Jazz Notes Intel: Farmer-Turned-Maestro David Amram’s Wisdom of the Arts As He Approaches 88; Resonance Welcomes the New and Archival at 10; Monte-Carlo and Random Dances
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, November 7, 2018
At age 87, the curious jazz connoisseur, accomplished classical composer and agriculturist at heart, David Amram stands tall in the wisdom of the arts. Largely underappreciated in jazz circles, he firmly and singularly expresses his passion to encourage arts-minded people of all ages to discover how to follow their dreams. In an email exchange before we conversed, Amram wrote, “Jazz and all sincere artistic forms of expression are important, and for all naysayers who tell people to give up before they even get started because there is no real demographic to justify devoting yourself to what you love, I’ll hope to remind everyone that…#1: There are never too many sunsets and #2: There is never too much beauty.”
Born on a 160-acre working farm in Pennsylvania, Amram listened to late-night radio and heard music by swinging big bands led by the likes of Gene Krupa and Sid Catlett. While he was playing music by the third grade, the jazz rhythms fascinated him. But he was also tuning in over the waves to straight-up new jazz, the blues, folk, chamber music, and he knew that his future was in the arts—not on a farm. When he was 12, his family moved off the land to Washington, D.C. where Amram lived in what he calls “a checkerboard neighborhood” with black-and-white integration. “I hung out all the time, surrounded by music like jazz and European classics,” he says. “I loved them both but that grew to loving all kinds of music. I never became bi-polar.”
When he arrived in New York in the ‘50s, he threw himself into the burgeoning new jazz scene. He became friends with Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, all of whom showed him how to stretch out into the bebop revolution. “Charlie Parker encouraged me to play bebop on the French horn,” he says. “Then he told me I should use my Jewish heritage to write symphony music.”
Brown, who died shortly after Amram got his impromptu pointers, told the youngster how impressed he was with his French horn playing, but how he needed more clarity. “Clifford told me check out [violinist] Jascha Heifetz,” Amram says. “Every note he played was as clear as a bell. That taught me a lot about my own playing.”
In 1954, while Amram, age 24, was gigging with Charles Mingus at the Café Bohemia, he met Monk and often visited him and his wife Nellie at their West Side apartment. He also got to know their son T.S. “He was the president of his first-grade class,” he says (the friendship continued when T.S. invited Amram to be a part of a panel on Monk at the Jazz at Lincoln Center earlier this year).
Amram did all of his hanging in Greenwich Village where all the arts and musical action was centered in the fifties. He still honors the neighborhood as “the home of the arts.” He composed the three-moment piece Greenwich Village Portraits to honor such friends Arthur Miller, Odetta and Frank McCourt and the streets they lived on (Macdougal, Bleecker and Christopher, respectively). It premiered at the Village’s Le Poisson Rouge in 2014.
As the artist-in-residence of this year’s first Greenwich Village Festival of the Arts (called The Village Trip), he presided over a performance of a new version of Portraits and helped to pay tribute to poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and Beat poet/writer Jack Kerouac. That was significant given that in 1957 Amram collaborated with Kerouac on improvisational jazz-Beat poetry excursions that pioneered the marriage of the two art forms.
Amram’s legacy impresses, including composing the scores for such influential films as Splendor in the Grass (1961) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In 1966 he was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to be the first composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic. In the meantime, he was a frequent member of Gillespie’s band (there’s a great YouTube video of them trading trumpet and penny whistle lines). In 1987 Diz invited him to be a part of his 70th anniversary birthday band for a PBS special. Amram recalls fondly what Dizzy told him: “When I met you in 1951 at your basement apartment in Washington, D.C., you were just a 20-year-old hick hayseed. Now you have gray hair. It’s time to put something back in the pot.”
Amram certainly has done so, cutting across the genres as documented in the film on his life, David Amram: The First 80 Years. For his work with Willie Nelson and co. doing the annual Farm Aid benefit concerts, he received 2017’s Spirit of Farm Aid Award (in 2009 he had been awarded with a plaque by the Putnam County 4-H Fair in his locale). Also in 2017, he received the Folk Alliance International Lifetime Achievement Award. Plus he was named by BMI as one of the 20 most-performed composers of concert music in the last 30 years—his works continue to be performed internationally.
Just recently Amram was playing the eclectic card. From his Beacon home up the Hudson River, he visited Diviera Drive in Brooklyn to take in his daughter Alana Amram singing in her hard glam rock band Motorgirl. The next morning he drove to Queens to pick up charts for his latest symphonic work, Partners: A Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra that will be premiered at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Dec. 12 with soloists cellist Jolyon Pegis and violinist Maria Schleuning. As Amram explains, Partners honors three different genres of music (Movement 1: Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, folk; Movement 2: Lester Young and Billie Holiday, jazz; Movement 3: Machito Grillo and Celia Cruz, Latin). In the future, orchestras in five other cities are scheduled to perform it.
