Sweet piano notes rise into the warm summer evening. A mixed crowd of aging baby-boomers, sprinkled with tie-dyed shirts and tattooed younger folks, sprawl on the grass of Lowell's Boarding House Park, enjoying the smooth, jazzy stylings of virtuoso composer David Amram. He sings out whimsical lines, reciting a fresh version of a tune jointly composed in the late 1940s by his beat writer friends Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. "Pull my daisy, tip my cup, all my doors are open," he sings.
Amram broke into scat-style improvisation as he played piano with his accompanying quintet. "Well, if Jack and Neal and Allen knew that we were here in Lowell in 2007 tonight, they'd be so glad that finally the U.S.A. is getting it right, 'cause when they honor Jack, they honor all of us ..."
The Sept. 7 performance, as well as Amram's concert with the New England Orchestra at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre two days later, culminated a summer-long homecoming Kerouac celebration. Worldwide recognition of the 50th anniversary of Kerouac's "On the Road" piled up all season. Media outlets from the New York Times to Wired magazine published tributes to the novel that changed a nation. A number of new books were released documenting the free-thinking cultural phenomenon that "On the Road" unleashed. But, the famously troubled writer's life began here, in the immigrant-populated Massachusetts mill town of Lowell.
"Jack kept his Lowell soul for his whole life," Amram told the crowd. "His heart was always in Lowell. It has its own identity. Look around. Go to the neighborhoods. Hear the different languages. Jack knew America was a place of refuge for people from all over the world. He set up a mirror for us to see ourselves. People love his work. He shows all of us the beauty side of America, the beauty side of ourselves. And he would go into the hard conditions, where people struggle and suffer, and he could find the human, beautiful side of life, and that is why his work will be with us forever."
Among the most acclaimed composers of his generation, Amram is listed by Broadcast Music, Inc. as one of the "Twenty Most Performed Composers of Concert Music in the United States." He has received four honorary doctorates, and appears as guest conductor and soloist with major orchestras around the world. Amram performed with Kerouac in the first ever jazz-poetry show in 1957, but the music and poetry guru is known in Portsmouth, as well. The maestro has appeared at all three Jazzmouth festivals since 2005, and the man known as "Pops-A-Roonie" will be back in April 2008 to perform at number four.
Kerouac's worldwide appeal was evident in Amram's Friday night concert, which featured Native American flute music and fast Middle Eastern rhythms, as well as classic jazz numbers like "Take the A Train" and Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time." It also featured a Chinese sing-along.
"I got to visit China because of Jack. They love his work over there," Amram told crowd members as he taught them the funny-sounding words. "Next week I'm going to England, where they will celebrate him at the London Library."
Jack Kerouac, who was born into a French-Canadian family in Lowell, would have turned 85 this year, had he not died in 1969 at the age of 47. It was in April 1951 that Kerouac typed out his post-war tales of hitchhiking, railroad riding and driving across the country with Neal Cassady, weaving jazz music sensations and spiritual realizations into a long, single-spaced paragraph on thin sheets of paper, fastened together to make a 120-foot scroll. (He didn't like to interrupt his flow by changing paper.)
When Jim Irasy, owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, bought the famous scroll for $2.43 million in 2001, it was the highest price ever paid for a literary document. The scroll has been on exhibit in Lowell all summer, part of an American tour honoring the 50th anniversary of the release of "On the Road." It heads down to the New York Public Library next.
"On the Road" is one of the most influential books ever written. As Kerouac's friend Joyce Johnson recalled in an article published in Smithsonian magazine this year, "Who could have predicted that an essentially plotless novel about the relationship between two rootless young men who seemed constitutionally unable to settle down was about to kick off a culture war that is still being fought to this day?"
It continues to sell thousands of copies every year, guiding new generations of readers to self-discovery and enlightenment. "He's survived the test of time," Amram told his audience last weekend. "Something that's beautiful stays beautiful ... People read it and pass it on, and today, all of his books are in print all over the world in all kinds of languages."
Actor John Ventimiglia, of HBO's "The Sopranos," later climbed the stage to join the Amram Quintet, which also included Jerry Dodgion on saxophone, John Dewitt on bass, Kevin Twigg on percussion and David's son Adam Amram on congas. In a clear, deep voice, sounding much like Kerouac himself, Ventimiglia brought the author's words to life, sending urgent sounds echoing through the nighttime streets of Lowell.
"There's always more, a little further--it never ends," the actor read. "They sought new phrases. They tried hard. They writhed and twisted and blew. Every now and then, a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men's souls to joy. They found it, they lost it, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned and Neal sweated at the table and told them to go, go, go..."
Ventimiglia, who narrated an audio book of the newly released "scroll" version of "On the Road," smiled when asked about the enduring appeal of Kerouac's writing. "He has joy in his words, exuberance. He goes right for the heart, like when kids meet and play together. He holds nothing back."
Sunday's concert at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre also featured Kerouac's words, along with Amram's symphonic mastery. A whiter-haired crowd filled the seats of the theater for a classical and jazz tribute concert featuring Amram's Kerouac-inspired compositions. "Giants of the Night--Concerto for Flute and Orchestra" was commissioned and premiered by Sir James Galway with the Louisiana Philharmonic in 2002. The "giants" celebrated in the work's three movements are Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac and Dizzy Gillespie.
