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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Creating With Kerouac

My old friend from New York in the Fifties, jazz musician David Amram, has not only played French horn with Dizzy Gillespie, he is a composer of symphonies, chamber music, choral works, a flute concerto for James Galway, the movie score for the first “Manchurian Candidate” and “Splendor in the Grass,” conductor of The Philadelphia Symphony, and author of Offbeat: Creating With Kerouac.

This guy is the original “Energizer Bunny.” He never runs down. I pride myself on being pretty productive at eighty-five, but Amram is two years older, and I’ll never catch up. Compared to him I feel like Grandma Moses. He still seems to have the energy he ran on in 1956 when he began collaborating with Kerouac, combining jazz and poetry at coffeehouses and bars around The Village. This was an era long before the internet, when “storytelling was still practiced as a people-to-people activity,” and Amram says proudly he was “a prize student at the University of Hang-out-ology. “ (An alternative lifestyle to the I Pad, Snapchat and Instagram.)

David met Jack at some of the BYOB (“Bring Your Own Bottle”) parties in The Village, and their jazz-poetry sessions led to their collaboration, with Alan Ginsberg, of a Beat Home Movie with the title of Ginsberg’s poem “Pull My Daisy.” The making of the film was a collaboration with their circle of friends, including poets Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and Ginsberg, and painters Larry Rivers and Alice Neal, and it’s the main story told in this up-Beat book. David wrote the music, Jack did a beautiful spontaneous narration of the friends acting out an improvisation of their lives, and David wrote the music and appeared on film. When it was finished, David told Jack that “our last three weeks [of filming and partying] were like the famous painting by Hieronomus Bosch, Descent into the Mouth of Hell.” He later added, with humungous understatement, ”it’s never going to look like Lassie Come Home or Gone With the Wind.”

“I Hope not,” said Jack. “I want it to be like us! I want it to look and sound and feel like us.”

It does.

And if you’re not entranced by the often stoned-out antics of the Beats at play, be careful to look and listen to Amram’s story, for there are diamonds of art here like the diamonds that Kerouac found when he looked closely at the sidewalks of New York.(My old friend Rev. Norman Eddy of The East Harlem Protestant Parish, saw those diamonds as he walked the sidewalks of Spanish Harlem. You can see them too, if you really look.)

Some of Amram’s talks with the jazz musicians of New York in the Fifties, reminded me of insights of writers of very different scenes and styles. Kurt Vonnegut (a fan of The Beatles) often told aspiring writers not to write “for the world,” but write as if you’re addressing one person. He said he always wrote as if talking to his beloved sister Alice.

Charlie Mingus, the great bass player who Amram played with at The Five Spot [mecca of jazz in New York in the Fifties] advised David to “Just find one person and play for that person all night long. . .All you need is one person in your whole life to really be listening.”

What a blessing that Amram, with all his great stories and music, is coming to my hometown of Indianapolis to play at The Jazz Kitchen on June 4, and on June 5 will join me on “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour” [already sold out but will be aired later on WFYI] to talk about New York in the Fifties, and play jazz classics of our era. To add to the occasion, he will be joined by our own star saxophone player, Sophie Faught, and her trio. That is the best birthday present I could have for The Big 85.

Tickets for the Amram concert at the Jazz Kitchen on June 4 are available here.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield