David Amram, described by the Boston Globe as “the Renaissance man of American music”, has composed over 100 orchestral and chamber works, and written two operas, as well as collaborating with Jack Kerouac in the first ever jazz poetry reading in New York City in 1957.
Amram has published three books, Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac, Vibrations, and Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat. Over the years, Amram has collaborated with such notables as Leonard Bernstein, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Willie Nelson, and Tito Puente.
Since being appointed first composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic in 1966-67, Amram has become one of the most acclaimed composers of his generation, listed by BMI as one of the Twenty Most Performed Composers in the United States since 1974. For twenty-nine seasons, Amram was the music director of Young People’s, Family, and Free Summer concert programs for the Brooklyn Philharmonic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Early in his career, Amram wrote many scores for theater and films, including Splendor in the Grass and The Manchurian Candidate. He plays French horn, piano, guitar, numerous flutes and whistles, percussion, and a variety of folklore instruments from 25 countries.
Derek Alger: You and Jack Kerouac came together in a unique friendship of a musician and a writer who successfully collaborated with each other.
David Amram: It was just happenstance. In 1956, I was attending a Bring your Own Bottle party at a loft in what is now called Soho. The painters always had the most space for the least money and they were able, in effect, not to have to go to an art gallery to show their work by having a great big, anybody-could-come party, and everyone would bring their own bottle — capital B, capital Y, capital O, capital B. BYOB parties. And anybody and everybody could come to those. And on Friday and Saturday nights, since most people had day jobs, they could stay up all night cause they didn’t have to go to work the next day.
Those were always our low budget, or no budget, social events. I was there one night with my little bag of perriwhistles and my French horn. There was no piano that night, and this man in a black and red checkered lumber jacket, looking like a French Canadian logger came up, handed me a piece of paper and said, “Play for me,” and took the paper back before I could read what was on it, and he began to read something. I don’t know what it was. I didn’t recognize it then, but in the process of trying to make up some music on the spot that would be appropriate to enhance the music already in the words he was speaking, and the way he spoke them, I just felt this terrific connection the way I have with great musicians and actors I’d worked with already at that point in my life. And we became friends, and we kept bumping into each other and doing that over and over again. I found out he’d spoken French as a child and I had. He’d been a football player, I’d been a gym teacher. He’d been in the maritime service, I’d been in the Army. He loved traveling, he loved people, he was interested in all kinds of music and literature, and painting and sports, and was a wonderful, warm, brilliant, fun, down to earth person.
Alger: It’s interesting how you saw a natural chemistry between writing and music.
Amram: When I was read to as a young child by my father and my grandfather, I was told that the Psalms of David and Old Testament poets and speakers were accompanied by harp players, and when I was in high school, I liked the phrase “the rosy fingered dawn” so much, I read the whole Iliad and The Odyssey because of that one catch phrase, and when I began to study a bit more about it, I saw pictures of people reading their poetry way back then and they were always accompanied by somebody with a little lap harp, and I realized music and words have always had a relation to one another. Of course, later on, when I heard the great Dylan Thomas reading his poetry, those first recordings, they were just so fabulous that you wanted to play music behind it, or hear the music without any music even being there.
There’s always been a natural relationship, even as a teenager wanting to be a composer, and playing at amateur symphonies, and later at professional symphonies and also playing jazz and accompanying singers, I always realized the words and the music were part of the whole. Music, poetry, dance, in most cultures, are part of the whole. In our culture, we separate everything into an assemblage of the left and right fender, the upholstery, the steering wheel, and the headlights. That’s a terrific way to produce cars, but art’s a little different.
Alger: You just came off a year long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road.
Amram: I thought it was over, but now as we speak, they had this huge event at the New York City Library which was thrown by Mr. James Irsay who bought the scroll of Kerouac’s On the Road and is letting people see it all over the world over a six-year period for free, bless his heart. And we had a huge event where I played some music from our era that Jack liked and related to 57 years ago. Then I did the song from “Pull My Daisy,” with lyrics by Jack, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, with my music from the film and we had John Ventimiglia of “The Sopranos” and my daughter, Adira, who’s a wonderful actress, read the same passages from On the Road that I did with Jack in 1957 at the first ever jazz poetry session reading at the Brata Art Gallery. So, this year, in spite of that, we’re now celebrating the 51st anniversary and “The Dharma Bums,” which came out 50 years ago, is going to have a huge event this fall. And while I’m writing a piano concerto and a lot of things that don’t have to do with Jack Kerouac, any time I’m asked to do something that relates to him, I’m always delighted. He died with $83 and almost all of his books out of print. A lot of his friends had abandoned him and he always knew he was a writer when I stayed in touch with him. Even to the end, he was still writing and dreaming of being appreciated, and still dreaming of a more compassionate, beautiful America, so it’s a thrill to see this happening through him.
