Composer David Amram, now 90, has worked with some of the jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Monk, Gillespie and Mingus but his connection with writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg has also helped keep the Beat flame burning. Amram and his daughters, Alana and Adira, and son, Adam, have launched their own After The Fall Records label and imprint. One of their first releases, later this year, will be Pull My Daisy: The Original Soundtrack by Kerouac and Amram, 60 years in the making. Noah Lekas spoke with David Amram about this and other things for PKM.
“The only thing in culture worse than obscurity is recognition” explains composer, conductor, and multi-instrumentalist David Amram. “Then you’re told it’s time to move to the next level, which means enter someone’s personal cesspool in order to be groovy.” As a jazz pioneer of the French horn, the first composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, a lecturer, and the composer of films scores like the Manchurian Candidate and Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s 1959 film Pull My Daisy, Amram has managed to experience both obscurity and recognition, somehow never letting careerism get in the way of making art.
If like me, punk opened the door to your literary pursuits, it was likely Amram’s connection to the Beats that first put his name on your radar. While the Beat Generation weathers its seventh decade of cultural resurgence and mainstream ambivalence, Amram continues to champion his contemporaries while educating subsequent generations that it is having something to say, and not marketing, that warrants a movement.
This year, along with his three children, Alana, Adam and Adira, the Amram family is launching their own record label and imprint. Named for Amram’s famed composition “Waltz for After the Fall”, the effort is a true DIY endeavor, or as Amram describes it, a way to avoid all of the “heady business stuff.” On the heels of their maiden release, Adam Amram’s Light of Broadway, the family is now gearing up for a landmark record that is 60 years in the making, Pull My Daisy: The Original Soundtrack by Kerouac and Amram.
My biggest thrill, when I go somewhere, they’ll say, “That’s Alana’s father”, “That’s Adam’s father”, “That’s Adira’s father.” That’s hipper than being on the front page of the New York Times.
David Amram and I had a long, winding conversation by phone discussing Kerouac, After the Fall Records, art for art’s sake, and how to keep the deleterious forces of the adult world from bumming you out. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
PKM:Pull My Daisy was big for me, that was the first time I heard Jack Kerouac’s voice, and definitely the first time I heard your name.
David Amram: You know, they would just write a poem, like summer camp and everybody writes two sentences. It was real long and all of Allen (Ginsberg)’s stuff was real homoerotic, and Neil’s and Jack’s was spiritual and down home. For the film, Jack chose most of the stuff, so it had a lot of the spiritual. Jack was really a poet that wrote in a prose form. One night he spent seven hours telling me this story about being in Algiers and I was copying music; suddenly, it was daylight. I said, “Man, I wish I had a tape recorder, you’ve been talking for seven hours, that was like a whole book.” And he said, “That’s what I try to do with my writing, to have the reader feel like I’m talking to them and I can never quite get it all.” Jack was so different, he was almost conversational. More than a fast typist, he was the engine that pulled the train, and everybody more or less copied him. Jack had written so many books like Visions of Cody that I really loved and that didn’t come out until 3 years after he died. He used to always say (Kerouac impression) “I’m a writer Davey, I’m an author” with the Lowell accent you know? “I’m a writer, an author, they don’t read my books.” I remember walking down 2nd Avenue and I said, “You know Jack, you should call it the Derma Bums, you’d get the whole Jewish audience to buy the book.” He said, “Ah that’s not funny.” He was really devastated because they were writing about him and they didn’t actually read his books.
Jack was really a poet that wrote in a prose form.
PKM: Kerouac the icon and Kerouac the writer don’t often cross paths.
David Amram: That’s something that everybody faces. Once you understand that, then you don’t get that depressed.
PKM: More and more, artists are expected to make a brand of themselves. To the point that questioning it feels obtuse. I imagine Jack’s disdain for the cult of personality would be tested by the modern landscape. Has that relationship of art and the artist changed a lot?
David Amram: You know Allen was kind of a genius in the PR department, because he worked in an advertising agency so he understood that. Norman Mailer said the first three weeks of publicity for the book are the most important. Jacqueline Susann [Valley of the Dolls] used to go to the bookstores and create a riot if her book wasn’t in the window. Yoko Ono used to buy copies of her albums to try and get them in the charts. There has always been that kind of thing, and Ernest Hemingway, they thought he was dead when his plane crashed in Africa but rather than calling his family he called Leonard Lyons, the biggest gossip columnist in the USA, syndicated in all the papers.
