Beat jazz pioneer David Amram has collaborated with Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Willie Nelson, and Charles Mingus. He is a multi-talented musician, composer, conductor, world traveler, scholar, and on top of all that, the first time I phoned the 76-year young dynamo, he was outside fixing a tractor on his farm in upstate New York. Here is the interview I conducted with David Amram during two phone calls that took place on Saturday and Sunday, December 16 and 17, 2006.
Bill: How would you explain the term “orchestral colors”?
David: One of the first people who ever spoke to me of orchestral color was Charlie Parker, in 1952, in my basement apartment in Washington, DC. Parker asked me if I had ever checked out the music of Frederick Delius.
I said, “Bird, we were always told Delius was a minor composer,” because in those days, there was a lot lacking in American music studies, and most music teachers referred to Delius that way.
Bird said, “Check out his orchestration. Frederick Delius was a great orchestral colorist.”
Bill: But what does that mean?
David: Orchestral colors and the art of orchestration is like taking a series of black and white illustrations and filling them in with colors. In symphonic music, those black and white images are the actual notes played; how and who plays them is what you do when you orchestrate something. A composition is like a great painting in that it has contrast, form, takes you to places you’ve never been before, and keeps you wanting more.
Bill: What was Charlie Parker like?
David: Charlie Parker had brilliance and sophistication that the movie Bird didn’t capture. He was very knowledgeable and he was a lifetime student of ‘hang-out-ology’, always learning, open-minded, so he didn’t rank Delius as a “minor” or “major” musician. He heard the music of Delius for what it was. I talk about this is my book Vibrations .
Bill: Your song about Hunter S. Thompson, on the Southern Stories CD, is perfect. It captures Thompson’s life story so simply and yet, so completely. Did you ever meet Hunter?
David: Yes, I first met Hunter in 1959. I had a cabin in Huguenot, New York when Hunter Thompson was a reporter for the Middletown Daily Record. There was a little store I went to for my week’s supply of groceries, and the old man who ran the store hardly said a word, usually just a grunt for ‘hello.’ But finally, one day, the guy said to me, “I’ve seen ’em.”
“Seen what?” I asked.
“The saucer people,” he says. “The flying saucer people in the field across the street.”
“Oh …” I said. “Okay …”
He said, “I’ve only told two people about this. You, and that crazy writer up on the hill.”
Of course, the crazy writer was Hunter Thompson. Years later, when Ron Whitehead and Doug Brinkley organized an award ceremony for Thompson in Louisville, Kentucky, they asked me to be the music director. I had the chance to sit and reminisce with Hunter about the guy in the Superette who saw the saucer people and other, more serious things, as well. Hunter was more than just a crazy Gonzo character, he was first and foremost a serious writer.
Bill: There is another song on Southern Stories, ‘Alfred the Hog’, where you play a flute solo that knocks me out as much as any electric guitar solo. At one point, it sounds like you are playing two flutes at the same time.
David: Thank you, thanks a lot. That instrument is actually an Irish penny-whistle, and yes, on part of the solo, I’m playing two penny-whistles at the same time.
Bill: How did you learn to do that?
David: It just came naturally.
Bill: That figures.
David: The penny-whistle is a versatile instrument. Just as a violin can be used for either classical or bluegrass, the penny-whistle can be used different ways. Audiences in Kenya enjoyed it when I went there for the World Council of Churches and played African music in 1976. Dizzy Gillespie dug how I used the penny-whistle as a jazz instrument when I played with him in Havana in 1977.
Bill: You composed the soundtrack for the original version of The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. I read that Frank Sinatra, the star of the movie, was very pleased with the score you created for that movie. Did you meet Sinatra?
David: I met him in New York a few years after making the film. He said he liked the fact that I’m a jazz musician as well as a classical composer, and he was impressed that I write my own music, orchestrate every note myself, and don’t use ghost writers.
