Beat bastion and musical maestro
How David Amram became my Facebook Friend
IN RECENT days, I was in touch with a journalist with strong Beat interests who was heading out to meet one of that generation’s legendary survivors, jazz musician and film composer David Amram.
I was pleased to know that the 90-year-old, one of the few individuals still alive who knew Kerouac well as a friend and made music alongside him, was continuing to take visitors at his home in Beacon, New York State.
Then, shazam, a little nugget of extra news. Personally, I try to use Facebook in a discerning fashion – I don’t go looking for new Friends and vet with some care those who ask to link with me – but, when Amram himself requested the honour yesterday, I was more than delighted to accede! Amazing the way social media can re-connect you with your heroes.
Amram’s achievement runs through the American cultural 20th Century and beyond: a multiple instrumentalist though the French horn was his principal device of choice, he moved easily from orchestral composition to movie soundtrack creation to jazz improvisation.
He would work alongside Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic and collaborate with a glittering array of jazz figures, from Dizzy to Monk and Mingus. But it was when he started mixing in the Greenwich Village circle the Beats in the mid-1950s, his vision of the world was truly expanded and enriched.
He talked and talked and partied with Kerouac and co – he would make impromptu music at social gatherings with the On the Road author – and, eventually, in 1957, the two would join forces at the Brata Gallery in Manhattan to concoct one of the first jazz poetry performances.
Amram became a recognised figure in that remarkable artistic community when its powers were at its height. In fact, in 1959, he was a key player in the seminal Beat short, the Kerouac-penned Pull My Daisy, when he provided the music.
He received a acclaim for his soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 and by the start of the 1970s was in recording studios with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan working on some celebrated collaborations between those two giants of literature and popular music.
Later, amid a multitude of projects and a plethora of albums, Amram would add his considerable weight to the 1999 venture Jack Kerouac Reads On the Road, a record that would see the composer conceive fresh settings of Kerouac poetry and include a notable track by Tom Waits and Primus.
Amram gathered his burnished memoirs in three very readable memoirs – Vibrations, Offbeat and Upbeat – and, when I was working on my book Text and Drugs and Rock‘n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture, I set out to connect in person with this éminence grise of Jewish American letters.
in 2004 on a gleaming July day, my partner Jayne Sheridan and I headed out of Grand Central by train to his upstate New York farm (see picture below). He met us at the station and drove us to his rustic home. Our meeting with the man was memorable indeed: the hours we spent with him were full of energy and ideas, memories and anecdotes, firm views on the Beats and strong takes on his first love, music.
As anyone who has encountered him will know, his spirit is irrepressible and it was thrilling to then also join him in a journey back into the city, where a new version of The Manchurian Candidate – with some of Amram’s original score intertwined – was receiving the red carpet treatment, and continue our three-way interchange.
The interview I conducted became a chapter in Text and Drugs, eventually published in 2013. A few years after that, my journalist colleague Pat Thomas interviewed Amram again for my edited 2018 collection Kerouac on Record: A Literary Soundtrack.
It is heartwarming now to hear that, quite a number of years on, David Amram is still communicating his fund of fun tales and serious insights. As his 10th decade unwraps, long may this musical maestro bring melodic interpretation and critical insight to the Beat Generation debate. I look forward to responding to his Facebook posts!