Alger: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your long friendship with Allen Ginsberg.
Amram: I met Allen actually before I met Jack. In 1955, when I was playing at the Cafe Bohemia with Charles Mingus, I met Cecil Taylor and Allen Ginsberg at that same time. Allen was always very feisty, brilliant, intellectual, outrageous, argumentative, and he was almost like a real Talmudic scholar. People always said that was Allen’s actual role once his two hit poems, Howl and The Cottage, came out. He seemed to spend most of his time as a kind of an activist. Well, I said, he was the ultimate activist. He was like Trotsky was in the Russian Revolution. When a great scholar was asked, “How would you describe Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution?,” I remember reading they said Trotsky was everywhere, and that’s kind of what Allen was. He was everywhere. He was a wonderful Blake scholar, and he was a wonderful teacher, a wonderful reader, and he advocated that anybody and everybody could be creative, and if you did write something down, whether it was a song or a poem, you shouldn’t be hesitant about going out and reading it, just like the way poets do in Ireland, where you are considered to be a poet if you could get up at a pub, or any public place, and read a poem you’d written, and have it go over, you’re considered to be a poet. That’s your Ph.D. right there. And I think that was a very important thing to help the poets, not only in the Academy, but to help the poets who weren’t in the Academy, to feel that they could be part of the whole. And that was a very valuable thing that he did.
Alger: Your versatility shows. At the same time, you were in the historic first jazz poetry reading in New York, you were also composing music for Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park.
Amram: I met Joe Papp the same way I met Jack Kerouac, at about the same time, interestingly enough. Joe was on the Lower East Side. He had a group doing Shakespeare for free, no one got paid for doing it. It was the summer before he went in the park and he was doing something at the Emmanuel Baptist Church on the Lower East Side, a block from where I lived, and someone who had volunteered to do the music, she was an accompanist for the Mary Anthony Dance Company, Betty Lou Fisher, was her name, and realized she couldn’t do it. She was a terrific improviser, but she couldn’t write anything down and they wanted music, of course, to sound like Elizabethan music, and she said, “David, you’re a composer, too, you know how to write stuff down and orchestrate for instruments, maybe you should do it.”
Alger: Another case of being at the right place.
Amram: I had written music for Owen Dawson of Howard University in 1950, `51, and `52, before I went into the Army in Washington, D.C., so I had some experience writing music for the theater. I thought it would be fun. It was only a block and a half away, so I walked over there. Joe Papp said years later that he thought I looked so crazy, I must be talented.
I did the music and thought no more of it. And then, that summer, they decided to fulfill the outrageous idea of going into Central Park and having free productions of Shakespeare, and they used me to do the scores for that. It was a fluke, but a wonderful one, and I did that for 12 years, and I ended up writing an opera with Joe Papp, a full two hour, two act comic opera called “Twelfth Night,” all using Shakespeare’s words. Jack used to come hear those productions, so did Lord Buckley, and so did all the jazz musicians that I used to play with at Birdland when I was with Oscar Pettiford’s band. He would say, “Come and hear my French horn player Dave’s Shakespeare in the Park.” I said, “Oscar, Shakespeare is the Shakespeare. I’m just the composer.” “No, man, that’s your Shakespeare, baby.”
All the beboppers would come up and see the Shakespeare productions and loved it because — now the music wasn’t jazz — it was almost like Renaissance music, but it used the same principles as jazz, every note had to be a winner, and had to be honest and beautiful, and say something. It was a great, great experience as a composer to be able to do that, and the score I did for “Pull My Daisy,” which I did in 1959, some of the music sounded almost like some of my Shakespeare in the Park.
Alger: You also were fortunate enough to have doors open for you in Hollywood.
Amram: That, again, was a fluke. In 1958, a play called “JB” was being done with Archibald MacLeish as the writer and they had asked about ten famous composers and none of them were available so the costumer designer told Elia Kazan — I found this out later — I know this kid who is writing music for the New York Shakespeare Festival and he’s really good at writing theater music. He’s completely unknown, but I think you would like him. So Kazan, being the type of person that he was famous for being, and listening and trying to give everybody a chance to see if they could do something, said, “Let me see what he does.”
