AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
On my way over to meet David Amram, I contemplated what a wonderful thing it would be if you were accomplished enough that some library, but especially the New York Public Library, thought enough of your career to acquire your archives.
Mr. Amram is a composer, a conductor and a musician who is often called a pioneer of the Beat movement. And the library will be celebrating the acquisition of Mr. Amram's lifework over the next few days, starting on Saturday with the screening of the documentary "David Amram: The First 80 Years."
Later that afternoon, Mr. Amram will lead a free walking tour of some of the Manhattan locations that have played a role in his biography. And on Tuesday, the festivities conclude at Lincoln Center's New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where his papers will reside, with a performance of Mr. Amram's chamber music compositions.
Apart from the honor of being asked for your musical scores, written musings and doodles, there's undoubtedly the sense of well-being—especially if you're something of a hoarder as I am, and I suspect Mr. Amram is—in knowing that once you're gone your files will be stored in climate-controlled perpetuity rather than being deposited directly into a dumpster.
So the first thing I wanted to know when I met Mr. Amram—he was dressed somewhat like a hippie college professor with multiple necklaces and trinkets hanging from his neck, including a deputy sheriff's badge from Pitkin County, Colo., and another one that said "London England" (I neglected to ask whether the neckwear will ultimately be joining Mr. Amram's papers)—is if it's a load off his mind knowing a lifetime's worth of work will be in safekeeping.
"For all of us," Mr. Amram acknowledged, referring not just to himself but also to his three grown children. "They call me up and say, 'Daddy, you should be on that show 'The Hoarders.'"
Unfortunately, I'll be out of town Saturday. So Mr. Amram gave me a thumbnail version of his walking tour. It lasted over an hour and we barely scratched the surface of his career. The official tour is scheduled for two hours but, due to Mr. Amram's longevity, sociability, and most of all spryness at 83 years old, I suspect it will go well beyond that.
Just to offer a brief synopsis of his career: He has conducted more than 75 of the world's orchestras, composed more than 100 chamber and orchestral works and two operas, been mentored by Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, written several books, film scores—including for "Splendor in the Grass" and "The Manchurian Candidate"—played jazz French horn among other instruments alongside Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie as well as with Willie Nelson, James Galway and Wynton Marsalis ; and counted among his friends and collaborators everybody from Jack Kerouac, with whom he presented the first jazz-poetry concerts in New York City in the '50s, to Pete Seeger and Hunter S. Thompson.
The Pitkin County shield was a token of appreciation from Sheriff Bob Braudis after Mr. Amram played at Mr. Thompson's 2005 funeral, with Johnny Depp on guitar.
Our tour began opposite La Guardia High School, conveniently located directly across the street from the Library for the Performing Arts, though shrouded in scaffolding. That is where Mr. Amram collaborated with the dancer and choreographer Jacques d'Amboise in the early '90s.
"He'd get thousands of school kids and create a ballet they could do even if they didn't dance," Mr. Amram recalled. "I was the composer. He got Judy Collins and Phil Donahue and he'd put them into the ballet story."
Judy Collins I could understand. But Phil Donahue?
"Phil Donahue was an excellent tap dancer," Mr. Amram explained.
Our next stop was 243 W. 63rd St., where Thelonious Monk lived when Mr. Amram, all of 24 years old, was summoned in the fall of 1955.
"'Monk wants to meet you. He digs your playing,'" Mr. Amram said he was told.
The musician went on: "I almost passed out. But he was so nice. He said, 'Give me your number and I'll call you.' And sure enough he did."
Our next stop was Avery Fisher Hall, where—in 1966—Leonard Bernstein selected Mr. Amram as the New York Philharmonic's first composer in residence. In a biographical aside that should offer hope to anyone who feels his or her career is stalled, Mr. Amram said that just before landing that most prestigious of gigs, his finances were sufficiently precarious that he was considering another career, or at least moonlighting.
"I was about to go to bartending school," he remembered, "and I got an announcement saying I'd been chosen as the first composer in residence for the New York Philharmonic. I was staggered."
Mr. Amram's children seem to be following in his footsteps, and now they have more time on their hands since they won't be responsible by themselves for preserving his legacy.
"I thought they'd become stockbrokers," he said. "They all have their own bands and their own genres of music. Sometimes I sit in with them.
"They're loving what they do, and that's my greatest pride," he added. "And if they can put up with you, that's huge."