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.
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."
When you first meet David Amram, you’re instantly struck by two things: How young he looks and how much energy the guy has for someone who’s 77 years old. In fact, he's so intense that at first you think he's confused. Until it becomes clear that this is how a highly creative, determined person functions—like a bull trying to fight its way free from conformity.
David is a prolific composer of jazz, orchestral, folk opera and rock music. At any given moment he is working on a dozen projects at once. He travels relentlessly to perform—one night in London, the next with Willie Nelson, then out to the West Coast for a week, and so on.
David's enthusiasm is impossible to suppress or harness. Talking with him is like trying to keep up with a moving train. You either run like the devil, reach out, grab and haul yourself up onto onto David's energy level or you get left behind—and miss out. David doesn't slow down.
I met David in early September at a New York Times event called On the Road at 50: A Celebration of Jack Kerouac. The auditorium was packed that night, with only a few seats remaining. As I sat down, I noticed that the guy in the sports jacket and tie to my left was wearing about 25 necklaces adorned with small metal instruments and other assorted charms. Given the event, I realized he could only be one person—David Amram. So I introduced myself and we hit it off.
At first glance, David looks like a hipster uprooted from 1958 and deposited accidentally in 2007. Everything about him—from his philosophy on life and his approach to music to the way he talks—has a retro, beat feel to it. But once you get to know him, you realize he’s hardly a relic. In truth, you sense David is living about 10 years ahead of everyone else, someplace in the future where everyone plays an instrument and communicates in eighth notes. It's a happy place.
David has composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works and two operas. He’s written for Broadway shows and for film, most notably Splendor in The Grass and The Manchurian Candidate, which I think may be one of the most inventive and haunting film scores ever composed. He also wrote the music for and appeared in the 1959 Robert Frank documentary, Pull My Daisy, which was narrated by novelist Jack Kerouac and stars Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Peter Orlovsky and other beat artists and poets.
If all of this wasn’t enough, David also is the author of two books, Vibrations, an autobiography I read over the weekend, and Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac, a memoir.
David plays the piano, flute and a range of folk instruments. He was a "world musician" before the world knew it had a music. And he worked with Leonard Bernstein, conducted Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and was The New York Philharmonics first composer-in-residence in 1966.
David is now working with author Frank McCourt on a new interpretation of Missa Manhattan as well as on a symphony commissioned by the Guthrie Foundation called Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.
But back in the 1950s, David was a pioneer of the jazz French horn. He appeared on several key jazz albums, notably The Oscar Pettiford Big Band 1956-1957 and Kenny Dorham’s Blue Spring. David also played and recorded with many other jazz artists, including Charles Mingus and Max Roach.
After that Kerouac panel discussion back in September, David and I went out for drinks. I had a decaf coffee while he ate, drank tea with milk, answered cellphone calls and picked up our conversation where he left off without missing a beat. That night, we agreed to talk more on the phone, and last Friday was our first chat:
From 1942 to 1952, we lived in what was then called a “checkerboard” neighborhood, where blacks and whites lived on different blocks. My parents loved music, and I heard music all day, seven days a week, at home and in the area.
My interest in jazz started when I was 10 years old. In 1940, my uncle, a merchant seaman, took me to see Duke Ellington’s orchestra at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia. I still recall every second of that concert. I remember the excitement of the music but I also remember how Duke acknowledged each musician in the band and made everyone a star. Wow, I thought, that guy is so great and so gracious.
When I met Duke years later, I asked about his habit of introducing himself to everyone who worked in clubs where he was playing. He said he learned a long time ago there was a practical side to good manners. When his band was out on the road in the early 1930s, conditions were terrible, and sometimes the band wouldn’t get paid. Duke learned that if he made friends with the kitchen staff right off the bat, at least he knew they’d eat.
In high school, I was a trumpet player and played jazz. But I wore braces so I had to switch to the French horn, which had a smaller mouthpiece and allowed my mouth to fit into it. A girl I liked also played the French horn, so I figured playing the instrument would let me sit next to her, which I did.
I loved the French horn’s sound immediately and realized that by sitting in that part of the orchestra, I could hear the full sound better. That was great because I already wanted to compose.
In the mid-to-late 1940s, the French horn was an exotic jazz instrument. Julius Watkins played it. So did Junior Collins, who played it on the Birth of the Cool session in 1949. When I went off to Oberlin College in 1948, I stuck with the French horn and studied orchestral composition.
After college I moved back to Washington and rented a basement apartment on 16th St between S and T streets. To make ends meet, I took a part-time job as a gym teacher at a French-speaking private school. I also spent a lot of time with local jazz and classical musicians, who often stayed over at my place.
One day in 1951, Dizzy Gillespie played a date in Baltimore, and the bass player in his band told him he could crash at my place with the four guys in his group. Dizzy came by with four people, but I don’t think they were even in the band. Dizzy never had an A list and a B list of people. He just did his thing and brought along anyone who was around.
I remember we were up late that night talking and drinking and having a great time. The next morning I had to be up early to teach gym at school. Dizzy got up when I did and said that before I took off, he and I should play something—Dizzy on the piano and me on the French horn. I said, "Great."
Dizzy sat down at my piano and asked “What should we play?” I said, "I don’t know—the blues?" He said “What key?" I realized then that Dizzy was making me feel as comfortable as possible. He did this with everyone who played with him, and that was a valuable lesson I learned and used throughout my life.
So we played the blues in F, but the chords Dizzy used that morning were astounding. He was playing accompanying harmonies of 12-bar blues using chord changes that were so different and voiced in such an amazing way. His playing put me in a place where I had to listen carefully, in amazement, and find my way.
So there I was, playing the blues in F on French horn with Dizzy on piano. I think about that moment every day. I don’t think it was a memorable experience for Dizzy, but he always remembered it when we got together in later years.
Dizzy opened a musical door for me that morning, and he taught me how to treat musicians in your band. Make them feel comfortable, secure and appreciated, and they'll play at their highest level. As I got to know Dizzy more and more over time, I realized he was as generous a person as he was a magnificent innovator, and that being both was not only possible but essential."
Read the original article in JazzWax.