PKM: There is nothing new under the sun, right?
David Amram: Essentially what survives is the work itself. As Jack used to always say, quoting John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” and another one, “By your works you shall be known” and Walter Pater’s great saying, “An artist must burn with a hard gemlike flame.” That was his 2 am or 3 am mantra, over and over again until we all were joining in the amen chorus. It was really true. It’s difficult to emphasize that because it sounds like you are against progress or free excitement, but essentially if what you’re doing is saying something, it will eventually get its own audience. The great stuff advertises itself.
PKM: (Laughs) No marketing required.
David Amram: I think that’s what it’s about, do better than expected, be gracious to all people, and share your blessings. People hear that and they say, “Oh man sounds like some spiritual advice, let me get my wallet and hide it.” When you hear even the word “spiritual” you get ill to the stomach. But it’s really just about simple values. Everything else goes into the landfill next week. The stuff that is really valuable eventually comes out on its own. Jack died with $83, almost all of his books out of print, and people saying he was just a one hit wonder-drunk-bum-speed freak-typist. Turns out, his books were really saying something, and he was a great storyteller, a wonderful poet, and different. I don’t know if he was a good guide on how to write or how to be a writer, but he was saying something.
That’s what it’s about, do better than expected, be gracious to all people, and share your blessings.
PKM: The Beat Generation has really become generations and eclipsed so much of the work, or as you put it, what any of them had to say.
David Amram: Allen was a genius at publicizing that to create a hierarchy of the Beat Generation, I happened to be in some of those pictures, but it wasn’t a corporation like the Shriners or anything, there wasn’t a board of directors of the Beat Generation, there wasn’t anything. If it hadn’t been for On the Road getting such a staggering review, where people had to say, “Wait a minute this, guy from Lowell wearing a flannel shirt, who doesn’t wear a tweed coat with patches on the sleeve and have a fake English accent is the new writer of the year?” So, they had to have him be the King of the Beat Generation, suddenly all this crap was thrown on him. He wasn’t striving for that. He said, “I wish I hadn’t used that goddamned term.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in the last 30 years, wouldn’t go anywhere if he was described as a Beat poet. He said, “I’m a Bohemian if anything” (Laughs). Gary Snyder couldn’t stand the whole scene after On the Road came out, and he loved Jack, he just kind of hid out ‘cause he couldn’t stand that either.
PKM: It’s pretty rare that people survive that Voice of a Generation adulation and pressure.
David Amram: Then, of course, he committed the greatest crime in American culture, he fell out of fashion. That’s worse than being an assassin. He stayed himself so he fell out of fashion and a lot of his friends deserted him because he was no longer Mr. Hot Commodity. That broke his heart because he actually liked everybody he hung out with.
PKM: I think the heartbreak was tangible, especially there is that TV interview with him when he’s loaded and going on about piety, was…
David Amram: (Interrupts the question) That’s the one with William F. Buckley. [1968 episode of Firing Line, with guests Kerouac, Ed Sanders and Lewis Yablonsky] You know the amazing thing is the part that they never play. He was asked about the Vietnam War and he said, “You know, I think these people are really like cousins” which is true of course, “And this is mostly about selling Jeeps” he said, “And we’ve done a pretty good job of that.” (Laughs) But they never mention that part, they say, “Ah he was a right-wing moron – a right wing traitor to the progressive cause” and actually he said, he wasn’t for the military industrial complex or the anti-war industrial complex.
Firing Line, 1968, William F. Buckley, host; guests, Jack Kerouac and Ed Sanders:
I think you couldn’t really make a label for Jack, and he didn’t want one, he just wanted people to read his books. (Kerouac impression) “Ah they don’t read my books” that was all he was concerned about. He said, (Kerouac impressions) “I’m an author, an author.”
PKM: I recently checked out another great poetry collaboration of yours, Kentucky Blues with Ron Whitehead, that’s a heavy album, really great stuff.
David Amram: That’ll make Ron feel great to hear, he’s such an amazing cat. He was almost gone you know, and he completely cleaned up his act. I enjoyed doing that a lot. In 1994, they had this big thing at NYU, the Beat Conference honoring Jack Kerouac and there were all these bullshit artist type expert authorities and he came with all these kids from Kentucky. I heard these kids reading and they were all terrific poets and then he got up and read, and they said that’s the guy that taught them, Ron Whitehead. I said, “God damn, is he good!” We were friends ever since.
They had to have him be the King of the Beat Generation, suddenly all this crap was thrown on him. He wasn’t striving for that. He said, “I wish I hadn’t used that goddamned term.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in the last 30 years, wouldn’t go anywhere if he was described as a Beat poet. He said, “I’m a Bohemian if anything”.
PKM: I love the image of a busload of kids upending a Kerouac festival. You seem to have an eye for spotting artists that are playing for keeps. One thing about Kentucky Blues, like Pull My Daisy and so many of your collaborative recordings, is how in it you are, and how supportive your playing is. That ensemble spirit, I’m assuming, you learned early on as a sideman?
David Amram: That’s absolutely right. Older people, which I am now, essentially the gig is to pass on some of that spirit, some of that feeling and some of that idea, what they call in Afro-Cuban music, en conjunto – to be together. That being the highest level. When I was in Kenya, I was supposed to conduct Beethoven’s 9thSymphony and Brahms Requiem, and then I get there for the World Council trip, there are 107 different nations, and they say, “We’re sorry but the chorus couldn’t come, and the orchestra from Hamburg couldn’t come, but we hope you’ll stay.” I said, “I wanted to come here all my life” and I had my pennywhistles, so I started playing with the Kenyan musicians. Every night we would have jam sessions, and we ended up having this fantastic concert with people from all over the and it was really beautiful. It just made me see, essentially, it’s all there if you have that feeling of being together. The thing that I noticed the most, when I did this concert with just the African cats, somebody could get up and play the most terrifying fantastic solo you’d ever hear in your life and then sit back and play (sings simple rhythm), they just lay out for a half hour playing the most simple thing. That was the most important thing to them, the en conjunto, being together, being part of the whole and not scoring the touchdown and strip mining, it wasn’t just about aggression and me, me, me, me.
Sonny Rollins said, “People think about the me, me, me, shit, that’s not where it’s at, you’re supposed to give, give, give, give.” He was 90 years old, two months before me. Last time we talked he said, “Respect your elders Dave, I’m two months older.” (Laughs) But you start talking about that stuff and people think you’re some franchiser of spirituality. Tommy Chong was interviewed and said, “Cocaine is bad for the membranes of your wallet.” (Laughs) and when people say spirituality, you say, “It’s bad for the membranes of your wallet.” You know, it’s some thief-crook-blasphemer coming in. But man, that’s the real stuff. It all comes from the spirit, whatever the hell that is, it definitely is.
PKM: Sonny Rollins always struck me as a pretty in-tune guy.
David Amram: And he was always that way. When I met him in 1955, he was real deep as they used to say, and humble, and loved music and played his ass off.
PKM: 1955? That’s Saxophone Colossus-era, right?
David Amram: Oh yeah. I was playing with Charles Mingus in 1955, and he [Rollins] had been messed up on drugs and got himself completely cleaned up, came back to New York, clean, strong, and he used to sit in with Mingus.
PKM: You’ve collaborated with damn near everyone, Kerouac and Mingus, but also Lester Young, Coltrane, I recently saw a video of you playing with Warren Zevon for Hunter S. Thompson. Watching that clip reminded me of this time I saw you and Alana play at Goodbye Blue Mondays in Brooklyn, you had a couple minutes left in your set and you stopped early to make sure that you didn’t go over time. You said something like ‘going over was the same as telling other musicians that you think you’re more important than they are’. I’ll never forget that. How have you kept that mentality, even on a Monday night in Brooklyn?
David Amram: It’s still something I’m trying to do every time I play. When you feel an attack of Donald Trump egomania, “me me me go fuck yourself” engulfing you, say ‘uh oh, I’d better contain that,’ because it’s a drag. That’s a daily struggle because we’re trained to believe that you’re never going to get anywhere if you do that. When I played with Charles Mingus in 1955, it was my third week and, man, I was in heaven. I’d only been in New York for a little bit and there I was with all these badass cats, it was just so heady. I started on the third chorus and BAM! I got hit in the ribs with an elbow. It was Mingus walking up towards me with his bass, he said “No more than two choruses with me motherfucker.” Then he said, “I dig what you’re doing or I wouldn’t have asked you to play but when I came up we had 78 rpm records and nobody played more than two choruses” usually younger cats played one chorus, so he said, “You have to learn how to say it in a short time.” So, when I go to Farm Aid and I’m there just to play one chorus and I have a desire to get out there and do something, I realize, I’m sitting in with Willie [Nelson]’s band, he asked me to come up with him and my job is to be part of his group and not fuck it up. It’s a good lesson.
