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David Amram

David Amram: The Oldest Teenager

By Mike Zwerin

NEW YORK, 7 November 2002 - When flutist James Galway commissioned David Amram to compose Giants Of Night, a concerto for flute and orchestra, he asked him to incorporate influences from jazz and Caribbean music. Amram has been doing that sort of thing for a long time. Galway wanted the impression of jazz improvisation, but every note written. It was premiered on September 14th by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and Amram told the New Orleans Times Picayune: "Jimmy's hope and my hope is that this will be a repertoire piece for flutists likeRhapsody In Blue, a piece that captures a certain time and a certain place and a certain idiom."

With his unique combination of talent and optimism, Amram has been dubbed "a Renaissance man of American music" and "the world's oldest teenager." He will celebrate his 72nd birthday (Nov 17th) by conducting the Gemeni Youth Symphony Orchestra of Brentwood, Long Island, playing Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony," Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto and his own composition, In Memory of Chano Pozo (a Cuban percussionist).

Amram specializes in adventurous programming with obscure young orchestras featuring music from cultures previously excluded from the symphonic world. His interest in the music that has come to be called "world" was early, earnest and influential. He tries to convince young musicians to "create their own generational art," and to "work hard, acquire skills and even find joy and pride while struggling, as we did a half-century ago." Not long ago, during a middle-school band workshop in St. Augustine, Florida, he discussed using jazz and Latin beats and riffs to bring 18th century hymns into the 21st century. "Good music always remains important," he said.

Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac was published (Thunder's Mouth Press) earlier this year. His 1968 memoir Vibrations was reprinted last year with an introduction by Douglas Brinkley and a blurb from Arthur Miller. While writing Vibrations, he lived what he calls a "crazed existence" in an apartment over a corner liquor store in central Greenwich Village. People came at all hours to talk, jam and listen to music. The author's detailed memory is astonishing, due at least in part to the fact that he tended to be the only chemical abstainer - the expression "natural high" fits him perfectly (sometimes he takes a sherry before dinner).

He and Jack Kerouac were responsible for the first ever jazz and poetry recital. Along with Julius Watkins, Amram pioneered the French horn as an improvising instrument. While composing over 100 orchestral pieces, he collaborated with Charles Mingus, Leonard Bernstein (composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic), Lionel Hampton, Frank McCourt (a current project called Mass Missa Manhattan),Odetta, Dizzy Gillespie (they went to Cuba together in 1977), Dustin Hoffman, Willie Nelson (plays with his band during Farm Aid tours), Oscar Pettiford, Rambling Jack Elliot, Elia Kazan (the soundtrack for Splendor in the Grass) and Allen Ginsburg (on Alfred Leslie's underground classic Pull My Daisy). Two years ago, he won an award from the Hollywood Arts Council for his pioneering efforts in combining jazz and symphonic music in films such as The Manchurian Candidate.

He was sitting on the terrace of Pete's Tavern near Gramercy Square, around the corner from a small hall where he was scheduled to rehearse a doctors and dentists amateur orchestra that evening. You wonder if, with all of those impressive credits, he considers this sort of off-center minor-venue affair a letdown at his age. Another sort of person in his place, and it might be seen as reduced circumstances. However, he gives the impression of being exactly where and what he wants to be. He had been working on a score-in-progress on the table which began to wave in the breeze as he pulled out a string of press clippings and books and CDs from a tote-bag and said: "All the musics that have inspired me and enriched my life, from Bach, Berlioz, Charlie Parker, Carlos Jobim, great Arabic singers, Lakota traditional singers and Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt to old Gaelic and Welsh folk music share two things in common. Purity of intent and exquisite choice of notes."

The level, scope and longevity of Amram's enthusiasms are exceptional and, listening to him, it soon becomes apparent that you are getting a straight story not an ego trip, though that too. This was a day trip in town down from his upstate New York farm, where he lives with his wife and three children. His old beat-up blue station wagon parked across Irving Place looked like it belonged to a hillbilly - it was flying a pair of American flags. Somebody like him with a vehicle like that is curious. He explained:

"I don't think the American flag should be a symbol of anything other than inclusiveness, hope, compassion, democracy and justice for all. I'm out to recapture the flag from the bad guys. There is no reason for people who fancy themselves as intellectuals to turn their backs on what has given them the opportunity to become who they are. That would be handing the country over to right-wing fanatics. I was in the army and I hated it, but I love America's craziness, openness and unpredictability. If there was ever another draft I would be willing to go again. Some of us should be called up and give young people a chance to live a full life. Our slogan would be 'don't trust anyone under 70.'"

David Amram Web Site

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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