David Amram has composed and recorded music of virtually every genre—and on almost every instrument. He was part of the orchestral jazz movement of the mid-1950s, the neo-beat movement of the late 1950s and an active participant in virtually every other social and music trend that followed—from Indian classical in the mid-1960s to the current folk revival.
But David also was an important figure at a time when jazz was changing. During the 1950s, jazz began to be shaped by a new set of external cultural and political forces ranging from African primitivism and the American civil rights movement to the impressionistic scores of Aaron Copland's and John Cage's chance music.
But back in the early 1950s, fresh out of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and just months after a mind-opening encounter with Dizzy Gillespie in his Washington, DC, basement apartment (see Part 1), David found himself discussing classical music, soup and Cherokee with another jazz legend:
"In 1952 I was invited by Jo Mattee, the wife of Joe Timer, to see Charlie Parker Quintet in concert at the Howard Theater. Joe Timer was a Washington, DC, drummer who started a terrific big band a year earlier that was simply called The Orchestra. The band was able to get Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Potts and others to write arrangements.
The Charlie Parker concert was spectacular— incredible charts played by incredible musicians and Parker soloing the entire time. After the concert, Jo Mattee invited me to go backstage to meet Parker. I couldn't wait.
When I met Bird, he asked what I did. I told him I was a musician and part-time gym teacher. He fixated on the teacher part, and we talked about his kids and school. He asked if I liked classical music, which, of course, I did. So we spoke about all his favorite classical composers and works.
When he packed up, he asked me for a lift. We got into my 1932 car, but instead of winding up where he was going, we hung out in my basement apartment for hours. We talked and listened to music and I made him dinner—borscht and sour cream and dumplings. He loved everything and ate it all. I remember Bird looked like a farmer that night. He was heavyset, with suspenders. Very friendly and warm.
What struck me was how Parker could think contrapuntally—on so many different levels at the same time. He could talk, listen intently to music and think about something else simultaneously. He was deep into his own world, but he was aware of everything around him. He was one of those people who was into being creative every second of every day, no matter what.
Bird came over again soon afterward. He was playing at the Howard Theater for a week. During this period, I had been rehearsing with a group that included flute, bassoon, me on French horn, and a rhythm section. We had transcribed Bird’s songs—Cool Blues, Now’s the Time and Ornithology. Two of the guys in my group played in the symphony. What struck me was how Parker could think contrapuntally—on so many different levels at the same time. He could talk, listen intently to music and think about something else simultaneously. He was deep into his own world, but he was aware of everything around him. He was one of those people who was into being creative every second of every day, no matter what.
When Bird came over, we played his songs for him, and he loved it. Bird was a one-man encyclopedia of music. He was also interested in many other types of music. He started asking the bassoon player to run all of his favorite classical pieces. It was as if the bassoon player was at an audition!
On another night, he came over with the cream of Washington's hip underground and hangers on. But Parker distinguished between people who were groveling over him and his mythical status and people who loved him as a person and human being. He lived in the world of being human—what you see is what you get. He felt strongly that life and art must be as closely connected as possible. It's a philosophy that I've tried to live by ever since.
I wasn’t into the cool scene then, even though so many people were. I was just hugely passionate about what I was doing. I may have made an excuse for not being cool, or maybe Bird just sensed that I didn't feel with it. To console me, Bird said something I’ll never forget. He said, 'David, the hippest thing is to be square.'
I asked how he could play some of those songs he played. He took out his alto and showed me. He said he'd play through a tune straight and then play triads—the first three notes of a chord. He'd embellish by playing either a major, minor, augmented or diminished triad. I asked him about the basis of Cherokee. He showed me the chord pattern. It was based on that simple formula, with perfect execution, of course, and that sound.
With Bird, just one note and you knew who was playing—like one note from the great violinist Jascha Heifetz. So many musicians today overlook the importance of developing a singular, incredible sound. When Bird played, each note was so clear and distinct no mater how complicated the melody or how fast the tempo.
What I got from Parker is that when playing jazz, you don't have to give up melody and harmony and counterpoint and a beginning and an end. After Parker left my apartment, I realized that some day I wanted to reach a level where I could understand and deal with all the different things that happened that night. I'm still working on it."
Read the original article in JazzWax.
Don't start scrolling frantically for Parts 1 and 2 of my interview with David Amram. The first two parts appeared back on October 15 and 16 (click on the October 2007 archive link in the right-hand column below to catch up).
Because David is constantly on the road performing, my conversations with him about his early years and his jazz work in the 1950s have had to take place on the go, sandwiched between his hyperactive touring and composing schedule.
David is a hip hybrid. He plays jazz piano, French horn, penny whistle, assorted drums and virtually every other instrument that fits in your mouth or hands.
At age 76 (he turns 77 on November 17), David is accomplished and renown in three musical genres—jazz, world and classical. His musical contributions have been significant, winning the respect and admiration of top players and composers all three fields.
And David has done it all without ever selling out, which is remarkable. He's a free, creative spirit (there aren't many of those left), and his outlook on life is driven by kindness and caring rather than cool and posturing, which is rare for someone of his stature.
David's jazz career alone seems impossible—lessons from Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in his basement apartment in Washington, DC, a chance encounter with Lionel Hampton in Paris that led to a key recording session, gigs with Charles Mingus at the Cafe Bohemia in 1955, and recordings with Oscar Pettiford's big band in 1957 and Kenny Dorham in 1959.
David was a boy-wonder, writing his first movie score at age 26 and penning the soundtrack to Splendor in the Grass (1961) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). As a close friend of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frank, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers and William S. Buroughs in the late 1950s, David probably was the only member of the beat pack to be praised by Frank Sinatra.
Which only takes us up to 1962. Detailing David's career between 1963 and 2007 would take too long—and much of it has been delightfully covered in his book, Vibrations, which was first published in 1968 and re-issued in 2001.
Instead, I chose to focus on his jazz years up through the Manchurian Candidate, which to me remains one of the most interesting jazz soundtracks ever composed.
In Part 3 of my interview below, David talks about his induction into the Army, why he lived in Paris for a year, how Dizzy Gillespie influenced his decision to return to New York, why Charles Mingus shoved an elbow into his ribs, and the testy standoff with a record company art director who wanted his group to wear white powdered wigs for an album cover:
"In August 1952 I was inducted into the Army and spent two years stationed in Germany. When I was discharged in August 1954, I decided to live in Frankfurt. I had been playing jazz French horn in the service, and the critic Leonard Feather had mentioned me in one of his jazz columns. I was already known there.