I got a call — we used to have answering services then, not answering machines — and my service said Mr. Elia Kazan wants to see you. I thought it was a joke. I almost didn’t answer it, but I did. He said, “You’ve been recommended by Lucinda Ballard and I’d like to hear your music. So, I went up there. I had one recording of a little score I’d written for a documentary film about the Third Avenue “L” which had kind of Renaissance music and jazz combined, and one of my jazz recordings. So, the next day–this was 1958 because I made that record in 1957, the jazz record, and I’d done the film score in ’56–I brought those things up. The next day, he called me up and I could hear over the phone he was playing my jazz record, and he said I want to come and talk to you. “You’re completely unknown. You’ve never done anything on Broadway, but I think you could do it.” I almost fainted. So I went up there, and sure enough, he had me write the music for “JB” and the play won a Pulitzer Prize and ran for a year, and suddenly I was being asked to write music, incidental music, for plays. Then fast forwarding to 1959, when Jack Kerouac did the narration for the silent movie “Pull My Daisy,” he had me do the score for it and also appear in it as Mezz MacGillicuddy, the deranged French horn player. Allen Ginsberg was in it, Gregory Corso. None of us could act, which we proved by our nine performances, but it was a fun kind of wonderful home movie. And Jack Kerouac’s brilliant narration over 29 ½ minutes of chaos and clowning around actually made it look like that was supposed to be what happened, even though we massacred the whole idea of what we were supposed to have done. It was a lot of fun.
Alger: That’s a great gift, having fun while still doing serious, meaningful work.
Amram: Then, in 1960, Elia Kazan called back and decided he was doing a movie, Splendor in the Grass, and he wanted me to do it, and, of course, people in Hollywood were horrified. How could he get some unknown who had never done a Hollywood film score to do a major film score? But Kazan was so strong, and fought with them so much, they finally agreed. And I met the great Jack Warner, who was surrounded by a phalanx of people who would laugh at his jokes — he was kind of almost like a bad stand up comic in the Catskills. He would tell these corny jokes and people would scream with laughter. He looked at me, “Waaa’ll, you’re nobody, but Elia Kazan got Leonard Bernstein to do On the Waterfront and he’d never written a film score. He was nobody, too. Who’s greater than Leonard Bernstein?” So, I said, “Beethoven.” Well, at first they looked horrified, like they were going to have to shoot me, and then Jack Warner laughed, and his phalanx of people all laughed, so fortunately, rather than firing me, or trying to get me fired, after that, I was completely left alone just to try and write the best music I could.
At the same time, I was called by John Frankenheimer. I had done music for some programs for him and he was doing a feature movie called The Young Savages and the same thing happened. Harold Hecht was a producer and didn’t want me, and said, “The guy’s a nobody, he’s nothing.” So, the whole time I did that score, they had someone else leaning over my shoulder, a famous old Hollywood composer. I thought, wow, isn’t that a compliment, he’s so interested in me, in my music. I found out later Harold Hecht had him there in case he didn’t like what I did, he could pay me, fire me, and have the other guy do it instead. Interesting. That, fortunately, didn’t happen. Then they did The Manchurian Candidate and John Frankenheimer wanted me, but because John Frankenheimer was in a stronger position, and Frank Sinatra loved jazz and loved classical music. They wanted something completely different than the Hollywood hack, ghost written, ground out by the pound music, mostly swiped from other composers who were now in the public domain. I was lucky enough to get asked to do it, and in each case, I was allowed to do the very best that I could. So for me, at least it wasn’t commercial work, it was just an extension of what I was doing, and I thank God, because all these years later, now that I’m known as a classical composer and people see those old movies on television, or jazz players see those old movies, they say, “Man, you were really writing some real music. How did you get away with it?” I said, “Well, I was hired.” I said now, hopefully, since the film industry is going through so many changes, it will get better composers. They always had good composers, but they should not be trying to have three lawyers telling them what to do, with an army of ghostwriters, synthesizers, and people interfering, but allow it to be an artistic project, which means everybody doing their very best to be part of the whole. It’s not a mystery. It’s not like in Western culture where we don’t have a lot of good examples, and there are marvelous film scores like Leonard Bernstein for On the Waterfront, Prokofiev for Alexander Nevesky, and Aaron Copeland’s beautiful score for The Red Pony. Duke Ellington wrote a marvelous score for Anatomy of a Murder. Film scoring can be an art, too, but it can only be an art when the people who hire you allow you to be artistic and practice your art in a good, collaborative way. And all artists know how to enhance the whole.
Alger: Your book, Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat, could really be called a social and political history of a musician traveling through the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Amram: Well, thank you. I think the book, hopefully, can give a picture to people that anything you pursue in life can take you to places that you’ve never been if you’re open, if you’re enthusiastic, and if you work harder than you’re expected to work and appreciate who and where and what you’re doing, who you’re with, and where you are at the moment. The first chapter is called “Mayhem and Merrymaking in the Mountains” and was about my being the person to get the music for Hunter S. Thompson’s big blast off in the summer of 2006 in the mountains, and trying to find some way to find everybody to get some kind of a musical group together, and how about four minutes before we had to perform, everybody was suddenly there. And describing the whole extraordinary experience of being with Johnny Depp; and one of the Million Dollar Bash, Denny Freeman, who’s Bob Dylan’s guitarist; the wonderful Lyle Lovett, my old buddy from Kerrville Festival from years ago, singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” In addition to Johnny and Denny playing guitar, we had a bass player from one of the great groups, Jimmy Ibbotson from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Hunter’s brother suddenly showing up magically and singing, and just this amazing harmonious experience honoring a terrific American writer.
Then there’s a chapter about going to Africa in 1975 for the World Council of Churches, going to Kenya as the Ambassador of Good Cheer to get 107 different people in the world together to make some kind of a musical program after the three weeks of being there. And one about being the first musicians under the Carter administration sanctioned to go to Havana, Cuba, when I was there with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz and Earl Hines, and what that was like, being in that historic moment and transcending politics and having it be just a communal, musical, human, joyous experience for all concerned. Then there’s a chapter called “Bouquet and Bombs on Broadway,” where there was one of the greatest flops of the Twentieth Century, called Harold and Maude, a fabulous play that ran for five performances because of the producer trying to bring in so many extra curricular non-theatrical elements of explosion sets that didn’t work and all kinds of special effects that the whole play got buried. And the working on a production of “Medea” with Zo Caldwell, directed by Robert Whitehead, which ended up winning the Tony, which rather than starting off on Broadway, started off in Knoxville at the Clarence Brown Theater in the most humble circumstances. It was so good, someone came and saw it and put it at the Kennedy Center and then it came to Broadway and won a Tony and it was just terrific, showing how something when it’s done artistically sometimes has a lot better result.
Then there is a chapter called “Scat Rap: the Art of Reporting,” where I talk about playing with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, and all these great song writers, and also improvising words and poetry music on the spot, and the difference between free improvising and lyric writing, and the great lyric writers who like the great writers in the great French tradition, like Flaubert, or the Haiku writers can say it all without wasting a word, and then the relationship of what Kerouac and I did way back then to what’s now called Hip Hop.
Then there was also a chapter called “Native American Walking a Trail of Beauty” about my work with the late great Floyd Red Crow Westerman over the years, playing with America Indian people, and eventually having symphony pieces written based on those real live experiences, from learning music over a forty-year period from Indians I played with while I was there in a role of a backup player, supporting members of the cast, doing whatever I was asked to do, and, in exchange, learning a lot about indigenous culture in this continent.
And then there’s one called “Postcards from the Road,” which were long things that I had written to people over the last six years about trips to England, London, Portugal, China, and all over the country. They’re sort of fun. Just describing all the wonderful landscapes, and these are all things through the blessing of music, where I was able to be. My hope is that it will occur to everybody, whatever kind of work they do, to enjoy that, to work harder at it, and secondly, when you’re out in the park, when you’re home, when you’re in your neighborhood, wherever you are, whatever you do, you look around, you pay attention, and you get involved and see all the blessings that are out there.
Alger: You were friends with Arthur Miller.
Amram: Yes, I was fortunate, I did the music for “After the Fall” and we met in 1963 when Elia Kazan asked me to be the music composer/music director for what was then the Lincoln Center Theater downtown in the Village. The present Lincoln Center Theater hadn’t been built, so we did all our work in Greenwich Village. Bob Dylan in his “Volume One Chronicles” describes seeing in a snow storm, myself and Gregory Corso, walking down the street. That was right at the time we were rehearsing for “After the Fall.” Arthur Miller was a magnificent person, a really down to earth, warm, funny, hardworking, idealistic person that really took writing seriously, and he really took what he did seriously. But he also had a tremendous sense of humor, so the combination of being someone who was that serious but could also laugh and make you laugh, made it a joy, as well as an inspiration to be with him.
Alger: You also were close friends with George Plimpton.