Fenwick Smith, longtime flutist with the Boston Symphony, performed exquisite solos as the orchestra produced lush and emotional stirrings on strings, horns, harp and percussion instruments. "Kerouac used to sing French Canadian folk songs he learned as a child in Lowell to me," Amram told the crowd. "These same songs I learned from him are contained in the second movement of my flute concerto."
Amram praised Lowell's John Sampas, brother of Kerouac's wife, Stella, for ably guiding the Kerouac legacy as executor of the estate. "He's finally attained the recognition for Kerouac's work that it deserves," Amram said.
Poet Lawrence Carradini (president of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, which runs annual events honoring its hometown writer, scheduled for Oct. 4-7 this year) took center stage on Sunday. Accompanied by Amram music that was first premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington with the National Symphony, Carradini gave a reading from the end of "On the Road," heightened in emotion by the beautiful symphonic music.
"Tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know God is Pooh bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody knows what's going to happen to anyone besides the forlorn rags of growing old," Carradini read.
As he raced to catch a plane to perform with Willie Nelson at Farm Aid in New York City, Amram offered some final thoughts about the tribute to his friend. "Jack and I often dreamed of putting his work to symphonic music," he said. "I just wish he could have been here with us to hear it done so beautifully."
You can get a sense of the breadth and diversity of David Amram's career from his recent composition "Giants of the Night." Each of the movements is dedicated to an artistic "giant" whom Amram knew and worked with. The first and third movements are dedicated, respectively, to two bebop innovators: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The second is a remembrance of Jack Kerouac and interweaves two French-Canadian folk songs that Kerouac taught him. "He used to sing them to me, usually very late at night," Amram recalls over the phone.
You wouldn't normally associate any of those figures with the cultural corpus we call classical music. Yet each left a strong mark on Amram and on his colorful and accessible music, long famous for taking materials from jazz, folk, blues, and whatever else crosses his path. A New York Times reviewer said some years ago, "Mr. Amram was multicultural before multiculturalism existed."
It is the Kerouac connection that brings him to Lowell this weekend for events marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of "On the Road." This evening he plays a free jazz concert with his quintet at Boarding House Park. Then on Sunday at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, the New England Orchestra plays "Giants of the Night," with Fenwick Smith as soloist, as well as two other Amram works: "Classical Jack," two settings from "On the Road" for narrator and strings (with "Sopranos" actor John Ventimiglia narrating); and a work written in memory of the great Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, in which Amram's trio will play with the orchestra. Kay George Roberts conducts.
Amram's musical achievement is substantial. He has written more than a hundred compositions in many genres, including the classic score to John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate." He's played hundreds (if not thousands) of jazz gigs and has a busy conducting career. Yet increasingly, it is his friendship with Kerouac that gets top billing. The two met in 1956 and pioneered the spontaneous jazz-spoken word performances that would become a hallmark (and later a cliché) of the Beat movement. Amram also wrote the score to the famous underground film "Pull My Daisy," starring Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg and featuring Kerouac's dreamy, free-flowing narration. Yet if the 76-year-old Amram's own accomplishments are being somewhat overshadowed by his association with the now-canonized Kerouac, it doesn't bother him in the least. It is, he says, a small price to pay for seeing his friend's work finally being taken seriously.
"Until the last 10 or 15 years, he wasn't recognized as a unique voice in American literature," he says. "Now people are so interested in Kerouac that they're happy to speak to or know anyone who was alive that played and worked with him. So I'm thrilled to see that Jack, who died almost penniless and with all of his books out of print, is now being appreciated."
Of course, palling around with Beat writers and using folk and jazz elements as compositional material weren't really anyone's idea of what a composer should be in the 1950s, when music schools were largely turning to serialism.
"Rather than trying to do what everyone was being told we should do, I more or less harkened back to an older, 18th- and 19th-century idea of writing what touched your heart, and what you knew and felt that you would like to hear the most," he says.
He remembers when his first pieces were played, when the approachability and openness of his music led him to be branded a reactionary, a strange label for a supposed "Beat composer." "I said, 'Jack, can you believe it? I'm being called a conservative!' We both thought that was hilarious," Amram recalls with much laughter.
He never put much stock in the "multicultural" or "eclectic" labels, either. By incorporating other musical traditions into "classical" works, he was simply doing what his friends were doing. He recalls Parker advising him to listen to the English composer Frederick Delius and Gillespie expressing his admiration for Stravinsky and Bach.
The composer puts it this way: "Really good musicians always pay attention to anything and everything and try to have an open mind and be receptive to all things in life and music."
One of the great pleasures of talking to Amram is hearing him spin out stories about his colleagues in his deep, mellow voice. He recalls a friendly skirmish between Lawrence's Leonard Bernstein and Lowell's Kerouac over which city had the better high school football team (Kerouac: "We always beat them, effortlessly!") and a 1977 trip to Cuba with Gillespie, Stan Getz, and Earl "Fatha" Hines, when they were among the first Americans to visit the island since 1961.
Amram won't be sticking around after Sunday's concert; instead, he's jumping on the shuttle to New York, where he'll be playing with Willie Nelson at Farm Aid. Yet he's grateful to return to his friend's birthplace, especially to hear "Giants of the Night" and the folk songs that Kerouac taught him many moons ago.
"He learned [them] in Lowell as a kid," he says, "So in a certain sense, it's almost as if I'm bringing that part of the piece home to where it came from."