By DAVID A. MAURER|
Daily Progress staff writer
Before he became famous, Jack Kerouac would sit in the Five Spot Club on New York's Lower East Side and inhale jazz music with the intensity of the last hard drag on a bummed cigarette.
The author of the 1957 classic novel "On The Road" was always a welcome sight. Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and David Amram would often play in the neighborhood bar and came to know Kerouac as a guy who listened to music with a concentration that matched their own.
"Jack would very often be the one person in the club who was actually listening," Amram said from his farm in Putnam Valley, N.Y. "When somebody really listens like that, it gives you someone to play for. It makes you play better.
"When I first started playing with him, I didn't even know his name. We were at a party in a painter's loft in Greenwich Village, and he said, 'I'm Jack,' and he pulled out a piece of paper and motioned for me to play the piano.
"He began to read, and I kind of closed my eyes and started trying to play behind it, and right away I felt the way I did when I played with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk or the other great players I was lucky enough to play with at that time. He had the ability, while he was reading, to listen so closely to the music that it was like performing with a great musician."
This year's Virginia Film Festival includes an event that is reminiscent of the 1950s when poets and jazz musicians would merge their music and words in coffeehouses and coldwater flats
In what is being billed as the most spectacu. lar event of the festival, Amram, poet Diane di Prima and poet-musician Ed Sanders will hold a "Beat Generation Reunion" at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Culbreth Theatre.
The evening will begin with a screening of Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank's 1959 film "Pull My Daisy," in which Amram, Kerouac and several other members of the Beat Generation appear. Amram composed and performed the musical score for the film, and Kerouac narrated the soundtrack.
Following the screening, Amrarn will provide musical accompaniment for di Prima as she reads some of her poetry. Sanders, the founder and leader of the Fugs, a folk-rock poetry satire group now in its 33rd year, will sing and read his poetry accompanied by the music created by several of his invented musical instruments.
"Diane is an old friend of mine, and we used to play together back in the '50s just for fun," Amrarn said. "When I was in San Francisco recently, we were on a national radio program together and she had this poem she was going to read.
"The host asked me if I would accompany her with some music. I had never heard the poem, and it was just beautiful and it came off so well that I said, 'Boy, Diane, I hope we can do this again before another 40 years passes.'
"When we perform together in Charlottesville, I'll play whatever comes into my head as she reads. This spontaneity will give the people in the audience a feeling for what it was we actually did back in the '50s at poetry readings."
According to Amram, what the members of the Beat Generation were all about differed greatly from the common perception. Through fate and intentional placement, he was perfectly situated during the 1950s to observe and contribute to the white-hot creative energy that was arcing back and forth between, Greenwich Village and San Francisco.
While many mainstream Americans saw the beatniks as a shiftless group of lazy no-gooders, time has proved this assumption largely wrong. Some of the most beat of the Beats made lasting contributions to American culture.
Amram, for example, went on to compose more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works. In addition, he created many scores for Broadway and film, including the classic scores for "Splendor in the Grass" and "The Manchurian Candidate.'
"The Manchurian Candidate" is one of more than 70 pictures being shown during the film festival, which kicks off this evening with a gala party from 5 to 6:45 p.m. at the Bayly Art Museum. "Manchurian Candidate" will be presented at 10 a.m. Friday at the Regal Downtown Mail.
'The misconception of the whole Beat Generation was that it was Just a bunch of morons sitting around, wearing dark glasses, playing the bongos out of time and complaining about life," Amram said.
"Actually we were rejoicing, and what I believed and what Jack [Kerouac] believed and the others believed was that part of being an artist and a real person was being inclusive, not exclusive. It was a whole community of artists, poets, painters and assorted dreamers who were looking for more in life who spent time with one another in the most informal and simple way to reinforce each others' dreams.
"That energy was not the Beat Generation, but an energy of that time. Now, young people looking back at some of the work of the wonderful musicians, painters and poets of that period can see a certain compassion and sense of fellowship that anybody can have with anyone else."
The movie "Pull My Daisy" provides a candid insight into the world of the Beats. Although the short film is now considered a cult classic, Amram said it started out with a far less lofty goal.
"it was almost as if we decided to become our own anthropologists, because at that time, the whole beatnik craze was such an inaccurate caricature," said Amram, who was the Now York Philharmonic's first composer-in-residence during the 1966-67 season.
"Since all of us were friends and none of us could remotely be called a beatnik, we thought it would be a good idea - maybe for our grandchildren to see some day - to have a little home movie to show what we were actually like. This was going to be a little vignette of an afternoon of us all hanging out together.
"We all got together at Alfred Leslie's house with this little threepage idea for what was going to be a silent movie. Jack [Kerouac] was going to put in the words of the narration later."
Leslie, who became well known for his paintings, directed the film and Frank was the cameraman. The cast consisted of Amram, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Delphie Seyrig and Alice Neel.
"All of us got together for about three weeks in between our different day jobs in Alfred's loft where the filming was done," Amram said. "Most of the time, we were just clowning around and having fun.
"About 50 hours of film was edited down to about 28 minutes. Then Jack came in and started this narration that didn't resemble anything he had planned on this little script.
"Somehow, miraculously, the narration made sense out of all this nuttiness and, when it was over, we just sat there dumbfounded. Alfred said it was marvelous and he thought we were on the right track, and he asked Jack to do it a few more times."
Kerouac, who believed in spontaneity, said 'No, that was it.' After everyone's pleading failed to change the writer's mind, Amram reminded him of an incident that had occurred during one of his readings of "On the Road."
"During the reading, a kid came in with a knapsack and said he wanted to hear a certain part about coming to Denver that Jack had already read," Amram said. "Jack didn't want to do it again, but I told him it would be different the second time, and it was.
"I reminded Jack of that story, and he agreed to do a second narration for the film, and it was completely different. Then he refused to do it anymore, which was fortunate because each of them were so brilliant.
"I think they ended up using most of the first narration just as it was, and it's those spontaneous narrations that really make the film. The music I put in was jazz that I improvised and what you could almost call neoclassical chamber music, because Jack loved both the spontaneity of American jazz and folk music and the elegance and sophistication of European classical music."
Amram said Kerouac also loved Middle Eastern music. Included in the Saturday evening program will be a musical tribute to his late friend titled "From Cairo to Kerouac: Jazz and World Music." Accompanying Amram will be local musicians Pete Spaar and Robert Jospe.
Back in the days when Kerouac could be found in the Five Spot Club wearing a threadbare lumber jacket and digging the music, he was judged simply on what kind of a guy he was. According to Amram, he was a warm, kind, down- to-earth person who had a deep love for the country he wrote about so beautifully.
"Jack came from Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town in New England, where people grow up together and enduring friendships are very important," Amram said. "Back in the '50s there was this sense of community and enduring friendships among us, and those friendships have lasted up to the present.
"I'm constantly giving concerts and going to colleges and schools and talking with young people. They say what they miss in today's world, and what they would like to find, is a way to pursue their own dreams and have company in doing it like we did.
"I try to give young people the picture that this wasn't something that was fixed in time. This was and is about a spirit that's ongoing and continuing."