Don't start scrolling frantically for Parts 1 and 2 of my interview with David Amram. The first two parts appeared back on October 15 and 16 (click on the October 2007 archive link in the right-hand column below to catch up).
Because David is constantly on the road performing, my conversations with him about his early years and his jazz work in the 1950s have had to take place on the go, sandwiched between his hyperactive touring and composing schedule.
David is a hip hybrid. He plays jazz piano, French horn, penny whistle, assorted drums and virtually every other instrument that fits in your mouth or hands.
At age 76 (he turns 77 on November 17), David is accomplished and renown in three musical genres—jazz, world and classical. His musical contributions have been significant, winning the respect and admiration of top players and composers all three fields.
And David has done it all without ever selling out, which is remarkable. He's a free, creative spirit (there aren't many of those left), and his outlook on life is driven by kindness and caring rather than cool and posturing, which is rare for someone of his stature.
David's jazz career alone seems impossible—lessons from Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in his basement apartment in Washington, DC, a chance encounter with Lionel Hampton in Paris that led to a key recording session, gigs with Charles Mingus at the Cafe Bohemia in 1955, and recordings with Oscar Pettiford's big band in 1957 and Kenny Dorham in 1959.
David was a boy-wonder, writing his first movie score at age 26 and penning the soundtrack to Splendor in the Grass (1961) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). As a close friend of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frank, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers and William S. Buroughs in the late 1950s, David probably was the only member of the beat pack to be praised by Frank Sinatra.
Which only takes us up to 1962. Detailing David's career between 1963 and 2007 would take too long—and much of it has been delightfully covered in his book, Vibrations, which was first published in 1968 and re-issued in 2001.
Instead, I chose to focus on his jazz years up through the Manchurian Candidate, which to me remains one of the most interesting jazz soundtracks ever composed.
In Part 3 of my interview below, David talks about his induction into the Army, why he lived in Paris for a year, how Dizzy Gillespie influenced his decision to return to New York, why Charles Mingus shoved an elbow into his ribs, and the testy standoff with a record company art director who wanted his group to wear white powdered wigs for an album cover:
"In August 1952 I was inducted into the Army and spent two years stationed in Germany. When I was discharged in August 1954, I decided to live in Frankfurt. I had been playing jazz French horn in the service, and the critic Leonard Feather had mentioned me in one of his jazz columns. I was already known there.
In Frankfurt, I went full tilt—composing symphonic and chamber music, trying to write a book and playing jazz French horn, which at the time was considered to be impossible. After four months, there was zero interest in anything I was composing. So I decided to move to Paris.
From the moment I arrived in Paris, I was blown away. Even in 1955, the city was still celebrating the end of World War II. Parisians were crazy about American painters and jazz musicians. I think their love for jazz comes from a deep appreciation for sophistication, creativity and spontaneity. The French also love their language, which is poetic, philosophic, complex and musical—just like jazz.
I found plenty of work immediately playing with French jazz musicians in the clubs. In March 1955, I was playing at a club when vibraphonist Lionel Hampton came in to listen. He soon wound up on stage jamming with us. Afterward, he asked me if I wanted to record with him, Nat Adderley, Benny Bailey and a bunch of terrific French musicians that included pianist Rene Urtreger. I said I’d be honored.
The session was held on March 19 for the Barclay label, and it was thrilling. It was my first recording session, and all of the tunes that day were done in one or two takes. There was no music. We just went in and played.
After that date, I recorded throughout the spring with many different French jazz musicians. The Belgian saxophonist Bobby Jaspar was on most of those dates with me and was starting to attract attention. In May Bobby and I recorded with the Christian Chevalier Orchestra for Columbia. By June, Bobby and I started a quintet with Maurice Vander on piano, Eddie de Haas on bass and Jacques David on drums. We recorded an album in July for the Swing label, the first under my name and Bobby's.