But Amram settles back into jazz for his 88th birthday celebration at the intimate Jazz Forum in Tarrytown on November 16-17. Joining him onstage for his fest of chamber, jazz, Latin, Native American and global roots music will be his band of bassist Rene Hart, drummer Kevin Twigg and his son Adam Amram on congas. He’ll play piano and most likely any number of other instruments he’s become a virtuoso on. Guests, including guitarist Vic Juris on Saturday, bass trombonist Earl McIntyre and vocalist Renee Manning, are expected to join in for the jams.
Closer to the city, on December 19, The Theater for the New City in New York will celebrate Amram’s birthday with its fourth annual Amram Jam.
The recognition and appreciation is notable even though David Amram is not such a high-profile jazz name. “In today’s world, small is beautiful,” he says. “All the greatest stuff started out small. With the collapse of the entertainment industry, we are all finding one another, and I’m thrilled to still be a part of it.”
All photos courtesy of Jazz Forum.
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SCENE OF THE UNHEARD: ERIC DOLPHY
While Resonance Records is based in Los Angeles, it decided to kick off its 10th Anniversary Celebration for two nights at Birdland on October 28 and 29 with an array of its roster performing short sets throughout the evenings. George Klabin, owner and co-president of the label he founded under the auspices of his nonprofit Rising Jazz Stars Foundation, introduced straight-ahead jazz acts that he has recorded, including such well-known musicians as clarinetist Eddie Daniels, trumpeter Claudio Roditi and violinist Christian Howes.
Organized with a tightly choreographed set structure, Klabin featured shows that focused on bands playing as well as nostalgic historical run-throughs. Opening on both evenings was two sublets of vocal music by Resonance singers. On Monday, October 29, the evening started with the label‘s latest signing, Aubrey Logan, who sings and plays trombone. She scats and swings in a cutesy manner. Unique in Logan’s performance was how effortlessly she moved from voice to horn on originals like “Pity Party” and a funky take on Carole King/Gerry Goffin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in tribute to Aretha Franklin who had made the song a hit. After Logan’s short show, the four-year label mainstay Polly Gibbons took the stage and performed new songs from her upcoming album arriving next year as well as a sweet zip through Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” The singers joined together at the end.
While Resonance is recognizing rising stars, it is perhaps most famous for its historical documentation, rediscovering music hidden away in audio tape files and never heard before by jazz fans eager to be completists. Resonance has offered “new” recordings by the likes of John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Charles Lloyd and Wes Montgomery, thanks to co-president and in Klabin’s words “jazz detective” Zev Feldman. A new find is previously unissued music by jazz master Eric Dolphy: Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions. The deluxe edition is a three-LP release available for Record Store Day’s Black Friday on November 23. The full three-CD release arrives on January 25.
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THREE DOT LOUNGE . . .
The Monte-Carlo Jazz Festival now in its 13th year is making inroads in New York, hoping to welcome jazz listeners to travel to Monaco for the grand event that runs November 13-December 2…Shows take place at Opera de Monte-Carlo…Headliners include Gregory Porter, Marcus Miller and Monaco resident John McLaughlin…Plus, for a bolt of beyond-jazz lightning: Boy George and Culture Club…The Monaco government of tourism set up a small party at Jazz Standard showcased by the playful, theatrical, melodically rich vocals of France resident Camille Bertault (third from the left)…
In honor of the lives lost in The Tree of Life Synagogue tragedy in Pittsburgh, fusion artist Robert Miller and his band Project Grand Slam have digitally released the song “Tree of Life (Dedicated to the Victims”… Proceeds go for The Tree of Life Go Fund Me campaign…In the midst of all kinds of adventurous recordings being made annually, it’s easy to overlook some of the best music due to marketing issues…One of the best easy-to-miss recordings is the sublime chamber duo album, Random Dances and (A)Tonalities, by clarinet master Don Byron (who also blows tenor sax) and Cuba-born, New York.-based pianist Aruán Ortiz…It’s offered from innovative label Intakt in Zurich, Switzerland, where the imaginative album was recorded…In the liner notes, Ortiz thanks Don ”whose body of work has made a huge positive impact on my career”…”You push the boundaries of this art form and debunk stylistic, musical and cultural stereotypes”…
A final note on trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s death of cardiac arrest at the age of 49 on November 2…Tragically departing the jazz stage way too soon…He co-founded The Jazz Gallery in 1995 with Dale Fitzgerald and Lezlie Harrison…Roy’s scheduled Dec. 21-22 gig there will be tribute nights…
For December Jazz Notes Intel goes on a short hiatus…
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Cover: David Amram; courtesy of artist.