When you first meet David Amram, you’re instantly struck by two things: How young he looks and how much energy the guy has for someone who’s 77 years old. In fact, he's so intense that at first you think he's confused. Until it becomes clear that this is how a highly creative, determined person functions—like a bull trying to fight its way free from conformity.
David is a prolific composer of jazz, orchestral, folk opera and rock music. At any given moment he is working on a dozen projects at once. He travels relentlessly to perform—one night in London, the next with Willie Nelson, then out to the West Coast for a week, and so on.
David's enthusiasm is impossible to suppress or harness. Talking with him is like trying to keep up with a moving train. You either run like the devil, reach out, grab and haul yourself up onto onto David's energy level or you get left behind—and miss out. David doesn't slow down.
I met David in early September at a New York Times event called On the Road at 50: A Celebration of Jack Kerouac. The auditorium was packed that night, with only a few seats remaining. As I sat down, I noticed that the guy in the sports jacket and tie to my left was wearing about 25 necklaces adorned with small metal instruments and other assorted charms. Given the event, I realized he could only be one person—David Amram. So I introduced myself and we hit it off.
At first glance, David looks like a hipster uprooted from 1958 and deposited accidentally in 2007. Everything about him—from his philosophy on life and his approach to music to the way he talks—has a retro, beat feel to it. But once you get to know him, you realize he’s hardly a relic. In truth, you sense David is living about 10 years ahead of everyone else, someplace in the future where everyone plays an instrument and communicates in eighth notes. It's a happy place.
David has composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works and two operas. He’s written for Broadway shows and for film, most notably Splendor in The Grass and The Manchurian Candidate, which I think may be one of the most inventive and haunting film scores ever composed. He also wrote the music for and appeared in the 1959 Robert Frank documentary, Pull My Daisy, which was narrated by novelist Jack Kerouac and stars Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Peter Orlovsky and other beat artists and poets.
If all of this wasn’t enough, David also is the author of two books, Vibrations, an autobiography I read over the weekend, and Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac, a memoir.
David plays the piano, flute and a range of folk instruments. He was a "world musician" before the world knew it had a music. And he worked with Leonard Bernstein, conducted Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and was The New York Philharmonics first composer-in-residence in 1966.
David is now working with author Frank McCourt on a new interpretation of Missa Manhattan as well as on a symphony commissioned by the Guthrie Foundation called Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.
But back in the 1950s, David was a pioneer of the jazz French horn. He appeared on several key jazz albums, notably The Oscar Pettiford Big Band 1956-1957 and Kenny Dorham’s Blue Spring. David also played and recorded with many other jazz artists, including Charles Mingus and Max Roach.
After that Kerouac panel discussion back in September, David and I went out for drinks. I had a decaf coffee while he ate, drank tea with milk, answered cellphone calls and picked up our conversation where he left off without missing a beat. That night, we agreed to talk more on the phone, and last Friday was our first chat:
“I was born in Philadelphia in 1930 but grew up on farm in Feasterville, PA. My father was a lawyer and a farmer. My mother translated French into English. When I was 11, we moved to Washington, DC. after my father got a job with the government.
From 1942 to 1952, we lived in what was then called a “checkerboard” neighborhood, where blacks and whites lived on different blocks. My parents loved music, and I heard music all day, seven days a week, at home and in the area.
My interest in jazz started when I was 10 years old. In 1940, my uncle, a merchant seaman, took me to see Duke Ellington’s orchestra at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia. I still recall every second of that concert. I remember the excitement of the music but I also remember how Duke acknowledged each musician in the band and made everyone a star. Wow, I thought, that guy is so great and so gracious.
When I met Duke years later, I asked about his habit of introducing himself to everyone who worked in clubs where he was playing. He said he learned a long time ago there was a practical side to good manners. When his band was out on the road in the early 1930s, conditions were terrible, and sometimes the band wouldn’t get paid. Duke learned that if he made friends with the kitchen staff right off the bat, at least he knew they’d eat.
In high school, I was a trumpet player and played jazz. But I wore braces so I had to switch to the French horn, which had a smaller mouthpiece and allowed my mouth to fit into it. A girl I liked also played the French horn, so I figured playing the instrument would let me sit next to her, which I did.
I loved the French horn’s sound immediately and realized that by sitting in that part of the orchestra, I could hear the full sound better. That was great because I already wanted to compose.
In the mid-to-late 1940s, the French horn was an exotic jazz instrument. Julius Watkins played it. So did Junior Collins, who played it on the Birth of the Cool session in 1949. When I went off to Oberlin College in 1948, I stuck with the French horn and studied orchestral composition.
After college I moved back to Washington and rented a basement apartment on 16th St between S and T streets. To make ends meet, I took a part-time job as a gym teacher at a French-speaking private school. I also spent a lot of time with local jazz and classical musicians, who often stayed over at my place.
One day in 1951, Dizzy Gillespie played a date in Baltimore, and the bass player in his band told him he could crash at my place with the four guys in his group. Dizzy came by with four people, but I don’t think they were even in the band. Dizzy never had an A list and a B list of people. He just did his thing and brought along anyone who was around.
I remember we were up late that night talking and drinking and having a great time. The next morning I had to be up early to teach gym at school. Dizzy got up when I did and said that before I took off, he and I should play something—Dizzy on the piano and me on the French horn. I said, "Great."
Dizzy sat down at my piano and asked “What should we play?” I said, "I don’t know—the blues?" He said “What key?" I realized then that Dizzy was making me feel as comfortable as possible. He did this with everyone who played with him, and that was a valuable lesson I learned and used throughout my life.
So we played the blues in F, but the chords Dizzy used that morning were astounding. He was playing accompanying harmonies of 12-bar blues using chord changes that were so different and voiced in such an amazing way. His playing put me in a place where I had to listen carefully, in amazement, and find my way.
So there I was, playing the blues in F on French horn with Dizzy on piano. I think about that moment every day. I don’t think it was a memorable experience for Dizzy, but he always remembered it when we got together in later years.
Dizzy opened a musical door for me that morning, and he taught me how to treat musicians in your band. Make them feel comfortable, secure and appreciated, and they'll play at their highest level. As I got to know Dizzy more and more over time, I realized he was as generous a person as he was a magnificent innovator, and that being both was not only possible but essential."
Tomorrow, I'll have Part 2 of my interview with David about the early 1950s and what he learned from Charlie Parker, who fell by his apartment several times in 1952.
Wax tracks: One of David Amram's most fascinating works is the score for the Manchurian Candidate (1962). While the music for the 2004 remake is by Rachel Portman, the first eight tracks of the CD are from the original score. As Frank Sinatra said at the time, "David Amram has done a magnificent job; the score is exactly what I wanted for the film."
Amram told me that the score's masters had been lost for years but when the film was remade in 2004, Tina Sinatra found a master in her vault and loaned it to the studio for the film and CD.
The 2004 soundtrack with eight Amram tracks can be found here. But if you want to spring for the rare, out of print CD from 1997 with the complete Amram score, it's about $40 and can be found here. You also can sample tracks from the score there.