It had been 25 years since Jack Kerouac's On the Road was published, and that July at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., there was a nine-day symposium paying homage to the classic Beat Generation novel. Naropa's promotional literature advertised that Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti would be participating, along with a composer named David Amram. His name was unfamiliar to me so I did some investigation. The card catalogue at the Hayden Library showed that he had written an autobiography titled Vibrations. I immediately checked it out and devoured the uplifting prose.
I had stumbled upon a new American hero, someone whose Whitmanesque enthusiasm for democratic ideals reflected my own. Yet Amram was also a musical prodigy, a wunderkind who had composed for Leonard Bernstein, performed with Jack Kerouac, jammed with Thelonius Monk, collaborated with Arthur Miller, recorded with Lionel Hampton, drank with Jackson Pollock, and acted with Allen Ginsberg. Amram has become one of the world's most accomplished composers, conductors and instrumentalists on French horn, pennywhistle, piano, shanai, dumbeg and other instruments from around the world. He is a one-man global jukebox who is also a gifted storyteller.
The most significant thing about Amram as a composer is that he belongs with those enlightened few who, though well-trained and proficient in traditional European classical music, have their roots in jazz. He's also a bedrock optimist; cynicism is always frowned upon by Amram, negativity tossed aside as the tormented tool of the spiritually oppressed.
Having composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber music pieces as well as numerous scores for Broadway theater and feature films, David Amram has dazzled four generations of audiences with his versatility, raw talent and timeless performances. But the fun of Amram's music lies in its surprises; his unlikely yet persuasive juxtapositions of seemingly disparate styles.
Void of pretense, Amram is just as proud of working at People's Drug Store in Washington, D.C., as penning the score for Archibald MacLeish's Pulitzer Prize-winning play J.B., and scores for the award-winning films Splendor in the Grass and The Manchurian Candidate. He is constantly composing, whether it's an opera based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with a libretto by Joe Papp, collaborating on the cantata Let Us Remember with Langston Hughes, or penning the chilling opera in remembrance of Holocaust victims, The Final Ingredient, for ABC television.
Always the wide-eyed student, Amram says that it was alto saxophonist Charlie Parker who became his guru for all seasons. "His music made me aware that every sound is related to every other sound," Amram recalls of his time jamming with Parker in 1952. "He was like an architect and a painter and a poet all at the same time. His attitude of an open mind and an open heart, of playing with anybody, listening to everything, trying to appreciate everything and then being able to distill all these experiences in his own way -- all this affected me and a whole generation of people who were aware enough to get the message."
Like his jazz and symphonic mentors, Amram's whole life has been dedicated to perfecting his art, to becoming a world-class composer, conductor and multi-instrumentalist. An attitude of undaunted perseverance would propel him all the way to playing jazz with Oscar Pettiford, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus. And, in 1966, Leonard Bernstein chose Amram as the first-ever Composer-in-Residence of the New York Philharmonic.
As a musician, Amram believes fervently in maintaining an open-door policy; he was and is the world's great musical avatar of inclusion, frowning on exclusion as a disease of conceit. Echoing Duke Ellington, Amram's philosophy, simply put, is "No More Walls." As The New York Times noted in 1993, when reviewing the New York premiere of his violin concerto, "Amram was multicultural before multiculturalism existed."
After all, what other classical composer has dared to write a chamber music work like Native American Portraits, incorporating Cheyenne, Seneca and Zuni chants, that was premiered to critical acclaim at the Lincoln Center? Or moves with ease from the Delta blues to a Viennese waltz to a Cuban Guaguanco to Sephardic hymns? Or has put the prose of John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe and Jack Kerouac to music?
I had brought my own dog-eared copy of Vibrations with me to the Naropa conference and went looking for Amram. It didn't take me long to discover him huddled near a dim stairwell, chatting amiably with a few college students. His curly hair was unruly, matted locks sprouting out wildly like the photograph cover of Bob Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited. Around his neck were exotic chains and pennywhistles from around the world.
Even from across the foyer I could see he was exuding a breezy charm. Somewhat shyly, I entered the small circle of listeners surrounding him. Immediately he made me feel at home, as if we were long lost friends. "Hey Pops," he said, borrowing from Louis Armstrong. "Where are you coming from?" This inaugural conversation lasted nearly an hour, initiating a lifelong friendship. He had signed my copy of Vibrations "Keep on Truckin'," which at the time was a reference to my road trip from Tempe to Boulder.
Now, as I read the inscription again 20 years later, it stands as the perfect motto for Amram on the occasion of the New Orleans world premiere of his latest achievement, Giants of the Night. His concerto is dedicated to Amram's former collaborators -- jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, jazz trumpeter and be-bop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie and writer Jack Kerouac -- and was commissioned by Sir James Galway, who is regarded by most to be the best flute player in the world today.
"When flute master James Galway asked me to write a concerto for him," says Amram, "I was thrilled to know that I was composing music for one of our leading soloists in the world, who also shared the same desire of bringing the joys of classical music to a whole new audience. He wanted me to incorporate my lifetime of experience in the worlds of jazz and Afro-Cuban music as part of the fabric of the concerto, and that while every note was to be written out, it should sound at times as if the soloist and the orchestra were improvising.
"He told me he wanted a real concerto, not a pops piece but something that would touch people and combine the many elements of music we both felt belonged together."
- John Cohen
- Amram in the ashram: David Amram (top right, with hand to mouth), with Gregory Corso (back to camera), Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in 1959.
- Kevin Willey
- Douglas Brinkley with David Amram, decades after the future UNO historian first encountered Amram in Boulder, Colo.