I loved every minute of my time in Paris. The city and its culture were liberating for me—and for all artists. The only thing that mattered there was creativity and individuality. But when Dizzy Gillespie came over for a concert that summer, I started thinking about returning to New York.
I hadn’t seen Dizzy since 1951—when he stayed at my basement apartment in Washington, D.C. It was so nice to see him. We talked, we ate, we joked—and Parisians recognized him wherever we went. They loved Dizzy so much in Paris that they named a street after him—Rue Gillespie.
Dizzy told me how much he loved Paris and how great it was that jazz and individualists were respected. He loved how the French questioned everything and appreciated life and people based on what each individual had to offer. It wasn’t about race, money, good looks, politics or fame. It was just about spirit.
Despite our shared love for Paris, Dizzy said, I still should consider returning to New York. He told me about all of the terrific things that were happening in jazz there. He said that if I returned I’d be in the middle of this tremendous energy and sea of creativity. The writers Terry Southern and George Plimpton, both of whom lived in Paris, also had been urging me to return given my musical direction.
So in September 1955, I decided to head home. Fortunately I had the good fortune to run into some students who said that if I played in a band on their ship, I probably could sail for free. So I signed on to play and hitched a ride to New York.
As soon as the ship docked, I went straight to a friend’s apartment and walked around Greenwich Village. I also went down to Cafe Bohemia and saw George Wallington and Jackie McLean.
When I was in the Army, Leonard Feather had seen me play in Germany and said in a column that there was a kid in the service who was doing great things on the French horn. At the time, he had urged me to give him a call when I returned to New York.
So I did. When I called, Leonard said he was having a party at his apartment on the Upper West Side and that I should come up. When I walked into his place, Osie Johnson, Billie Holiday, Dick Hyman and so many other incredible jazz artists were there. Man, I was in heaven. Leonard said he was going to go downtown to hear Bud Powell and Charles Mingus and asked if I want to go with him. So off we went.
After the gig, Mingus came over to Leonard’s table to say hi. Leonard introduced me and told Mingus I played French horn and that I was someone he should know. Mingus gave me that long, hard stare. Then he asked if I would go out on the road with him and his group for $125 a week.
I was staggered. I suppose if I had said yes, Mingus probably would have withdrawn the offer. But I said no, that I couldn't do it because I was in New York on the GI Bill studying music composition. Mingus grunted that I could learn more with him than I could in school. He told me to come to his apartment early the following week.
When I showed up, I played with him and saxophonist George Barrow. Afterward, Mingus asked me to play with them at the Cafe Bohemia the following week. When I joined them, I fit right in. Mingus loved experimental stuff.
During the period I played with him, George Barrow left and Jackie McLean came in. I couldn't believe I was playing with the same guy I had seen play just a few weeks earlier after returning from Europe. Mal Waldron was on piano, and Mingus used a series of drummers. He would fire two to three drummers a night—and they’d all be in the audience the next day listening to what Mingus and the new drummer would be doing.
I don’t know why Mingus had it in for drummers. He heard things his way. When you look at the scores he wrote, he had a whole symphonic vision of how everybody should play. He would sing your part in rehearsals, and that was it. But instead of hearing a 12-bar blues or 32-bar tune, you'd hear compositions he imagined. When you came to play, you not only were supposed to remember what he sang but also make stuff up on the spot. If things didn't sound right, the drummer was usually the first victim.
Mingus and I got along great during these Cafe Bohemia dates—with one exception. On a date during the second week, I got carried away and soloed for a third chorus. Suddenly I felt a hard elbow crunch into my ribs and a growling voice: “Only two choruses with me.” That elbow hurt but it was a valuable lesson—figure out what you want to say and do it in tight period of time.
Mingus and I remained friends over the years. I loved playing with him. One of the problems in our society is that we consider people who are spiritual and have psychic powers to be nuts or not very serious. Mingus had these qualities, as do most great jazz musicians. As a result, I don't think he or his music have ever been fully understood or appreciated.
