No one can Beat Amram, the jazz genius


David Amram has had an extraordinary life. He knew Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Pete Seeger, he played with jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk and worked with Leonard Bernstein and Elia Kazan among many, many others.

Amram is an astonishing musician. But he has also had a rich career as a composer. He has composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber-music pieces, written many scores for Broadway theatre - including that for the stage version of On the Waterfront - and films - including Splendor in the Grass (1960) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - two operas, including the Holocaust opera The Final Ingredient and a comic opera of Twelfth Night.

Now 85, Amram has just brought out a multi-CD set featuring some of his greatest compositions, some of them now available for the first time in half-a-century. He is an electrifying presence, both as a speaker and musician. In a recent question-and-answer session at Foyle's bookshop, the answers poured out, a torrent of reminiscences about the great figures he has known. He has travelled the world, picking up musical influences from Charlie Parker to Native Americans and China. According to one journalist, "Multiculturalism was part of Amram's artistic consciousness long before the term was coined."

Amram shows no signs of slowing down. He has just played in London and Manchester. Then back to New York, playing jazz classics in Greenwich Village where, 60 years ago, he met Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac and Joe Papp.

Amram was born in Philadelphia in 1930 and started his career in the fifties, playing French horn in the legendary jazz bands of Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton. He also met Charlie Parker. These were crucial influences. "They loved 19th- and 20th-century classical music," Amram said in a recent interview.

"Charlie Parker introduced me to Delius as an orchestrator. He said to listen to the orchestral colours. He also loved Bartok for the folk music, and what he called the soulfulness of Bartok. Dizzy loved Stravinsky and also Bach because of the wonderful line and polyphony and the spirit of the music, and because Bach had been a great improviser." He met Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beats in the 1950s. He describes going to a bar with Kerouac in Greenwich Village. Everyone apart from them wore the Beat uniform: berets, glasses and beards, "carrying unread copies of Albert Camus".

Amram and Keroauc didn't fit in and were nearly thrown out. You can get a flavour of the Beatnik moment from the film, Pull My Daisy (1959), shot by photographer Robert Frank, narrated by Kerouac, music by Amram and featuring Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, artist Larry Rivers and Amram himself. These were his glory years. He composed the scores for Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park for a decade and again worked with Papp, one of the great figures of postwar American theatre, on the comic opera Twelfth Night in 1968.

From 1964-66, Amram was the Composer and music director for the Lincoln Center Theatre and he wrote the score for Arthur Miller's play about his life with Marilyn Monroe, After The Fall, in 1964. Leonard Bernstein chose him as the New York Philharmonic's first composer-in-residence in 1966.

Papp, Elia Kazan (director of Splendor in the Grass) and Bernstein were high-octane egomaniacs. How did a young composer cope without being crushed? He admired them, he says innocently. They were huge, creative figures and he had no trouble showing that he respected their achievement. That was all there was to it. Amram's kind spirit shines through. "I always tell young composers to be patient," said Amram. "Always have a copy of everything and never give up. Charles Mingus told me in 1955, 'Even if there is only one person out there, you can write and play for them. That's all you need.' I always said that's really good advice."

David Amram's 'Classic American Film Scores, 1956-2016' is released by Moochin' About.

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