Amram: Yep, I met George in Paris in 1955, before I came to New York, when I was working there as a musician and he used to come to this place where I played every night.
I had no idea what The Paris Review was, even though he and William Styron and a guy named Doc Humes were some of the people who helped Peter Mattieson to found that wonderful journal. And I knew George ever since then, and when I got back to New York, he invited me to come up to his place and see him, so I realized he was a really distinguished, important person, but that doesn’t really matter, he was a great guy. And that’s what attracted me to him in the first place, and my book Offbeat ends with a description of the memorial service for him. That’s the end of the book.
Alger: You learned first hand how different creative artists handle celebrity.
Amram: Well, most of them, I think, try to remain true to who they were and where they came from, and what they hoped to be. And as they got older, the necessity for their families, if they had some, to take care of them, was the number one priority. To paint a good picture so that their kids would be proud of them, cause if all the world loves you and your own kids and your oldest friends don’t, then you’ve really blown it. And people that I know who have managed not to go in the ego maniac Alexander the Great trail, who presumably, when he was twenty-six, buried his head in his hands because, of course, there were no more worlds to be conquered, rather than becoming an egomaniacal narcissistic, greedy addicted to celebrity, and cruelty and humiliating other people, are the ones who realize that you have to recycle those blessings and put them back just the way you do in organic farming, where you put that good stuff back in the soil. If you do that, then the celebrity can only help you to be a better person and make the world a better place. It can be used to do good things, not as here comes Superman or Superwoman to hob knob and slum with the lowlifes, but rather, to use whatever pulpit you have at the moment, or position, to try to share the wealth, to spread some good feelings to encourage others and to try to be of value.
Alger: When I first read Vibrations, I kept thinking of the line, “How’re you going to keep Amram down on the farm after he’s seen Paree?”
Amram: Well, I wonder about that, that my own kids, they were in the 4 H Club and I had them working out here on doing the farm work and they loved it, and once they got a little older, they said, “Daddy, we’ve got so much from this farm life” since we went to New York City all the time. So they all live in Brooklyn and I go see them there all the time, and I love New York, and I love being in the country, and I’m not sure how much longer I can stay here now that I’ve had to curtail my farming activities. I sold the farm, so now I’m renting my place back, but if I never did that again in my life, I can realize that the love that I had for farming, being brought up on a farm as a little boy on a 160 acre farm until I was almost 12 years old, something that was in my heart, and the values you get from that heart where you’re communing with nature, and respect for land, for animals, for people, for all living things, is something that I think brushed off on my children and makes you a fine tuned person so you can never be bitter or cynical or snobbish because farmers are always struggling, and everything about farmers, they always asked one another questions everyday about how to do everything, so they become kind of a good community person and a super scholar when you do farming stuff cause there’s always more than one answer and there’s always more than one question.
Alger: Maybe because you’re an outsider, you found your time serving in the Army a valuable experience.
Amram: At the time that I went into the Army in 1952, during the Korean conflict, I didn’t get drafted till my college was done, but I felt an obligation and I was too young, my birthday’s Nov. 17, I was born in 1930. I was too young to go into World War Two, so I figured when it was time to be drafted, I had to do that. And to be perfectly frank, watching all the war movies, I had this fantasy that when I went into the army, I would run around with no shirt on with the big combat helmet and a rifle, and be surrounded with women falling in love with me as a great John Wayne type hero, not cause I was stupid, or a bad person, but that’s the culture I was brought up in. So, I went down to the draft board the day I graduated from college and said, “Are you sure that you still have my number?” And they did, and I got drafted in August. About the third day, I said, “Oh, my God, this ain’t like Hollywood!” But what I did get was an amazing connection with an amazing number of people, not only in the United States, but also where I was sent to, Germany, and all the places I traveled. And I got to be a musician in the Army, after being first in the 101st Airborne for basic training, and then in the artillery, and then getting sent to a band, and then finally being with the Seventh Army Symphony. I had amazing experiences that still affect me to this day.
I used the time to learn German since I was there, improving my French. Every minute I got, I tried to take furloughs and go to different countries whenever I could. I tried to store every single bit of where I was and also appreciate the people from all over the United States who were my bunk mates in the Army, which was everything from Buck Henry, the great comic writer, when we were all stuck on one floor, to the people who ended up serving a lot of time in penitentiaries. We had the entire sociological gamut and we were all in the same position and it was a wonderful experience. Basically, although I’m more like a pacifist by nature, I really believe in non-violence. I think that the socializing experience of the Army can be a good thing, and the thing that distressed me the most about it was that very often the people who were in professionally did not want any of us who were there passing through as draftees to work hard and to really be industrious. That was frowned upon. And secondly, to my horror, people who had combat experience, once they were in the peace time Army, instead of being honored, at least among the non commissioned officers, there were some signs of them being degraded and taken advantage of. That kind of broke my heart because I thought it was wrong.
