What Beat Generation Horn Player David Amram Learned From Charlie Parker and Jack Kerouac

In Pull My Daisy, the 1959 short film based on a poem written by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, a French horn player named David Amram appears, alongside appearances by poets Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso. Amram also wrote the jazz score for the movie, but who is he?

Amram, who shared a close connection with Kerouac, Cassady and other Beats, will perform at the Mercury Cafe on Saturday, January 30, as part of the Seventh Annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash. The event also features Neal’s daughter Jami Cassady and son Robert Hyatt as well as Denver poets Molina Speaks, Ed Ward and Jennifer Dunbar Dorn.

Amram, who’s recited the poem “Pull My Daisy” at previous Cassady birthday bashes in Denver, says that after the film came out, Columbia Records was interested in releasing the soundtrack of Kerouac narrating the film and Amram’s score, but the project was shelved. It was finally released in the U.K. last November as part of David Amram’s Classic American Movie Scores – 1956-2016, a new five-disc boxed set on the London-based imprint Moochin’ About; Amram says the set is slated for an American release in February or March.

“In 1959, when we did Pull My Daisy," Amram says, “Columbia records wanted to put out just the recording of Jack reading or narrating, and my music for the film without — I wouldn’t call it acting — our clowning around in the home movie we made called Pull My Daisy. Hearing the soundtrack just with Jack speaking is what it was like hanging out with him. That’s coming out for the first time 56 years after Columbia Records wanted to put it out but was never able to do it — just the soundtrack of Pull My Daisy."

While Amram’s new boxed set includes the Pull My Daisy soundtrack, it also includes scores from The Manchurian Candidate, The Young Savages, The Arrangement, Isn’t It Delicious as well as Splendor in the Grass. The latter had not been released until recently and included some Dixieland songs played by clarinetist Buster Bailey, who played with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Echo of An Era, the first film that Amram scored, in 1956, is legendary avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor’s first-ever recording session, Amram says. The boxed set also includes Amram’s Broadway score of On the Waterfront, featuring slide players Jimmy Owens and Slide Hampton, and the cast recording of the Arthur Miller play After the Fall.

Over the past six decades, the 85-year-old Amram has had a strong affinity for jazz; he's also made a long career of film scoring and writing classical music, including last year’s This Land, a symphonic tribute to Woody Guthrie that he recorded with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. In 1952, Amram also got a few pointers from legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker, who encouraged Amram to dare to try anything.

“He said, ‘Put some of what you learned from jazz into the symphony and put some of what you learned from the symphony into jazz,’” Amram says. “He also encouraged me to study my own Jewish heritage and to play all the places my forebears have been before they came over to this beautiful country. And to learn about all the other languages, all the stuff that was out there – all those things of beauty — to try to get close to them and then live with them, and put that in the music. And in 1952, there weren’t many people giving you that kind of advice. It was mostly 98 percent ‘Don’t you dare’ or ‘You can’t do it’ before you even had a chance to strike out.”

Amram, who grew up in a Pennsylvania farm community with a population of about 200, says that when he moved to New York’s Greenwich Village in the early ‘50s, he went there as Kerouac did, “with wide-open eyes looking for something that we couldn’t find at home, but we all brought that small-town kind of dream with us. I think what he was talking about [was] that whole wonderful energy and curiosity and zest for life that was a part of those times but which was kind of in the background. Everybody more or less accepted the role that they’re supposed to be a hayseed and a hick.”

Nearly five decades after first meeting Dizzy Gillespie in 1951, Amram performed at the trumpeter’s seventieth birthday concert, where they talked. “He said, ‘Man, I met you when you were a twenty-year-old hayseed. Now you have gray hair. It’s time to put something back in the pot.’ And Dizzy told me how he’d been a little kid down in the South and what it was like coming to New York for the first time. But a lot of those musicians who Jack and Neal both loved were people who traveled around the whole country by the nature of our work and got to see the beauty part of America. And I think that the way the Neal Cassidy celebration goes, it expresses a great deal of that.”

Amram says he basically lives his life the way Kerouac lived his, adding that he’s 85 and still playing all around the world.

“Everything I do is just sort of like Bob Dylan’s song 'Like a Rolling Stone': I go wherever the music takes me. And anytime I see anything that touched me or is beautiful, I try to get close to it and understand it and learn about it. Jack was very much the same way. He hung out with anybody and everybody, because he realized that every person, every place is a precious experience and something that you can learn from and something that you can honor.”
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon

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