David Amram, who will perform at the Neal Cassady birthday tonight at the Mercury Cafe and tomorrow night at Dazzle, shared a close connection with Cassady, Jack Kerouac and other Beats, while also being a jazz musician who collaborated with Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettiford.
Amram has also composed more than a hundred orchestral and chamber works in addition to scoring the films Splendor in the Grass and the Manchurian Candidate. We recently spoke with Amram about playing jazz, composing, what he's done on previous visits to Denver, New York in the '50s and the Beats.
Westword: I know you've done a lot of work in classical music. how is that having one foot in classical and one in jazz?
David Amram: Well, it's all music. It's all sincere music, and one helps the other. Playing jazz reminds me all the time of how important every note is, every person is, every situation is. And classical music reminds me of how much we've written. Hundreds and thousands of years not only written down music from the masters but the music that came before them is an expression of continuity through the ages.
Are you still composing in both worlds?
To me, it's just one world. And the different styles and different genres are like a master chef cooking more than hamburger a certain way. Conversely, the might have a way of cooking that hamburger and it's slightly different each time, and trying to make it better each time. There's still the challenge of starting out from scratch and having a chance to do it. The great thing with composing is that you get a second, third and fourth chance, but if you burn the hamburger, you're stuck. But if you mess up something in the composition, you can use the wastebasket and get second, third, fourth, fifth thirty-seventh chance to fine-tune everything.
With your jazz background, you've got a chance to play with guys like Bird, Mingus, Oscar Pettiford and those guys. What did you come away from your experience of playing with guys like that?
Well, it's something I still think about every day. It affects everything that I do. Just a level of excellence and sensitivity is remarkable.
What did you learn from playing with Bird?
He believed in the sanctity of the moment.
With the Beats, I know Kerouac approached his writing kind of like a jazz player would improvise. Did you ever talk to him about that connection between improvising and writing?
I think probably didn't distinguish between the two that much. Kurt Vonnegut said to me when I was writing a book, he said, "David, just remember... just like your music. Write the way you talk." And I think that he felt that it should be honest and appear to be effortless.
What have you done on previous visits to Denver in additions to coming her for the annual Neal Cassady birthday celebrations?
I was there for the Democratic National Convention in 2008. I was the Composer In Residence For Public Events for the Denver Public Library. Three different times I was the visiting professor for a Leo Bloch grant. I worked with all kinds of musical forms like opera, symphony, played with jazz artists, American Indian musicians, Latin players. All kinds of free programs for the community that were really fun. I've been in for the Denver Film Festival and I've played when Dan Wakefield showed his movie there about New York in the '50s. I was there when my book came out and gave reading. I've always had a wonderful time in the city. And of course for different Kerouac events too, like when the On the Road scroll was exhibited there.
Speaking of the film about New York in the '50s, you moved to New York in 1955, right?
Yeah. I came on the student ship back from Europe. Some students came by at the place I was playing in Paris and said, "Come on back and play with our band and you can come back on the student ship." I went back to go on the GI Bill to study composition at the Manhattan School of Music. My birthday is November 17, so I got there just a few weeks before that. That must have been a great time to be there with bebop happening?
It was incredible.
I was reading about how you were involved with the Jazz Loft.
It was really quite amazing. That's where I met Kerouac, Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein and all those people.
How was that initial meeting with Kerouac? Did you guys connect instantly?
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Oh yeah. He was dressed up in a black and red lumberjack jacket. He looked a French Canadian logger. And he came up to me and handed me a piece of paper that said, "Play for me when I read." Then he took the paper back before I could see what was on it. I started accompanying him and it was just a natural rapport.
What about that first time you met Neal?
Well, I used to see him at different time. But when we spent the most time was a few days in 1965 was the last time in San Francisco. He was driving us all around. I wrote all about that in a chapter in my second book called Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac. I describe my adventures with him.