At 87, David Amram, lauded composer for symphony, stage, and film; ethnomusicologist, Beat Generation collaborator and seasoned storyteller, is an elder statesman of American music and culture. Still, his age belies his exuberance and utter hipness – he’s a member of the original hipster generation, after all – one of a group of artists, poets, and musicians in New York City back when the Village was a gritty crucible for art and progressive thought. (Hear his score in the classic “Beat Generation” short film, Pull My Daisy, below.) Amram is as timeless as he intends for his art to be, and he’s excited about passing a few things on about music, the creative life, and legacy. We caught up with him following his visit to Cuba last month, where he returned after over 40 years to perform in the International Jazz Plaza Festival. Here are just a few of the nuggets of wisdom from our conversation.
David Amram will visit Indian Hill Music for the orchestral world premiere of his Greenwich Village Portraits for Saxophone and Orchestra, to be performed by Maestro Bruce Hangen and the Orchestra of Indian Hill with guest soloist Ken Radnofsky on saxophone, Sunday, February 25. He will also perform in a free community event presented by Indian Hill Music at the Fitchburg Art Museum on Friday, February 23.
On Learning to Play it by Ear
When you see a great musician performing or great athlete playing, or just a great person on a normal day, and something doesn’t go as planned — they’ve got a flat tire, or their kid missed the bus to school, or they burned something in the kitchen – it’s what they do at that moment that changes things — and music teaches you how to do that.
My third week in New York in the 1950s — on a fluke — I was playing with Charles Mingus at the Café Bohemia, and all these people that I met – Monk, and Miles, and Sonny Rollins… these are people I thought I might be lucky enough even to get to see or hear — and there I was, playing with them!
I was playing away, like, in heaven, and the cash register went off and made all this [loud noises] and I got kind of flustered. After the set was over, Mingus said, “Look man, don’t pay that cash register any mind. If it goes off in the middle of your solo, answer it. Include that as part of the music…and you answer it when it goes off.” He said, “Take whatever is there, and use that as a part of what you’re doing.”
Watch “Pull My Daisy,” the essential “Beat Generation” short film, featuring the music of Amram, narration by Jack Kerouac, and starring Allen Ginsburg, Peter Orlovsky, and others.
On Finding the Right Notes
Miles Davis said, “There are no wrong notes in jazz…” What he meant was that anything that you might play that might be a little unusual, might actually be an embellishment towards finding the right note. That’s something that happens when you’re writing a symphony… or doing anything! (Of course, when you’re writing, you have the option of using the two greatest technological advancements of the 20th Century, which are the eraser and the wastebasket.) You get a second chance to do the same thing in a different way. And at that point you have to choose which [note(s)] you are going to choose of the 4,000 possibilities, and that usually entails forgetting about your education (or lack of education) and going to your instinct.
All of us have a story, a song, a picture – many creative things that are unique to our lives and our experiences. Each of us can spend a lifetime trying to improve that. I do what feels right – try to have good form – beginning, middle, and end. On my gravestone, I would like it to say, “Purity of intent and an exquisite choice of notes.”
David Amram conducts the Chicago Symphony in 3rd movement of his Triple Concerto (and plays penny whistle!)
My whole life I have been fortunate to bump into people and situations where they turn out to be so wonderful.
On Learning from the Greats and Making a Contribution
Kerouac and I used to listen to Dylan Thomas and Langston Hughes reading their poetry. These were fantastic writers who had something to say. And we would listen to Stravinsky and Bartok — who were so fine — telling their story, and doing it in a special way. These were all scholarly, devoted people who loved their art, and they weren’t just out there hustling some flavor of the week. They made us aware that today’s fashion ends up in tomorrow’s landfill, and we should take the beautiful lines of John Keats and remember that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
My whole life I have been fortunate to bump into people and situations where they turn out to be so wonderful. When I was working with the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein told me that my job as a writer was to “contribute to the repertoire.” We were lucky that we had high ideals that others above us shared with us, and to realize that you should share what was bequeathed upon you with others. Just to keep it real by being human, and realizing our gig while we’re here was to make a contribution to the whole thing. Not to try to be the whole thing, but to add to what was already there.
David Amram performs in a Thelonius Monk tribute with Dizzy Gillespie
There are never enough chances and never too much beauty to behold. Seeing and being able to participate in moments of beauty is enormously important. And part of our gig –as musicians, or anybody of any age — is to try to share that idea and make people see some of the beauty that surrounds us.
There are never enough chances and never too much beauty to behold — seeing and being able to participate in moments of beauty is enormously important. And part of our gig –as musicians, or anybody of any age — is to try to share that idea and make people see some of the beauty that surrounds us. I hope when [the younger generations] discover the incredible musicality and virtuosity of jazz, and participate in it, they will appreciate the beauty of those moments and become ambassadors for their generation.
On Composing and Performing at 87
Bop ‘till you drop! I’m just going to keep on, and when people remind me that I’m not a teenager any more, I say my schedule won’t permit me to act my age, and I’m just trying each day to continue to improve and do better, and to count my blessings and my good luck, and to try to share that with others, and make other people feel “I can do something, too.” And that’s the most important thing… to foster creativity in others.
An Evening with David Amram
Friday, February 23 | 7pm
Fitchburg Art Museum
185 Elm Street, Fitchburg, MA
A FREE Community Event. Space is limited — first come, first served.
Backed by the Indian Hill Music faculty jazz trio and select student musicians from the Fitchburg Public Schools, Mr. Amram will treat us to jazz standards and more!
Presented in partnership by Indian Hill Music and Fitchburg Art Museum. Sponsored by Rollstone Bank & Trust. Supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ramsey McCluskey Family Foundation.
Orchestra of Indian Hill: Soaring Spirits
Featuring the orchestral world premiere of Amram’s Greenwich Village Portraits for Saxophone and String Orchestra
Sunday, February 25 | 3pm
Littleton High School Performing Arts Center
56 King Street, Littleton, MA
Tickets: $20, $35, $50