Bill: Frank Sinatra, Jr. said that the Manchurian Candidate score was an “ingenious combination of polytonality and jazz.” Can you explain what “polytonality” means?
David: Polytonal means using more than one harmonic pattern, or two separate tonal bases at the same time.
Bill: Yeah, Google says, “Using more than one key or tonality simultaneously,” but I still don’t quite understand it. I thought you could only play in one key at a time.
David: Well, for example, you can play a G7 chord and play a D flat against it.
Bill: No doubt, you can. I’ll have to work it. Moving on, I have to ask you this, because there’s a debate going on among some friends of mine. You know that famous black & white photo of Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, you, and Allen Ginsberg, all sitting in the diner? Is that a spoon or a toothpick you are chomping on?
David: I think it was a spoon, as I used to eat yogurt there, but I really have no idea.
We didn’t know that the picture was being taken and it certainly never occurred to us that 48 years later, it would be on the cover of books, in articles, museums, and so on.
We were all smiling and having a good time, laughing and enjoying each others company, NOT a bunch of surly hating “Beatniks” as the Beats are sometimes portrayed.
Bill: It looks like a fun group.
David: None of us had on the “costumes” that Beat people were supposed to wear. There was no such thing as a “Beat movement.” We were all a group of friends hanging out. Especially Kerouac!
Bill: Who was the little kid in Pull My Daisy that played music with you?
David: The kid was Pablo Frank, Robert Frank’s son. A great little guy. All this is in my book Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac.
Bill: Did you ever meet William S. Burroughs?
David: Yes, many times.
Bill: I wondered why Burroughs was not in Pull My Daisy.
David: He was not what you would call a gregarious, fun guy. He was fun to listen to when he was talking but he was a very private person.
Bill: I saw you on MySpace recently. What are your thoughts on the internet?
David: My kids got me onto MySpace. Thanks to the internet, the generation of my kids have access for the first time in history to all that magnificent music from all around the world as well as the United States. A gifted army of people, who never get played on the radio and whose CDs you can never buy in record stores, now have a level playing field.
You know, the huge record companies are merging in a last desperate attempt to control the listening habits of people all over the world. But with the web and new means of broadcasting, we are now all pardoned from the solitary confinement of the penitentiary of the globalized entertainment industry. My own kids actually draw audiences for their music on the internet without being part of the music industry. Conversely, a lot of the more obscure stuff I’ve done downloaded. Right now, you can go to YouTube and find Pull My Daisy with Italian subtitles!
As artists, we want to share what we do with others. Of course, we have to pay our rent, buy clothes, take our kids to the dentist, so we have to pay bills. That doesn’t mean you have to ruin your art by trying to become a millionaire in two years.
Now days, in baseball, a batter won’t run out an infield grounder. A basketball player won’t make an assist and only want to score points. These players have been forced, by bad advice, to represent what is wrong in their world rather than what’s right.
That’s why I like playing Farm Aid. Willie Nelson and everyone else at Farm Aid share certain traits: Love of music, caring about other people, inspiring others, and a genuine love and respect for the audience. As a result, all of them are fun to be with.
Bill: Man, you really do play all kinds of music with all kinds of people.
David: Anybody can learn to play any style on whatever instrument they play. You just need to be patient, humble yourself to be with those who know more, and learn the basics. It’s a lifetime job. It’s like learning different dialects. Second generation Cubans, for example, have a different kind of Cuban accent than their parents. In the same way, music changes from generation to generation.
Bill: Do you ever compose in your head without score paper?
David: Oh, yeah. Sure.
Bill: Do you ever think something will sound good until you hear it played, and then decide you need to change it?
David: Not really. By the time I get it on paper, it’s pretty much right as far as the combination of notes. I may decide to change the tempo or things of balance, like soft or loud, to make it work the best.
Bill: Do you ever see musical sounds as geometric shapes?
David: No, I just hear it very clearly.