When I finished playing with Mingus in early 1956, I was living on the Lower East Side and playing in jam sessions at loft parties. People would rent raw space for a party, and jazz musicians would show up and play there.
In the summer of 1956, I wrote my first movie score for a documentary by Hal Freeman called Echo of an Era. It was about New York's Third Avenue elevated subway, which was demolished that year. I was going to play the eight-bar piano solo I had written but there was this young pianist I met who had never made a record who was terrific. I thought it would be great to have him play what I wrote. His name was Cecil Taylor. It was his first time in a recording studio. We'd laugh about that date every time we'd meet over the years.
During this time I was playing piano in small clubs with a bass player and drums. One night a guy named Mel Rose came up to me and said he had never heard anyone play piano like that before. I said, "That’s because I’m not a piano player. Actually, I'm a French horn player."
Rose was with some small label and said he wanted to record me. Like with Mingus, I think if I had said sure right off the bat, he probably would have walked away. But I said no, not to play games but because I had too many other commitments.
But Rose kept calling me. I told him I had a group with a wonderful sax player and that he should come hear us. The guy said he didn’t really like the saxophone, that there were so many saxophonists around and that the French horn wasn’t really a jazz instrument.
Finally Rose came down to my Lower East Side apartment and hiked up the six flights to hear our quartet play. He liked what he heard but realized it wasn't for him. He said he had a friend, Harold Webman, who was an A&R guy at Decca Records and might want to record us.
I called Hal and we clicked right away. Decca was recording a lot of new music on the East and West coasts as part of a series called Jazz Studio. The date's leader was free to write and record whatever he wanted without interference from a producer.
I played French horn and piano, George Barrow was on tenor sax, Arthur Phipps was on bass and Al Harewood was on drums. We recorded the album in January 1957. I think the album was played regularly on a radio station in Harlem, and over the years it has become an underground hit.
If you look carefully at the original record cover, you’ll see what looks like four white rags hanging on the gear. In fact, they were white powered wigs that the art director wanted us to wear. At the time, a lot of records had half-nude women on the cover and other stuff to make the jazz musicians look like clowns.
We refused to put them on. I told the art director that we all respected Mozart and all of the other classical musicians who were servants in the European court system and only wore them because they had to. I told the guy that we were servants of a higher power—music. If Mozart were here, I said, he wouldn’t put on the wig either.
I was only 26 years old, so I still had a lot of moxie. The art director said fine, we didn't have to wear them. So the wigs remained on the side, next to the dopey candles he had there, too. The wigs and the candles turned up on the cover, but no one quite understood what they were or why they were there.
Today, I still want to record music that will stay around and be a reflection of the best of what I am able to do, not what I’m told I’m supposed to do by people who don’t have a clue about what is art and what is truthfulness."
Amen. Part 4 of my interview with David will appear next week, when we talk about Oscar Pettiford's radical big band of 1957, Kenny Dorham's Blue Spring of 1959, the 1961 date with Harold Land, and how David came to compose Splendor in the Grass and The Manchurian Candidate.
David and Bobby Jaspar's Paris dates together can be found on Bobby Jaspar, Featuring David Amram, an import on the French BMG/Vogue label. You can find it here.
David's Jazz Studio album can be found in two different versions. You can buy Jazz Studio Vols. 5 and 6 (Vol. 5 is a compelling Ralph Burns date) on one CD here.
Or you can buy the CD with the original Decca LP cover here (to see the unworn white wigs, click on the photo). The CD features the original date plus other recordings the group made together.
Wax videoclips: While I could not find a clip of Echo of an Era, the 1956 documentary for which David wrote his first film score, he told me that someone mentioned to him that the film runs continuously at the New York Transit Museum as part of a permanent exhibition. For museum information, go here.
For a clip of Charles Mingus in early 1955 backing Hazel Scott, a wonderful pianist, click here.