But I’m glad that I did that. And also when I was interviewed a few years ago by the Paris Herald Tribune, I was asked why I had a flag on my, what he described as an old beat up, Hillbilly van. I said because I don’t think the flag is the province of right wing America. It’s for everybody. That’s Sojourner Truth’s flag and that’s the flag of every person who still comes over as an immigrant, that’s the flag for people who came over on the Mayflower, and it’s the flag of the Native American people who use that on their reservations. It’s for everybody, and to that extent, it should be unifying, not divisive.
And I said, frankly, I’m patriotic, which is not fashionable, but I think if they ever institute a draft, I don’t want to see my son go off for a ridiculous war that’s never going to be won. I think they should draft all of us who have had experience, now we have computer skills, and draft all the people of my age group, and we would start a new mantra contrary to Jerry Rubin of the sixties, “Don’t trust anyone under 70,” and that’s what they put at the end of the article in The Tribune in Paris and I got letters from all over the world that said, “Yeah, man,” mostly from older people, of course.
Alger: Your life is compelling proof that music is a universal language.
Amram: First, it’s a universal language because you can bypass height, weight, color, ethnicity religion, nationality, monetary situation, any of that. So beyond that, it’s the gateway to becoming human enough to find some way to communicate with other people and bypass all those impediments that we’re all told are so important, which really don’t mean anything.
Alger: And you still have a group.
Amram: A musical group? I have several of them. I have one in New York with some wonderful young players I’ve known for years, and we play together whenever we can.
In Denver, I can’t afford to bring my New York group with me, but the musicians in Denver are phenomenal. Artie Moore is an incredibly good bass player. And Tony Black, a fabulous drummer, as good as anybody I’ve ever played with, and I’m doing programs in the west and in Denver. The Denver Public Library and for the whole big program just before the convention, the Democratic National Convention, we’re doing a whole huge program. It’s really exciting stuff with Jesse Jackson, and I work with the group that I just played with, with Kevin Twig, a wonderful drummer who I’ve known since he was kid; and John DeWitt, a bass player; and my son, Adam Amram, who plays congas, and then we always have other musicians sit.
Alger: In some ways, we should thank your orthodontist for inadvertently helping you in your career as a player of the French horn.
Amram: Well, that’s true. I was a trumpet player but because of having braces, I had to change from trumpet to French horn and that transition opened up a whole door for me, first of all to hear music in a different way, whether played in orchestras, and to think differently as a composer, and then when I began playing jazz again, I began doing it on the French horn, and since no one else was doing that, except for a great player named Julius Watkins, I was able to develop my own style because there was no necessity to copy from anybody.
Alger: You learned from others and have graciously passed on what you know.
Amram: Definitely. I’m just a repository of a lot of information given to me graciously by people. And after they say something maybe several hundred times, it suddenly sinks in. Either maybe they were right, or I even forget that they told me, but I’ve seen it work because part of my database is something that I was told over and over again.
Alger: Saxophone legend Charlie Parker was a significant influence on you.
Amram: And he still is today. That was in 1952, in my basement apartment, which I describe in Vibrations in detail. He, for some reason, like Dizzy Gillespie a year earlier, and Dimitri Mitropoulos, the great Greek conductor, when I was 15, saw something in me, I don’t know what or how, that had something to offer, and figured maybe it was worth their time just to give me a few good suggestions, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since.
Alger: And now you’re joining us on a panel at the annual AWP conference in New York City about New York in the Fifties.
Amram: That was a glorious time, a special time in our history. Dan Wakefield’s book, New York in the Fifties, sums it up magnificently, as you know, because you just fortunately republished it. It’s the classic. I’m going to try just to contribute in a very short time whatever seems appropriate to compliment what everyone else is doing. And primarily to talk about the community, informal, not organized, not networked, almost like a 12 Step program among people who came to New York and a few native New Yorkers who wanted to get together in the worlds of art, painting, poetry, music, drama, sculpture, writing, and see perhaps if all of us could do something a little better than what was expected of us. And second of all, to capture that post World War Two euphoria and not let that wonderful, warm, excited, feeling die out.