By Mike Jurkovic
On first glance he might strike you as a lunatic professor, leading a restless inquiry into the human spirit. David Amram is certainly that and an incorrigible creator. An irascible global citizen. Like Pete Seeger, with whom he shared a deep, lasting friendship and of whom he still speaks of in reverential tones, he’s a tireless musical and cultural ambassador who inspires you to greatness.
His list of achievements (among them over 100 classical compositions, including The Final Ingredient, a Holocaust opera commissioned by ABC Television in 1965 and Giants of the Night, a flute concerto commissioned and premiered by Sir James Galway in 2002) accolades, honors, concerts, and historic encounters could fill several special issues of the VWG. Fortunately he has vividly collected a treasure trove of them into four books. His latest, which was to accompany the 2013 DVD David Amram The First 80 Years, is so far beyond deadline that he jokingly admits will be retitled The Next 80 Years. “My publisher’s hoping it’ll sell at least some copies among the AARP, Geritol and cryogenic crowd.”
“I’ve been blessed with good health so I figure I gotta pay back the tuition y’know,” the 84 year old eminent hang-out-ologist enthuses. “Like Dizzy told me when he invited me to play together at his 70th birthday concert for PBS, ‘It’s time, to put something back in the pot.” Here the perpetual gleam in his eye brightens. “I realized I had to repay all the great people who gave so freely to me - Charlie (Parker), Dizzy (Gillespie), Oscar (Pettiford), Leonard (Bernstein), Monk (Thelonious), Dmitri (Mitripoulos - conductor of the NY Philharmonic ‘54-’60) by giving back freely, and most importantly, gratefully. That’s what Willie Nelson still does. All these wonderful people, as well as waitresses, poets, artists, bartenders, Washington Square chess champions, car mechanics, also give back freely. It isn’t the thing our career counselors tell us we ought to do, but that’s our obligation to each other. And that’s a real important thing. It isn’t about being a star for a week and then being dumped in the landfill.”
“And I think back to my dad who was a full time farmer back in the early 20’s. Even after he became a part time farmer, he would always plow under a third of his fields with soybeans. When I asked him why he said you always had to nourish the land, give back to the land so the land can give to you. The Native Americans understood that in the most sacred way.”
“That has always resonated with me because even as a kid negativity and narcissism made me feel ill. So it’s like I’ve always had the opposite antibody and I’ve been fortunate during my lifetime to workwith so many like minded people from every walk of life.”
“Art, music, anything of humanistic value should inspire creativity in others and that’s what I try to do everyday. You have to honor the past to have a more fulfilling future,” he adds fervently. (An adjective not overused in even the most casual of encounters.)
An engaging raconteur and historian of the highest order, his recollections are our history. During our first meeting many a Putnam Valley moon ago, he recalled an indelible moment in ‘56 on the front steps of the Cafe Bohemia on Barrow Street, discussing Einstein’s theory of relativity with John Coltrane, who was joyously devouring a piece of blackberry (or was it blueberry?) pie.
“This was all before John played with Monk at the Five Spot. Before he became renowned for his “sheets of sound.” (The description was first used by jazz critic and historian Ira Gitler to explain Trane’s rapid fire arpeggios and improvisational playing.) “John was on a break and he’s discussing the construction of the pyramids, how the ancient Egyptians understood the balance of stars within the geometry of the Universe. He felt that Einstein’s approach tothe origins of energy was simply the first step towards reflecting the natural balance of things which the Egyptians already understood.”
“Thirty years after his (1960) album Giant Steps became music for the ages, a musician charted it visually as a series of pyramids representing the harmonic structure of the song rather than using traditional musical notation and when I saw it, it hit me! That’s what ‘Trane was talking to me about between sets, while eating pie.”
His whole life defies our concept of a thumbnail. In 1955 Monk invites him to visit and play with him at his apartment. He records and performs with bass giant, Charles Mingus. In 1966, just as he’s about to begin bartender school to earn some bread, Leonard Bernstein chooses him to be the first composer-in-residence for the NY Philharmonic. He composes incidental music for the NY Shakespeare Festival for twelve years. He and Joe Papp collaborate on a full length opera based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In ‘59 he writes the music and appears in Pull My Daisy, the definitive Beat Generation film narrated by Jack Kerouac. In 1962 he composes and scoresthe music for Splendor In The Grass and in ‘62, The Manchurian Candidate. In November ‘71 he records with Dylan and Allen Ginsberg for the poet’s ill-fated Holy Soul & Jellyroll album. (Eventually released by Rhino Records in 1994.)
Since everyone’s buzzing about America’s renewed relations with Cuba, how about this cultural/political nugget: In 1977, President Jimmy Carter and the State Department sanctioned Dizzy, Stan Getz, Earl Hines, and David to travel to Havana to perform with Cuban musicians for the first ever American/Cuban musical exchange since the Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution in ‘59. (Two of the then unknown Cuban musicians who performed and recorded on Amram’s part of the concert were trumpet master Arturo Sandoval and altoist Paquito D’Rivera) He tours the Middle East in 1978. He marries for the first time at the ripe old age of 48 in ‘79 and has three children.
You’ll notice that time, like his music, is very fluid for this Pennsylvania farm boy. But 1956-’57 was his year of serendipity. He strikes up an enduring friendship with Kerouac and the duo collaborate on the first ever public jazz poetry performance in NYC. Barely a month later, another holy bond forms with Woody Guthrie. He meets one of his mentors, Joe Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival. He then joins Julius Watkins in taking the French Horn beyond its classical dialogue and develops its voice for the jazz vernacular when he begins a two year stint riffing and recording with another heralded jazz bassist, Oscar Pettiford.
He recalls hanging with Woody with genuine joy and, to this very day, grateful awe. “Scat singer Ahmed Bashir and I were living on the Lower East Side, and I was working with Mingus and jamming with Ahmed’s friend, Sonny Rollins. One night, when neither of us could sleep (he interjects here that his last nap was ‘57 and it left him with a headache) Ahmed asks if I’d like to meet Woody.”
“I immediately think “Woody Herman!? Wow!” and Ahmed says, no Woody Guthrie.
“Now by this time it was known that Woody wasn’t in good health.” (Guthrie died from complications due to Huntington’s Chorea, October ‘67.) “So the next day we walk about a block or so and there’s Woody and he’s having a good day! Cowboy boots. Jeans. Feet up on the kitchen table coming all the way from Brooklyn to visit at the apartment of a friend on East 6th street, telling about his travels. And all the people he’d met. The haughty and the humble.”
“His profound love for this country was inspiring. Still is. I left him at his friend’s apartment that night over half a century ago, never dreaming that some day I would compose a symphony to commemorate and honor his journey and the journeys of those he met along the way.”
This Land - Symphonic Variations On A Song by Woody Guthrie is David’s labor of love. Of Remembrance. Of honoring the past with an eye on the present.
As a true world music pioneer and innovator (his second album, ‘71’s prescient No More Walls featured not only three major classical orchestral works with Amram conducting. The second part of the double
album included Amram performing in jazz, folk, Latin, and Middle Eastern idioms, soloing on authentic instruments. In our conversation, he flashes on the “animated discussion” he had with the acclaimed maestro Eugene Ormandy, who was in the midst of his forty-four year residence as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Ormandy insisted that jazz and Native American music had no place in symphonic music. David, as always, argued just the opposite. And in 1977, “Trail of Beauty”, David’s composition for the Philadelphia Orchestra was premiered by Ormandy and toured to the Kennedy Center to great critical acclaim.
Another flight of musical modernization happened just nights before Arthur Miller’s After The Fall opened in NYC, January ‘64, David, who had written the music, was sitting with Miller and the play’s director, Elia Kazan, waiting for the ending music. It never came. The sound-man and stage manager thought the tape was defective. Both thought it was just a tone signal. Amram calmly explained to them that it was a violin playing a high-E harmonic and surely part of the score. The next night, that high note re-appeared in the score. The show, as the say, went on.
So it comes as no surprise that This Land conjures all the musics Woody heard along the way and all the rhythms David has loved and performed on the global stage.
“Composing for me isn’t about using a slide rule or a computer. It’s about honoring your life and painting pictures in sound, based on what you heard and felt that touched your heart. It’s about visiting the places the music comes from. Meeting the players, the poets, and the everyday people who make the world work. So writing
This Land: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie took a while.” “But in 2005, a year after Nora Guthrie (Woody’s
daughter and curator of the Guthrie Archives) asked me to write a full symphony honoring Woody’s classic song “This Land Is Your Land,” I was invited to go to Okemah, OK (Woody’s hometown) to perform at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.
“It was there, as well as during all my years oftraveling through the West and hooking up and playing with Arlo (Woody’s son) and Pete Seeger in the East that I made the connection and began writing the symphony.” (He’s returned eleven times to WoodyFest since then and was preparing to leave to this year’s festival the day after we spoke.)
“For the Theme to base the variations on, I had wanted to use “Deportees” or “Pastures of Plenty” because of those great, great melodies. But Nora said that Woody’s song “This Land is Your Land” would be the perfect one to use as the basis for all the variations. I couldn’t figure out what to do. I’d played the song so many times with Pete, Willie Nelson, Arlo, and others. It’s a perfect song without a symphony. So I’m sitting there filling the waste basket with sketches that I’ve torn up because I couldn’t hear it with a symphony.”
“Then Nora suggested I read Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life, Ed Cray’s Ramblin’ Man, This Land Was Made For You and Me by Elizabeth Partridge, and Jim Longhi’s Woody, Cisco and Me and wow! It was like MapQuest for me! I heard those Mexican field workers Woody spent time with. I heard the hard traveling families forced from their homes by the banks and the dust storms. And I heard the music he grew up with in Okemah, his trip to Pampa Texas, and his years walking through all the neighborhoods in New York.”
In Amram’s This Land, as in Woody’s immaculate song, you feel the stirrings of the American spirit. The true American spirit. Not the beleaguered democracy held captive by corporate kings, their purchased politicians, and their feral TV and radio bullhorns. Cherokee winds blow through Saturday night Oklahoma stomp dances. An organ imagines how the song might have been played the next day in church. As Woody and the music ramble southwest through Texas and Mexico then eventually east, to that other shining sea, tejano swing, horns, a little bop ‘n jazz. Celtic pipes and slow mournful strings reminiscent of so many despairing Great Depression/Dust Bowl journeys. Klezmer, Caribbean rhythms and Salvation Army hymns bring us to New York. Woody’s last destination. The immigrant and artistic melting pot. The city of countless dreams.
“We may not always remember all the beauty we experience in our lives, but art never forgets,” he sagely counsels, as we agree to our next hang. That perpetual gleam in his eye brightening. Towards the future. Towards the past.
Next time: hangin’
The Hudson Valley Philharmonic will be opening its 2015-2016 season with This Land on Saturday, October 17th, 8pm at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie.
This Land - Symphonic Variations On A Song by Woody Guthrie
Jazz Studio #6: The Eastern Scene
No More Walls
Pull My Daisy
The Manchurian Candidate
The Chamber Music of David Amram
David Amram - An American Original