I’d only been in New York for a little bit and there I was with all these badass cats, it was just so heady. I started on the third chorus and BAM! I got hit in the ribs with an elbow. It was Mingus walking up towards me with his bass, he said “No more than two choruses with me motherfucker.
PKM:(Laughing) The only thing worse than watching somebody take over a song is realizing that you did. (Laughs) That’s a lesson that you’ve also managed to pass along to your children, all three of whom are artists in their own right.
David Amram: My biggest thrill, when I go somewhere, they’ll say, “That’s Alana’s father”, “That’s Adam’s father”, “That’s Adira’s father.” That’s hipper than being on the front page of the New York Times. I love my kids. I spoke to all three of them today. I was lucky, my wife was great with them and they even forgave me when I was fucking up. It’s just so beautiful to be part of their lives and have them be part of my life. It’s a blessing, man. It’s just a blessing, and that’s the real stuff because everything else can leave in five seconds. They are always your kids. But you have to let go. Adira, I was walking her down the hill to school holding her hand and I said, “You know Adira someday you’re going to grow up and be on your own” and she said “Daddy, the hardest part will be learning to let go.” I said, “Oh my God.”
PKM: From the mouths of children… Has starting After the Fall Records – your family’s record label—been on your radar for a while?
David Amram: Oh god no. It’s just to get their stuff out there. They’re going to do everything and not get into any heady business stuff. Frankly, without sounding like a troublemaker communist dope fiend anti-capitalist laissez-faire bullshit artist, Miles [Davis] said in 1970, “Only the strong will survive with Jazz.” I think it’s that way for everything and everybody, and to try to deal with a record company where they’re panicked about staying open – they can bypass all that shit and just start out from the nitty gritty and achieve something by what they have to offer.
I said ‘well then, we are like the guys in the lifeboats that didn’t go down with the ship, rowing to our next gig’. We’re not going to go away.
PKM: I know you have the Kerouac and Amram – Pull My Daisy Soundtrack slated for a Labor Day 2021 release, is there anything else up your sleeve?
David Amram: Somebody had an acetate of something that I did in 1954 when I was in the Army with these German people that I played with and Albert Mangelsdorff, who became a world-famous trombone player, they were cooking. Adam got it all cleaned up and fixed up, so that’ll be a contribution that I will make. Basically, they’re doing it their way, I’m just staying the hell out of the way. Alana just did the cover for it, and she did some of the artwork, it’s just incredible, and Adam has gotten great at engineering.
PKM: The technology of art has changed so much. Releasing music is easier than it was when you cut that acetate in 1954. William S. Burroughs famously talked about language being a virus and communication mutating. Now with things literally going viral, do you think that idea has any bearing on artistic communication?
David Amram: Sure, up to a point. I don’t mean to sound sacrilegious, he (Burroughs) was never one of my heroes. He was a lot of fun to listen to, to talk to and to hang out with, but I knew plenty of heroin users way before I met him. (Laughs)…Technology is a tool. You go back to the Lascaux cave paintings, 25,000 years ago, people still pay to come to Southern France and then they pay to get into the cave and see those original graffiti artists and man that’s some heavy stuff, and to the best of my knowledge, no one has asked for a refund.
PKM:(Laughs) Well, that’s definitely an example of when having something to say transcends both time and the image of the artist. And in a lot of ways, its feels like a great time to just put your art on your own walls and say to hell with the whole pursuit of commodification.
David Amram: I think that is part of the whole thing that is happening by the circumstances of people saying, “OK, I’ll do it myself.” You know, that’s the way it should be because that’s what life is about. Just before Hal Willner died, I ran into him. He said, “You know, David, the music business was never supposed to be that big.” Isn’t that amazing? This is the guy who was right in the middle of that stuff and doing really well, but when his demise came, he said no it was too colossal and, like the Titanic, poorly run, full greed ahead, didn’t serve the needs of the customers, bam – sunk. So, I said ‘well then, we are like the guys in the lifeboats that didn’t go down with the ship, rowing to our next gig’. We’re not going to go away. So, I think that’s the good part. The true believers are going to keep on doing it. And people who are looking for a fast hustle will sell used cars or become psychiatrists, or dope dealers or whatever.
PKM: It certainly seem like we’re in the middle of a recalibration point in culture.
David Amram: That’s a good way of putting it, recalibration I love that. Exactly, you said it in a sentence.