. Being with Jack was like being with all the great musicians I knew…We were master “hang-out-ologists!”

JJM What was the artistic atmosphere of the 1950’s prior to the jazz-poetry readings?

DA The atmosphere was wide open in those circles that we traveled in. To an extent, we opened them up ourselves by walking into places and spontaneously doing something together. In a jazz atmosphere, the audience members were so quiet and respectful of the musicians that you felt you were almost part of a meeting at a church or a temple, where everyone was completely in tune with the sermon and what the whole event was about. It was a wonderful communal feeling that was largely unspoken, and very strong and very warm. I jammed with Monk and Bird and played and recorded with the bands of Mingus, Oscar Pettiford, Lionel Hampton, Mary Lou Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham and many great players at venues that were often attended by just a handful of people. At places like the Cedar Tavern, the painters were really the center of what you might you call the social scene.  They would have “bring your own bottle” parties, and people would bring something with them, whether it be a drink, a poem they had written, or a musical instrument — or just come to hang out. They were basically informal get-togethers that were open to anybody who happened to come by and walk in, from a street person to a potential art collector who would hear through the grapevine that artists were having a party.

Esquire, in a July, 1957 issue, has a photograph of me playing the French horn at the Five Spot. The photo shows the sculptor David Smith, the painter Larry Rivers, the poet Frank O’Hara, and others as well. This picture wasn’t taken in an elegant setting like Elaine’s Restaurant, but rather a club where people like that were hanging out all the time. The Esquire article associated with the photo was called “Upper and Lower Bohemia.” The Upper Bohemia people wore tuxedos in an art gallery, and Lower Bohemia was all of us. The people of Upper Bohemia would come down and check out what was happening downtown. There was no such discussion of a “cutting edge.” It was just all this wonderful stuff going on.

JJM  What are your memories of the first ever jazz-poetry reading at New York’s Brata Art Gallery in 1957?

DA The fact that we even did it is a miracle, because we used to do our readings on park benches or in people’s apartments, or in the Café Figaro or some bar at 3:00 AM — whatever we felt like doing. Howard Hart and Philip Lamentia thought we should try to do it in a better setting. We met with the poet Frank O’Hara, who was a link between Upper and Lower Bohemia, and who worked at the Museum of Modern Art, where we had hoped to do the readings. The people at the Museum were horrified at the idea of having any of us there. They were not about to open up their museum to a bunch of “ruffians.” So, having been turned down there, we decided to do it at the Brata Art Gallery, where I was known. On occasion they would ask me to play the horn or bring some musicians to play. In exchange for playing, we would get wine, crackers, and the chance to meet a variety of fantastic artists, and perhaps even pursue romance with a young woman who was interested in art.

So, we went to the Brata Gallery and they welcomed us there. I remember the day of the reading being quite rainy. In anticipation of the reading, we had a few mimeographed announcements that were handed out in the different coffee houses, bars and park benches, because that was the way everything was advertised then — by word of mouth. To our amazement, the Brata was packed with people. There was no microphone, and nothing was planned. Jack was the emcee, and On the Road had just come out previous to that. People knew his name from the incredible reviews, but he didn’t have the pressure on him then that he did even a month or two later.

JJM The readings were pretty much spontaneous?

DA  Yes.  I never knew whether Jack was reading something that he made up on the spot or if it was something of his own. There may be something by Walt Whitman in there, or maybe a fragment of a poem by Hart Crane, or something from Shakespeare, Beowulf or Chaucer. He knew all of these French poets like Celine, and he would say “check this out” or “dig this” and start reciting a Celine poem from memory. He had an enormous memory for music and for jazz and the classics. He could sing the melodies from different Haydn and Beethoven string quartets. He was like an encyclopedia of music and classic literature from Europe. He also had an enormous knowledge of Buddhism. He had a tremendous knowledge of Judaism, as well as the writings from the Old and New Testaments as well as from the Mass. He had this knowledge of so many different things. When he was reading, I would submerge myself into whatever it was he was reading, and I tried to anticipate what would happen next.

JJM What instrument were you playing?

DA  This was 46 years ago, and I played mostly French horn and some piano and percussion. At times I might play some kind of folkloric flute, although I didn’t play those with the frequency or the skill then as I do now. I would listen very hard to what he was reading, and on the spot create music that the readings gave me ideas about. That is something that I was trained to do when playing jazz, always think ahead. When you are accompanying someone, you are listening to them the way you listen to a Bach Chorale, where four parts are going on at the same time, all of which are gorgeous melodies, all being played simultaneously. In jazz, you listen to what the bass player is doing and what the drummer is doing, what the pianist and the guitarist is doing, and then you play something that compliments that, so you are thinking simultaneously and thinking ahead. In symphonic music, when you are conducting, you do the same thing. You are feeling the whole orchestra, thinking ahead so you can prepare for a change. That enables you to accompany somebody even if it is not planned and be able to come up with something that is appropriate.

The other thing is you really have to want to submerge yourself into this situation. That is what I did with Jack, and that’s why he liked to do the readings with me because he knew I was there for him, and for our ability to blend the poetry and the music. When he was reading I tried to do something to compliment the music that was already there in his reading.

JJM  At age 37, Keroauc considered himself too old to be performing in public, and appeared unable to find his own way. You quote Franz Kline as saying of Kerouac, “He has the cross to bear. He is recognized more for a false image created by a merchandising myth than he is for his true gifts — as an artist.” Was this the basis for much of Kerouac’s sadness and despondency later in life?

DA  Definitely. He was an old fashioned artist who wanted people to appreciate what he wrote and appreciate him as a person by virtue of what he wrote. That is about as simple and straight-forward a set of goals as any person could have. That is the way a great master carpenter feels, or an architect or composer or anyone who creates anything — people want to be appreciated for what they have done. Kerouac and the rest of us would say, “By your works, ye shall be known.” A thing of beauty is a joy forever. This is as far removed from the myth of the “beat” generation’s untalented, cretin sociopath who supposedly possessed a philosophy of lying around, stoned out all day, saying how much you hated America as you can get.

JJM Yet this is what he became associated with.

DA  Yes, he was a tremendously learned person, and to be made a fashion industry pop schlock caricature of being the “king of the beatniks” was devastating to him. He wanted to be considered along with writers like John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Wolfe, as a twentieth century American author who took experiences with his own life, and who held up a mirror to America and the world and said, “here is who we are.” He was an old fashioned writer in the most complete and beautiful sense, and he knew in his heart the value of his own writing. He was a serious writer and it was very important to him to be appreciated as a writer.