In Frankfurt, I went full tilt—composing symphonic and chamber music, trying to write a book and playing jazz French horn, which at the time was considered to be impossible. After four months, there was zero interest in anything I was composing. So I decided to move to Paris.
From the moment I arrived in Paris, I was blown away. Even in 1955, the city was still celebrating the end of World War II. Parisians were crazy about American painters and jazz musicians. I think their love for jazz comes from a deep appreciation for sophistication, creativity and spontaneity. The French also love their language, which is poetic, philosophic, complex and musical—just like jazz.
I found plenty of work immediately playing with French jazz musicians in the clubs. In March 1955, I was playing at a club when vibraphonist Lionel Hampton came in to listen. He soon wound up on stage jamming with us. Afterward, he asked me if I wanted to record with him, Nat Adderley, Benny Bailey and a bunch of terrific French musicians that included pianist Rene Urtreger. I said I’d be honored.
The session was held on March 19 for the Barclay label, and it was thrilling. It was my first recording session, and all of the tunes that day were done in one or two takes. There was no music. We just went in and played.
After that date, I recorded throughout the spring with many different French jazz musicians. The Belgian saxophonist Bobby Jaspar was on most of those dates with me and was starting to attract attention. In May Bobby and I recorded with the Christian Chevalier Orchestra for Columbia. By June, Bobby and I started a quintet with Maurice Vander on piano, Eddie de Haas on bass and Jacques David on drums. We recorded an album in July for the Swing label, the first under my name and Bobby's.
I loved every minute of my time in Paris. The city and its culture were liberating for me—and for all artists. The only thing that mattered there was creativity and individuality. But when Dizzy Gillespie came over for a concert that summer, I started thinking about returning to New York.
I hadn’t seen Dizzy since 1951—when he stayed at my basement apartment in Washington, D.C. It was so nice to see him. We talked, we ate, we joked—and Parisians recognized him wherever we went. They loved Dizzy so much in Paris that they named a street after him—Rue Gillespie.
Dizzy told me how much he loved Paris and how great it was that jazz and individualists were respected. He loved how the French questioned everything and appreciated life and people based on what each individual had to offer. It wasn’t about race, money, good looks, politics or fame. It was just about spirit.
Despite our shared love for Paris, Dizzy said, I still should consider returning to New York. He told me about all of the terrific things that were happening in jazz there. He said that if I returned I’d be in the middle of this tremendous energy and sea of creativity. The writers Terry Southern and George Plimpton, both of whom lived in Paris, also had been urging me to return given my musical direction.
So in September 1955, I decided to head home. Fortunately I had the good fortune to run into some students who said that if I played in a band on their ship, I probably could sail for free. So I signed on to play and hitched a ride to New York.
As soon as the ship docked, I went straight to a friend’s apartment and walked around Greenwich Village. I also went down to Cafe Bohemia and saw George Wallington and Jackie McLean.
When I was in the Army, Leonard Feather had seen me play in Germany and said in a column that there was a kid in the service who was doing great things on the French horn. At the time, he had urged me to give him a call when I returned to New York.
So I did. When I called, Leonard said he was having a party at his apartment on the Upper West Side and that I should come up. When I walked into his place, Osie Johnson, Billie Holiday, Dick Hyman and so many other incredible jazz artists were there. Man, I was in heaven. Leonard said he was going to go downtown to hear Bud Powell and Charles Mingus and asked if I want to go with him. So off we went.
After the gig, Mingus came over to Leonard’s table to say hi. Leonard introduced me and told Mingus I played French horn and that I was someone he should know. Mingus gave me that long, hard stare. Then he asked if I would go out on the road with him and his group for $125 a week.
I was staggered. I suppose if I had said yes, Mingus probably would have withdrawn the offer. But I said no, that I couldn't do it because I was in New York on the GI Bill studying music composition. Mingus grunted that I could learn more with him than I could in school. He told me to come to his apartment early the following week.
When I showed up, I played with him and saxophonist George Barrow. Afterward, Mingus asked me to play with them at the Cafe Bohemia the following week. When I joined them, I fit right in. Mingus loved experimental stuff.
During the period I played with him, George Barrow left and Jackie McLean came in. I couldn't believe I was playing with the same guy I had seen play just a few weeks earlier after returning from Europe. Mal Waldron was on piano, and Mingus used a series of drummers. He would fire two to three drummers a night—and they’d all be in the audience the next day listening to what Mingus and the new drummer would be doing.
I don’t know why Mingus had it in for drummers. He heard things his way. When you look at the scores he wrote, he had a whole symphonic vision of how everybody should play. He would sing your part in rehearsals, and that was it. But instead of hearing a 12-bar blues or 32-bar tune, you'd hear compositions he imagined. When you came to play, you not only were supposed to remember what he sang but also make stuff up on the spot. If things didn't sound right, the drummer was usually the first victim.Mingus and I got along great during these Cafe Bohemia dates—with one exception. On a date during the second week, I got carried away and soloed for a third chorus. Suddenly I felt a hard elbow crunch into my ribs and a growling voice: “Only two choruses with me.” That elbow hurt but it was a valuable lesson—figure out what you want to say and do it in tight period of time.
Mingus and I remained friends over the years. I loved playing with him. One of the problems in our society is that we consider people who are spiritual and have psychic powers to be nuts or not very serious. Mingus had these qualities, as do most great jazz musicians. As a result, I don't think he or his music have ever been fully understood or appreciated.
When I finished playing with Mingus in early 1956, I was living on the Lower East Side and playing in jam sessions at loft parties. People would rent raw space for a party, and jazz musicians would show up and play there.
In the summer of 1956, I wrote my first movie score for a documentary by Hal Freeman called Echo of an Era. It was about New York's Third Avenue elevated subway, which was demolished that year. I was going to play the eight-bar piano solo I had written but there was this young pianist I met who had never made a record who was terrific. I thought it would be great to have him play what I wrote. His name was Cecil Taylor. It was his first time in a recording studio. We'd laugh about that date every time we'd meet over the years.
During this time I was playing piano in small clubs with a bass player and drums. One night a guy named Mel Rose came up to me and said he had never heard anyone play piano like that before. I said, "That’s because I’m not a piano player. Actually, I'm a French horn player."
Rose was with some small label and said he wanted to record me. Like with Mingus, I think if I had said sure right off the bat, he probably would have walked away. But I said no, not to play games but because I had too many other commitments.
But Rose kept calling me. I told him I had a group with a wonderful sax player and that he should come hear us. The guy said he didn’t really like the saxophone, that there were so many saxophonists around and that the French horn wasn’t really a jazz instrument.
Finally Rose came down to my Lower East Side apartment and hiked up the six flights to hear our quartet play. He liked what he heard but realized it wasn't for him. He said he had a friend, Harold Webman, who was an A&R guy at Decca Records and might want to record us.
I called Hal and we clicked right away. Decca was recording a lot of new music on the East and West coasts as part of a series called Jazz Studio. The date's leader was free to write and record whatever he wanted without interference from a producer.
I played French horn and piano, George Barrow was on tenor sax, Arthur Phipps was on bass and Al Harewood was on drums. We recorded the album in January 1957. I think the album was played regularly on a radio station in Harlem, and over the years it has become an underground hit.
If you look carefully at the original record cover, you’ll see what looks like four white rags hanging on the gear. In fact, they were white powered wigs that the art director wanted us to wear. At the time, a lot of records had half-nude women on the cover and other stuff to make the jazz musicians look like clowns.
We refused to put them on. I told the art director that we all respected Mozart and all of the other classical musicians who were servants in the European court system and only wore them because they had to. I told the guy that we were servants of a higher power—music. If Mozart were here, I said, he wouldn’t put on the wig either.
I was only 26 years old, so I still had a lot of moxie. The art director said fine, we didn't have to wear them. So the wigs remained on the side, next to the dopey candles he had there, too. The wigs and the candles turned up on the cover, but no one quite understood what they were or why they were there.
Today, I still want to record music that will stay around and be a reflection of the best of what I am able to do, not what I’m told I’m supposed to do by people who don’t have a clue about what is art and what is truthfulness."
Read the original article in JazzWax.
In Part 4 of my interview with jazz and classical composer and musicians David Amram, he talks about bassist Oscar Pettiford and Pettiford's all-star orchestra in the mid-1950s as well as his work for off-Broadway shows...
JazzWax: When did you meet Oscar Pettiford? David Amram: I met Oscar at the Café Bohemia in the fall of 1955. Café Bohemia was where everything was happening at the time. We struck up an acquaintance and started playing together. In the spring of 1956, he said he wanted to form a big band and use me and Julius Watkins on French horns. Oscar knew everyone in New York and had played on almost everyone’s recording session, so it wasn’t hard for him to form that band.
JW: Pettiford was at the center of everything, wasn’t he?
DA: Absolutely. Oscar was the guy at the Onyx Club who brought Dizzy [Gillespie] and Bird [Charlie Parker] to 52nd St. so they’d have a paid engagement, not just jam and sit in. Ever since he replaced Jimmy Blanton in Duke Ellington’s band, Oscar was a big figure in jazz. There was a real strong, jazz community and a mutual respect among musicians then. It was an exciting time to be in New York. Musicians still went to jam sessions to play. It was how we networked, as you say today.
JW: When was the first performance with the big band?
DA: Around Easter of 1956. Monk played with us. His apartment had caught fire and he was staying at his brother’s place in the Bronx. He was playing with Sahib Shihab and Ray Copeland. Clifford Brown had just died in an auto accident, and Benny Golson played us his song, I Remember Clifford, on an old piano backstage. Arranger Tadd Dameron was there. All of us gathered around. Then Monk played a phenomenal set. Monk hadn’t made his comeback yet. He was a mysterious figure.
JW: What do you remember about the Oscar Pettiford Big Band's first recording session on June 11, 1956?
DA: I remember Lucky Thompson and Oscar got into an argument because Lucky wanted to rehearse a song he had arranged. Oscar was excitable, fun and passionate. He said the song sounded fine. Lucky insisted it didn’t sound fine. Oscar said it did, and Lucky cursed. Oscar yelled back. Ultimately, we didn’t record the song. We recorded Lucky's Deep Passion instead.
JW: Lucky Thompson had a rough career.
DA: Despite Lucky’s nickname, he was always outspoken and just said what was on his mind. He was a musician’s musician and one of the nicest people I had ever met. And one of the best players. You knew it was Lucky playing within four notes. Despite his outspokenness, he got along with everyone. [Producer] Creed Taylor put that date together for ABC-Paramount.
JW: Did Oscar rehearse the band?
DA: Not extensively. Everyone in the band was busy and there wasn’t time. But Oscar wanted everything to be right, and he had a sharp set of ears. If we missed a note during a recording session, Oscar could hear it. Julius Watkins and I were playing impossible French horn parts. I remember Oscar said one time, “I hear you guys. I don’t care how hard French horn is. If you and Dave make any more mistakes, I’m going to hire two mellophone players.”
JW: Why the mellophone?
DA: The way the mellophone is constructed, the sound of the notes aren’t as close together, thanks to the instrument’s valves, which are easier to hit and leave less room for error. Oscar could hear everything. When something wasn’t right you’d get a look at his face and he was in anguish.
JW: How was Pettiford as a musician?
DA: During the time we played together, even if he just got off the bus after eight-hour drive, none of us ever heard Oscar play out of tune or play a solo that wasn’t stunning. He was a perfect musician. He had such a strong character and innate musicianship that was so strong-willed, he couldn’t’ do anything wrong.
JW: What about his personality?
DA: I saw Art Farmer at a memorial service for Gerry Mulligan in the late ‘90s. We both had played in Oscar’s big band. Art said, “You know, Oscar was only four years old than us but he was like a father to me.” I felt the same way. When Oscar spoke, he was like a great orator. He had this tremendous majesty about him when performing and when speaking. In the mid-‘50s, I used to go up to Oscar’s apartment on West 18th St. and we’d talk about it. When we’d head out, everyone on his block knew him and said hello or waved. That was the kind of personality he had.
JW: How did the band go over with audiences?
DA: Audiences were amazed. Everyone in that band had led his own group and had played with Oscar at one point or another. That band wasn’t about the money because there wasn’t any. If there was money from the door where we played, the guys with families got the most and young single guys like me would get the least. No one ever complained.
JW: What about Gigi Gryce, who arranged and played in the band?
DA: Gigi would sit on the bus and talk the whole way about different harmonies and chords, and then scat sing them. The bus rides were like music camp. It didn’t matter who was in the audience that night. I remember we traveled up to an armory in Springfield, Mass., and Dinah Washington was on the bill. I think about 38 people showed up. We played the whole show anyway, and they loved it.
JW: The band sounds a little breathless with the music.
DA: I don’t think most of the guys in the band were up to the writing. We just didn’t have much rehearsal time. The guys who knew the charts cold pulled everyone else along.
JW: The addition of the harp was an interesting coloration, giving the music an angelic feel.
DA: Betty Glamann, the harpist, was very well mannered. She had blonde hair and was very conservative looking. But she loved jazz. And what a musician! Somehow she was able to figure out how to play different harmonies without making a sound on those pedals. We couldn’t figure out how she did it. The few classical musicians who came to Birdland to hear us couldn’t figure out how she made those silent pedal changes either.
JW: What did the guys in the band think of her?
DA: Everyone really admired her. You see, the instrument has open strings. To get from one chord to another, you have to step on pedals to sustain the sound. It’s enormously difficult. Betty was able to do it without everyone hearing the pedals clunking as she prepared for her next series of chord changes. Swooping arpeggios would have sounded corny.
JW: What was so special about Pettiford’s playing?
DA: He could make you sound five times better. When he soloed, his playing was simple and musical. One time I heard him play on a record with Monk and later told Oscar he was amazing. His face changed. He said, “Man, I was scared.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said in a whisper, as if he were afraid: “I never knew what he was going to do next.” Yes, on the recording, Oscar was perfect.
JW: Did anyone ever sit in the with the big band?
DA: I remember Erroll Garner sat in during a rehearsal. Some of that music was so difficult. Even after you got the arrangements down you’d have to go home and practice them just to get it right the next time. The day Erroll sat in, he just sat down at the piano. We weren’t sure how he was going to play the chart. Erroll could play in all 12 keys equally well but he didn’t read music. We ran through the first number and Erroll just sat there. We figured maybe he was going to lay out. The second time we came through the song, he started playing some chords quietly. The third time he filled them out. Oscar gave him a solo and he played up a storm as if he’d been playing with us for months. We couldn’t figure out how that was possible. Oscar had people sit in all the time with that band. Occasionally we’d just stop playing the arrangements and jam and play the blues.
JW: In May 1957, the band was at Birdland and Ed London was on French horn, not Julius Watkins. Why?
DA: Everyone was so busy in that band. Members changed often when we performed. That night, in May, Julius had to play a Broadway show, so I got Ed London to play French horn with us. Ed was a college roommate of mine at Oberlin College. He was the only other person I knew who could play what was written and improvise. French hornist Jimmy Buffington could do that too, but he didn’t play much jazz. Ed London was a classical player. When he played with the symphony, he played bald. When he played on TV, he wore a toupe. When he played at Birdland, he wore a toupe.
JW: Your Two French Fries sounds extremely difficult to play. Was it?
DA: The tempo was up there but not too tough. I remember when we played it at Birdland, there was this paper mache thing over our heads. When Ed took his solo, he stood up and the paper mache thing knocked off his toupe. But Ed kept wailing. Ed was a classical composer but also an accomplished jazz player who could play Bird and Dizzy’s stuff in all 12 keys.
JW: And yet the band eventually fizzled out and everyone went their separate ways.
DA: There was too much playing and recording work out there then. You didn’t want to turn anything down Unlike many of the guys in the bad, Oscar had a family and ended up having to pay for the band out of his own pocket. The band eventually had a tough time surviving. There weren’t enough venues willing to hire us to keep the music alive, and Oscar didn’t have a manager to help out. The band just slowed down.
JW: What did you wind up doing after?
DA: By the summer of 1957, I had already started writing for producer-director Joseph Papp and his "Shakespeare in the Park" in New York's Central Park. Oscar really dug that I was writing for it. He used to say, “My French horn player, Dave Amram, wrote Shakespeare in the Park. Let’s go dig David Amram’s Shakespeare in the Park." I kept telling him I just wrote the music. He kept saying that I wrote Shakespeare in the Park. Oscar and the other guys came up to Central Park and dug it. And in turn, a lot of actors would come downtown to hear us play.
JW: Pettiford loved anything that was exceptional, didn’t’ he?
DA: Yes, in all the arts. His girlfriend was this great society lady who loved jazz and loved chamber music. She had chamber music performances at her house. That’s where I met Frank Corsaro, who is now the head of Juilliard’s American Opera Center [Mr. Corsaro died in November 2017]. When I wrote for Shakespeare’s Richard III in the fall of 1957, Frank came and sang some of the offstage music. He also sang at the home of Janet Rhinelander Stewart, whom Oscar was seeing, and she’d come down to hear us. There was this connection between all of the music and the Shakespearean actors. It was a great time.
JW: Later that year, you spent time with the Beat poets and writers, yes?
DA: Yes, In October ‘57, Jack Kerouac and I did the first jazz poetry reading in Greenwich Village, which further linked jazz and the other arts. That was the thing about jazz. It reached across all levels of society, from the street to high society.
JW: What were you doing in 1958?
DA: I was still working for "Shakespeare in Park." During the summer of ‘58, Jack and I did our last public poetry readings in Greenwich Village. My album, Jazz Studio Six (Decca), came out that year. I was writing music for off-Broadway plays, including Sign of Winter. That fall, I started working downtown at New York’s Phoenix Theater. But I was struggling.
JW: Why were you struggling?
DA: The work I was doing didn't pay top dollar, but I loved it. I was barely surviving doing odd labor jobs sand playing different jazz gigs. In my spare time, I’d play with George Barrow and our quartet. I also sat in and played with all types of musicians. In the summer of ’59, I wrote music for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. That fall, Stewart Vaughan became the artistic director of the Phoenix and asked me to become the composer. I had a job where I was the composer for a good off-Broadway way theater and music director. I also finished my trio for saxophone, horn and bassoon—one of my first classical pieces that I didn’t throw in the wastebasket. Joe Papp got a job as the stage manger for a play on Broadway called Comes a Day. George C. Scott was in it. The play ran only a few performances.
JW: In January 1959, you recorded on trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s Blue Spring. What do you recall about that session?
DA: On that date was Cannonball Adderley, Cecil Payne, Cedar Walton, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. I first met Kenny in Washington, D.C., back in 1952, when he and Charlie Parker came to my apartment for a jam session. I had run into him countless times and jammed with him, too. I also had played with Cannonball’s brother, Nat, down at a place in Washington’s Chinatown where there were strippers. Jazz was featured during the breaks.
JW: What was Cannonball Adderley like?
DA: Cannonball had been a school teacher. He was the wmost lovable and brilliant guy. He was a joy to be around. What made him special were his warmth and maturity. He had a real understanding of the social significance of jazz and realized that somehow, as musicians, we had to be educators. When he spoke to you, he was so friendly. He was like an educator or an ambassador.
JW: On Blue Spring, Jimmy Cobb replaced Philly Joe Jones on drums. Why?
DA: We recorded two songs with Philly Joe. But for the second date, he didn’t show up. So someone went to call Jimmy Cobb. While we waited for Jimmy, instead of getting everyone freaked out, Kenny just had us read down our parts. Then he sat down and wrote out another arrangement. He also fixed up some of the charts he had already written. [Riverside producer] Orin Keepnews, to his credit, was really calm and very supportive. Kenny wasn’t pissed off. That was the thing about him. He had the personality of a Buddha. He just sat at the piano and wrote another arrangement and then gave out the parts. There were no temper tantrums.
JW: Was Kenny happy with your playing?
DA: After, Kenny said to me, “Well, David, how’s it feel to play with the heavyweights.” “Great,” I said. Kenny said, “Terrific, now you’re a heavyweight.” That was a beautiful thing to say. He had remembered meeting me when he was with Charlie Parker back in ‘52. Anyone who knew Parker had a certain bond. But it was never an exclusive thing. There was an amazing quality that these musicians had. Even when they were celebrated, they weren’t snobbish or egomaniacs. It’s about the music’s spirit. Life, music, art and people are the same with these musicians.
JW: How did Dorham and Cannonball Adderley get along?
DA: They loved each other. In ’59, Cannonball was more widely known than Kenny. He had come in as a leader himself and got terrific press and attention. Kenny was already a master since the late 1940s, when he went to Paris with Bird. Now we can see Kenny’s importance historically. Back then, Kenny wound up working in a music store. The players of his generation never became prominent during their lifetimes except among musicians and in Europe. Kenny never expressed any bitterness about that. He loved to play.
JW: Are things different today?
DA: The whole philosophy back then can be summed up by the titles of two songs—Now’s the Time and Straight, No Chaser. The first meant, “Don’t hesitate, just jump right in.” The second meant, “Whatever setbacks and obstacles exist, keep going straight ahead.” There was zero whine-ology and blame-ology and greed-ology among these guys. It was a beautiful time.
JW: Where did that lead?
DA: Because of that, and the fact that I had been doing off-Broadway, I got a phone call from director Elia Kazan. At first I thought it was joke. It was his office. Then they put him on. He said, “I heard about you from different directors and people who work in the theater. Lucinda Ballard, a Broadway costume designer, said you’d be perfect for this play. Send me some of your music.
JW: What music did you send?
DA: The only music I had on vinyl was my jazz record for Decca and my albums with Lionel Hampton and Bobby Jaspar. And a score I had written for a documentary on the Third Avenue El. I sent that.
JW: What happened?
DA: The next day Kazan calls and I hear my music playing over the phone. He says, “I love jazz. I used to spend all my time as a kid going up to Harlem to listen to it. I love Chopin, too. I hear from your music that you’re home in classical and jazz. You can do this.” Then he told me all the classical composers who turned him down because they were too busy. I was 11th on his list.
JW: What did you do?
DA: I went up and met Kazan. He said, “Even though no one has ever heard of you, I’m just trusting my gut instinct,” which is how he did everything. There I was with a chance to write incidental music for JB, a play directed by Elia Kazan. George Barrow played sax on some of it. There’s a recording somewhere of the entire play with the score of jazz and classical music. The play won the Pulitzer Prize and ran for a year.
JW: What then?
DA: All these theater groups wanted me to write music for their plays. In 1959 I wrote music for The Rivalry, The Beaux Stratagem, Kataki, The Great God Brown and Lysistrata. My scores for the movies The Young Savages (1961), Splendor in the Grass (1961) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) would come next.
Read the original article in JazzWax.
Jazz pianist and French hornist David Amram wrote the scores for three major films—Splendor in the Grass, The Young Savages and The Manchurian Candidate. All shrewdly combine jazz and classical motifs, and each pack an enormous creative punch. To David's credit, these forward-thinking movie scores were able to take significant musical risks without abandoning the genre's essential ingredients—an unforgettable main theme and pieces that foreshadow storyline anxieties and looming threats.
Up until now, my interviews with David focused on his jazz work from 1951-1959—including musical encounters and performances with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Bobby Jaspar, Charles Mingus, Oscar Pettiford, Kenny Dorham, Cannonball Adderley and many others.
To read my previous installments, check the JazzWax archives in the right-hand column under these dates:
In the fifth and final installment below, David talks about the events leading up to each of the three films, why he avoided writing full time for Hollywood, and his surprising encounter with Frank Sinatra in 1963:
"My very first movie score was for Echo of an Era, a 1956 documentary on the dismantling of New York's Third Avenue elevated subway line. In 1957 I started writing for Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park series, which led to my writing for off-Broadway theatrical productions.
Then in 1958, director Elia Kazan asked me to compose the music for J.B., a play by Archibald MacLeish about a banker whose life becomes ruined as his faith in God is tested. It was written completely in verse and was based on the Bible’s Book of Job.
Kazan said he had asked every other classical composer in New York to sign on but they were all busy. So I was hired. He wanted me to compose incidental music—which is used for overtures and underneath speeches given by the characters on stage.
I used a wide range of music styles—from jazz to classical—and Kazan liked what I did. I even added scat music and had to teach Christopher Plummer how to sing it. The play was a success and won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Splendor in the Grass Fresh on the heels of J.B., Kazan in 1959 asked me to score a film he was due to direct called Splendor in the Grass. It was written by William Inge and explored sexual restrictions in the 1920s and what it was like to come of age at that time. Kazan said the job was mine but first I had to meet Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, in New York.
Apparently, Warner didn’t want me on the picture. I was an unknown with zero Hollywood credentials. But Kazan insisted—pointing out that he had gotten Alex North and Leonard Bernstein to write their first film scores. North composed the music for A Streetcar Named Desire and Bernstein scored On the Waterfront. Both composers had become huge afterward, so Jack Warner agreed to meet me.
When I met Warner, he was like a Catskill comic who couldn’t get a job as a comic. He was always telling jokes that weren’t very funny—though all the people around him laughed at virtually everything he said. Warner said to me, 'Well, you’re nobody, but Kazan wants you, and Leonard Bernstein was nobody until he wrote the score for On the Waterfront. He turned out to be pretty good. And who’s greater than Leonard Bernstein?'
'Beethoven,' I said.
Warner looked at me with a blank stare. Not only did he think what I said wasn't funny, I’m not even sure he knew who Beethoven was. I thought for sure I was finished on the film. Kazan must have smoothed over Warner after I left because I got the job.
Before I started working on Splendor in the Grass, Kazan told me he didn’t want a hack score. He just wanted my best ideas. The story took place in the 1920s, so it needed jazz. Kazan was big on authenticity and had me write and record jazz music so when the actors rehearsed they could hear it playing and feel the mood.
Kazan also told me to get real musicians to appear in the on-camera bands. So I got Scott LaFaro, Wilbur Hogan, Buster Bailey and others, and I played as well. Most of the jazz band scenes were shot at an armory in Harlem.
Splendor in the Grass was Warren Beatty’s first film. Warren was a good piano player, and Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood’s husband, was a big jazz fan. Beatty’s father had played in the Arlington Symphony, an amateur orchestra in Washington, D.C. I had played in that orchestra as a kid, and Warren’s father had remembered that I had played with them.
Warren was fun. I used to take him to clubs where I was playing jazz. He had never been in a movie before, so he could just hang out without being swarmed by fans.
For Splendor in the Grass, I was given a huge budget for a full orchestra and jazz ensemble. Kazan told me to get the best classical and jazz players I could find. So I filled the orchestra with classical musicians who played chamber music and in string quartets. Most of them had never been on a recording date before.
For the jazz ensembles, I used George Barrow on sax, Eddie Wilcox on piano, Buster Baily on clarinet, Arthur Phipps on bass and Al Harewood on drums. I played French horn. It was a wonderful opportunity to combine orchestral music with jazz.
Back then, my cost of living amounted to around $65 a month, and what Warner Brothers agreed to pay me seemed at the time like a fortune. Of course, anyone in Hollywood then would have said I made a colossal mistake. And I probably could have earned millions in film work if I had had paid someone else write scores for me, which was standard practice back then. But that just wasn't me.
When the music publisher on Splendor in the Grass saw my score, he was furious. He said it had too many chord changes and would never produce a hit song. He also said it was too weird. When the music publisher told Kazan what he thought, Kazan reamed him out. Kazan told him to let me do what I wanted. He stuck up for me creatively, all the way.
Though the theme I wrote for the film has been recorded by Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Percy Faith and others, a soundtrack was never recorded or released, probably because of that music publisher. I really don’t care. For my compositions for the film to have been recorded, I would have had to have written a different score, which would have meant compromising and wrecking the movie.
Kazan loved my score. It was the best music I could write and play at the time, and I’m proud of every note. I put as much care and love into it as anything I’ve ever done. In 1962, Inge won the Oscar for Best Writing/Story and Screenplay—Written Directly for the Screen, and Natalie Wood was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
The Young Savages
While I was writing Splendor in the Grass, John Frankenheimer asked me to write a score for a film he was about to direct called The Young Savages. The film was written by Evan Hunter and was a drama about Puerto Rican and Italian youth gangs in New York. Burt Lancaster and Dina Merrill were in it. Frankenheimer wanted me because I was able to compose in many different music genres of the time, including Latin and jazz.
The Young Savages was different than West Side Story, though both films were released in 1961. The Young Savages was a gritty New York City story based on a true story, and it didn’t glamorize gangs.
During the recording of my music, I got into a fight with the film's producer, Harold Hecht. I had chosen my own concert master— Stanley Plummer—who had played with Yasha Heifetz. A concert master is an orchestra's first violinist and he or she plays all the score's solos.
Stanley had never played on a Hollywood studio date, and Hecht insisted that the orchestra wouldn't play well if he was in that chair. I insisted and told Hecht that Stanley would be great. So Stanley sat up in the front of the orchestra and everyone gave him the hate rays. He sat there quietly and played beautifully.
At the time, the wife of trumpeter Manny Klein was a prominent musical contractor. She came to the session just to hear my score. She heard Stanley and liked him very much, which kicked off a whole new career for him playing in film-studio orchestras.
Hecht also didn't want me to use saxophonist Harold Land—even though Land had played with Max Roach, Clifford Brown and so many other great jazz artists. Hecht told me Land was an unknown and too big a risk. I told Hecht that not only was Land great, he had to get a double pay scale. Hecht refused, so I paid Land out of my own pocket. Everyone was blown away that I had done that.
After Land played and Hecht heard him, Hecht asked me where Land was from. I told him 10 blocks from the studio. Land lived in L.A. Columbia recorded The Young Savages soundtrack, but it's still sitting unreleased in the Sony vaults.
After Splendor in the Grass and The Young Savages, I was offered some really horrible films and passed on them. Hollywood arrangers I knew at the time told me that if I could avoid going out to Hollywood to work on films full time, I’d save my life. They said that there was a terrible cycle out there: If you got hot, you'd make tons of money but they'd ask you to write as many as eight film scores a year. If what you wrote was accepted, you would have no choice but to hire ghostwriters to write the scores for you just to keep up.
I felt that putting my name on scores I didn't actually write would take away the gift we are given to be composers. That type of work, no matter how financially rewarding, sucks the creative life right out of you.
The Manchurian Candidate
In 1961, Frankenheimer told me he was going to direct a film called The Manchurian Candidate. He said that Frank Sinatra was signed on and that he and Frank wanted a composer who wasn’t a Hollywood hack. There were great composers and arrangers out in Hollywood at the time—Alex North, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Hermann and others. But most of them didn’t have the 1950s jazz touch, and those who had the touch didn’t have the classical background.
Frankenheimer wanted someone outside the loop who was a real composer. 'This film is so different than anything that’s been done before,' he said. 'I want you to do it, and Frank [Sinatra] likes your music, too.'
So I read the script. It was great. I had never seen anything like it. I agreed to write the score. I flew out to Hollywood and holed up at a hotel during the filming. They gave me a small piano and a Moviola used by film editors. I'd turn the Moviola's crank to see parts of the film that were already in the can. Then I’d sit at my piano and work out ideas.
For a month they’d bring in different chunks of the film. I'd see bits of scenes with other parts missing and replaced with notes that said, 'To be filled in later.' I asked Frankenheimer what the film was about based on these fragmented scenes. He'd only say, 'It’s not a Chinese war movie. Do the best you can do. Do jazz. Do whatever you want.'
I remember watching one scene where there was a slow pan of the camera showing soldiers on a stage having a tea party. Suddenly all the Southern ladies on the stage turned into interrogators. Remember, I had not seen the whole film yet—no one had—only bits and pieces. That scene blew my mind.
Based on the scene I saw, I figured they must have messed up. I watched the scene a few more times and thought I was going nuts. When I called Frankenheimer, I told him I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown watching the scene. 'That's the idea,' he said. 'That’s how prisoners feel when they’ve been given drugs and have been brainwashed.' I decided to write a minor-key waltz with a harpsichord and piccolos to capture the feeling of going insane at a tea party.
In another scene, I used jazz for the scene at the servicemen's club. I created a long jazz piece and told Frankenheimer to use excerpts. This way, when actors walked into the bar, the band would be well underway, which is how music is truly heard when you enter a club.
I wrote the film's main theme—played by Manny Klein's bold, almost patriotic trumpet in the overture—to create a specific impression of Laurence Harvey's character. This was a film about a noble guy who was doomed by forces beyond his control, like in a Greek tragedy. The theme needed to convey the sound of a good guy struggling futilely against the fates.
On trumpet, Manny Klein was incredible. He captured that feeling perfectly. Manny had the same ability to get to the core of great European classical playing and the core of the jazz experience, and he respected and loved them both.
On The Manchurian Candidate Theme (Jazz Version), I had trombonist Lou Blackburn open with theme, followed by Harold Land on tenor. After Land’s solo, the whole orchestra comes in, then a wind and brass ensemble echoes what the orchestra had just played. Baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz and flutist Paul Horn are on the date as well.
During the recording sessions, I borrowed Vince DeRosa's French horn to play in a spot on the middle of Cantina Latina, Korea 1952. I also played piano on tracks and conducted throughout.
I didn't meet Frank Sinatra until a year after the movie came out. During the time I was in Hollywood, everyone was so petrified of him they were too afraid to introduce me.
So one night in early 1963, when I was playing at the Village Gate, actor Martin Gable came up to me and said, 'Frank is downstairs and wants to meet you.' I said, 'Frank who?' 'Frank Sinatra,' he said.
When I went down, Frank was sitting at a table with friends. He invited me to sit down next to him and said he loved my music for The Manchurian Candidate. 'You wrote a perfect score,' he said. ‘But how come you never came to see me when you were out there?’ I just said, ‘You were really busy at the time.’
We talked about music and Italian opera and his time with Tommy Dorsey and the jazz greats he knew. I asked Frank about whether Tommy Dorsey had a big impact on his singing. He said Tommy influenced his breathing but the passion and timing came from jazz musicians and the traditional Italian bel canto school of singing. He said he loved Italian opera, classical music and jazz—which is why he could understand completely where I was coming from in the movie’s score.
After about a half hour, I had to go back upstairs and play. Sinatra said, 'You know, I don’t’ know why they never put a record out of the music.' I shrugged. I didn't know either. The answer is probably the same as the one for Splendor in the Grass—they couldn’t figure out what it was or how to market it.
After The Manchurian Candidate was finished, all of the music just disappeared. In those days, they’d throw out all the old scores. Years later, I wrote the Library of Congress about another piece I had written. The Library found it for me—along with a copy of the original score for The Manchurian Candidate. Apparently it was sent there by the music publisher. So I got the score back.
When the remake of The Manchurian Candidate was made in 2003, Rachel Portman was hired to composed contemporary music for the film. But they also wanted to include my music from the original film. But no soundtrack had been made.
Then Tina Sinatra produced a three-track recording of the original recording from her safe. Fortunately Frank must have had it recorded at the time or had acquired it. When I met Frank Sinatra Jr. in recent years, he told me that Frank and the whole family used to watch the film and loved the score.
As a result, the first 32 minutes of the new movie soundtrack is my music from the original film, remastered.
The lesson I learned during my early film-writing years is that you must remain creative and true to yourself at all costs—and never let yourself become part of some hack, factory scene. You always want to work in your artistry. Then you'll never have to worry about selling out. Even though you may not get the big money or top credit, you will have done a good day's work, which is good for your health.To this day, no matter what type of music I create, I’m always trying to find the right notes that reverberate feelings that are beyond me."
JazzWax tracks: David Amram's score for The Manchurian Candidate is sensational. Its theme is haunting and catchy, and you'll have trouble shaking it from your head once you've heard it.
David's score can be found on two different CDs. There are 32 minutes of remastered music from the original film here. Or you can pay $40 for an out-of-print copy of a bootleg version of the full score (the CD sounds great).
While there is no soundtrack recording available for Splendor in the Grass, you can download David playing the theme on piano at iTunes. It's on David Amram: At Home/Around the World. And believe it or not, Percy Faith recorded a terrific version here on Percy Faith: Hollywood's Greatest Themes.
Read the original article in JazzWax.