Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Who You Are

When I finished my first book, a journalistic account of Spanish Harlem (Island in the City) I eagerly started writing a novel – that was my dream. I was nurtured on Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the literary stars of the nineteen-fifties, and I could recite from their work as readily as I had once recited the Boy Scout Oath and The Pledge of Allegiance. I once won a bet for dinner at a fancy French Restaurant in Manhattan because I knew the last line of The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (not, as the loser had insisted “Isn’t it nice to think so?”)

I was writing magazines articles to make a (subsistence) living, but I made time to write the first fifty pages of a novel and eagerly sent it to my always supportive agent. He praised it and sent it off to Houghton Mifflin, who had brought out the journalistic book. I fidgeted and drank and prayed while I waited for a response, and finally my agent called and said the publisher had invited me to come to Boston from New York at their expense and have lunch with their editor-in-chief and managing editor at Locke Obers (where JFK liked to have his lobster stew.)

“Is this good news or bad?” I asked my agent.

“It could be either,” he said.

It was bad. Over lobster thermidor (which I have never eaten since, though I am rarely in the kind of places that serve it), the head honchos of one of the country’s leading publishers told me – as one succinctly put it – “We think you’re a fine young journalist, but you’re not a novelist.” I later wondered why they might not have said “we don’t like the fifty pages you sent us,” but perhaps they felt that sample was conclusive enough.

I was devastated, but I knew one older writer I greatly respected who I knew believed in me, and she gave me encouragement and hope. I have often found that it only takes one person to believe in you and your dream.  On top of that, I literally had a dream in the form of a novel. It was a confirmation of the old line “I have a novel in me.” I woke up elated, and sat on a bench in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village and listened to cheerful birds at dawn, above the rattle of the Seventh Avenue Local.

Although  “I had a novel in me,” it wasn’t easy to get it out. It took ten years of false starts and new beginnings and hundreds of pages tossed, in between writing more articles and journalistic books to make a living, and finally a foundation grant from out of the blue that gave me a year’s time to concentrate on the novel alone.

My still faithful agent sent the novel to ten publishers, and three liked it, but only one of them really loved it. (Again, it only takes one.) That novel, Going All The Way became a selection of The Literary Guild, made the Time magazine bestseller list, became a movie, was republished and is still in print (and is now even an e-book.)

I believe my “lesson” applies not only to novels, but to dreams of any kind, including your own identity. People now fight for that, too, and all of these battles are worth fighting, many of them far more difficult than writing a book. Kurt Vonnegut said: “There’s only one rule I know, babies – Goddam it, you’ve got to be kind.” I second that, and I add one more that I think my friend Vonnegut would also endorse: “Don’t let anyone tell you who you are.”

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Turned on by David Amram’s Vibrations

Sophie Faught plays saxophone with David Amram on piano.

Sophie Faught plays saxophone with David Amram on piano.

Most of us who heard David Amram in concert at The Jazz Kitchen, and talking and playing more music on “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour” will not soon forget the good “vibrations” he left. Not only his music remains in my head, but also his talk, his humor, his open-ness and genuine encouragement to others to create, whatever their art, their passion.

David brought his percussionist, who happens to be his son Adam, whose bongo playing was an added delight, and Adam told us after the concert “Dad was really on fire” the nights he was here in Indianapolis. For all the distinguished work he has done, from playing with jazz masters like Charlie Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie, composing a flute concerto for Sir James Galway, writing music for movies like the first “Manchurian Candidate and “Splendor in the Grass,” creating music for performances of Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park in New York, and plays by Arthur Miller and Paddy Chaevsky, conducting The Philadelphia Symphony, he has never “sold out,” never put money or prestige or honors ahead of doing the work he was “called to do,” the work he knows in his heart is his duty to create and perform.

L-R: Drummer Kenny Phelps, Producer Pat Chastain, Roadie Adele Chastain, Bass player Nick Tucker, Saxophonist Sophie Faught, Roadie John Chastain, Uncle Dan Wakefield, Percussionist Adam Amram, Star All-round Jazzman Extraordinaire David Amram, at Tim Brickley’s Rehearsal Studio.

You can get a number of his great CDs on the internet, and if you want to keep his vibrations in your head and heart, I urge you to read his first book –  Vibrations: The Adventures and Musical Times of David Amram. He writes like he plays – all out, from the heart, and he has you hanging on his every cliff of creation to see at the last minute that the concerto will be put on, the poetry reading with Kerouac will find an audience, the opera for television will go on the air in spite of all network obstacles; Amram and his music will prevail.  An early mentor told him “It’s going to be a long, long road… It’s never going to be easy.” That only spurred him on.

I have known Amram since I heard him play at the Five Spot in the Bowery in 1957, the hip jazz mecca of the era. His jazz group played for the publication party thrown by GQ magazine for my memoir New York in the Fifties and he talked and played on the documentary film of the same name.  He came to play and talk to my class on “New York in the Fifties” at Florida International University, which was always the highlight of the year. My all-time favorite Amram concert was the one he gave for the fourth grade class of my God Daughter, Karina Corrales, at Kensington Park Elementary School in Miami. He arrived like Santa Claus, carrying a large pack on his back. In the pack were more than 25 native instruments from folk cultures all over the world, and he picked ones to play and talk about to Karina and her class.

He used the work of American authors whose work he loved – like John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac – to serve as text for the music he composed for “A Year in Our Land,” a cantata that premiered at Town Hall in Manhattan. It was his “Thank you to the America I had dreamed of in my heart and mind and soul” and he wrote in Vibrations that as he listened to the music “”I didn’t even know if an America like the one described by these authors could ever exist anymore… And I felt a great sadness when I thought of how all this had been forgotten and ignored. I hoped the cantata might remind us of who we were.”

David still keeps reminding us of who we were at our best and who we still can be, and at 86 he isn’t slowing down, any more than the writer Gay Talese is slowing down at 85. Amram writes about the vibrations he felt when he was playing at a literary party and a beautiful woman asked him to dance: “We began dancing and that old feeling came over me. I thought I was being electrocuted.”

Get his Vibrations. You too can be turned on.

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High on Poetry

When Allen Ginsberg was living in Harlem and going to Columbia in 1947, he rushed into the office of the College English Department one day and announced to a clump of professors having coffee or a smoke before class, “I have just seen the light!” Most of the professors smiled or turned away or mashed out cigarettes and went to their class, but Mark Van Doren, the Pulitzer Prize poet and popular Prof, asked the excited Ginsberg “What was it like?”

When I interviewed Ginsberg more than forty years later for my memoir of New York in the Fifties, he affirmed that the experience of “the light’ did not come from any drug but from reading the poetry of William Blake. He also noted that Van Doren, the only professor who was interested in hearing about it, “had a spiritual gift.” Van Doren was a poet himself.

When I heard my writer friend Susan Neville read Ginsberg’s poem “Sunflower Sutra” a few days ago at the taping of my WFYI radio show “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour” I felt high myself, without the aid of any substances. I think others present must have felt something similar, regardless of how they described their reaction to her reading. The magic of it was enhanced by a lovely and sensitive accompaniment from the saxophone of Sophie Faught and the piano of jazz musician David Amram.

As one man from the audience emailed the next day “the woman who read the poem with Dave and Sophie accompanying was a real high point treat.”

The music provided a beautiful background for the poem, and Neville’s reading was itself an artful rendering – it was as if she struck each word with an understanding of it, a sacred regard, that raised the language to a higher level of perception, a true “high” of appreciation.

For a few precious moments, I think we were lifted; I think we believed the message of the poem’s finale –

We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed and hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.

Amen.

Bless you Allen, David and Sophie.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield