"I've traveled around the world and played the blues, jazz, country music and folk," said David Amram, one of the fathers of American experimental music and a headliner Saturday at the third Peekskill Jazz and Blues Festival.
"Music was our best ambassador."
One reason is clear. Music is at its most powerful when its interpreters are able to move it from the notes on a page into the emotions of its listeners.
In jazz and blues, that kind of magic is made best by musicians who can let everything go to be in the moment. The show in Peekskill should have that music.
Fred Smith and the John Basile Quartet, The Mahavishnu Project, Duchess Di and the Distractions of Irvington and Johnny Feds and Da Bluez Boyz of Westchester will accompany Amram at the festival, which begins at 5 p.m. near the Jan Peek Gazebo on Division Street.
"In Peekskill, there is such a rich history of the arts and artists and musicians who live around the area," Amram said. "People can bring their children and grandchildren to this event and everyone can hang out together."
Amram, who lives in Putnam Valley, has composed opera and music for Broadway and movies. Last year, his trio played the Clearwater Festival Great Hudson River Revival.
"It will be great to hear some of the wonderful local musicians and also foster the idea that jazz and blues are the foundations of so much 20th-century art and culture," Amram said. It's not just the music but the paintings and the dress and civil rights. The music was so much a part of that because it is so real and so beautiful."
Johnny Feds of Johnny Feds and Da Bluez Boyz shared the old saying: The blues are the roots and everything else are the fruits. The smooth tones and melodies in blues music has been a jumping off point for many other genres of music in the world today, he said.
"The audience should listen to see how emotionally the music pours out of a blues player" Feds said. "When a guitar player or a sax player plays a note and the hair stands up on the back of your neck, you get the feeling that that note is coming from some place very deep."
The players like to see younger audience members at the festival because their improvisational style often provides that unexpected moment when they realize they're listening to a something new, something beyond the comfort zone of their own playlists.
At 78, Amram is the master in this lineup, but Peekskill audiences know Johnny Feds and Da Bluez Boyz from their weekly gig at 12 Grapes - and Duchess Di & The Distractions were a crowd favorite at last year's festival.
The Mahavishnu Project reflects the music of jazz rock pioneer John McLoughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, an east-meets-west creation that combined the jazz of John Coltrane and the ragas of Ravi Shankar
"The best thing about getting involved in music is that it's a certain type of discipline that stays with you your whole life," Basile said.
"Music pulls you back, it keeps you honest. You can't bull when you are playing an instrument and when you are learning music and being true to that." Amram chooses a different result.
"I hope our band will inspire every listener, young and old, who comes to hear all of the five groups, to go home after the concert and be more creative than ever for what they do in life."
If you go
What: The Third Annual Outdoor Peekskill Jazz and Blues Festival 2009
When: 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday (rain date Sunday)
Where: Near the Jan Peek Gazebo on Division Street, Peekskill
An Interview with David Amram by Randall D. Larson © 1998/2009
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.66/1998
Coming out of the Jack Kerouac era of jazz poetry, David Amram has maintained a long and notable career as a jazz performer and composer of varied orchestral and chamber works, including Broadway theater, and some half dozen Hollywood films, most notably John Frankenheimer’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962). With the subsequent withdrawal of that film from the public in the wake of the JFK assassination - which it prefigured through its conspiratorial plot - Amram’s brilliant score was lost as well. Now that the film has become available again, Amram’s score can also be appreciated on a new CD and within the context of the film on video and laser disk. Interviewed in February, 1998, the 67-year old Amram described his involvement with film music, his musical psychologies for THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and his new PBS documentary score.
Randall D. Larson: How did you get Involved in Hollywood film music?
David Amram: A writer friend of mine, Terry Southern, used to come to hear me play jazz in 1954 and 1955 in Paris. He was very good friends with a film editor named AI Lavakian, who’s the brother of George Lavakian, a record producer. They liked my music, and they also heard music that I was trying to write as a composer.
In 1956, someone named Hal Freeman made a documentary film about the Third Avenue EI called ECHO OF AN ERA, and I was asked to write the music for it. I also worked on a Broadway play directed by Elia Kazan, and he asked me to score SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. At the same time I’d been asked by John Frankenheimer to do music for a television program of TURN OF THE SCREW with Ingrid Bergman, and that led to John Frankenheimer’s first Hollywood film, THE YOUNG SAVAGES. He asked me to do the music for that. Since I was totally unknown, and people knew that I orchestrated, performed and conducted my own music - I’d made it clear that I didn’t need ghostwriters, orchestrators, or steal from Tchaikovsky and Bartok - they thought I was so eccentric that they expressed reservations to both John Frankenheimer and Elia Kazan that perhaps I was mentally unbalanced! Because they kept saying, “You and your writers and your orchestrators” and I kept saying, “I don’t have any writers and orchestrators, I do it all myself.” But, fortunately, they still took a chance, and I had a wonderful time working on those two films. When THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE came about, (star) Frank Sinatra himself loved jazz, and he also loved symphonic music, and John Frankenheimer had already had a good score from me, so by that time there wasn’t any problem. I was called to come out to California and to write the very best music I could.
Randall D. Larson: Stepping back in time, here it is: 1962. You’ve just got on the project to do THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. What was your first take on the assignment? What kind of music did you feel the film needed to have?
David Amram: John just told me to watch the film. He said “The film will tell you what to do. He told me, “I didn’t want to hire somebody to write Chinese war music. I want some real music.” So I watched the first rough cut, and they had that incredible scene with the prisoners of war and you see a ladies’ group of older, very charming, well mannered women, all wearing hats and all drinking tea, almost a scene out of Savannah, Georgia in the 18th or 19th Century, and then suddenly it turns into a war tribunal in Manchuria, I was completely blown away. I thought they had miscut the film, it was so shocking! I told that to John and he said “No, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, to show the viewers, to make them feel what it’s like to actually be programmed and brainwashed.” And he said, “The music can really help to further that”. So I came up with a kind of very dissonant and somewhat terrifying music, using the harpsichord, which wasn’t used that much in film at that time, three piccolos, and strings. And I tried to make the character of Laurence Harvey more human and more noble by using the trumpet in the film’s main theme of the film to show that he was a hero, almost a victim of fate. I hoped that the music, in some small way, could help to ennoble his situation, rather than cheapen it. And then there was some very sentimental, romantic music used very briefly underneath a love scene. Actually there was another love theme, which is on the CD, and which I’m very proud of, that wasn’t used in the film. It had too much sentiment, so we had to cut that one out at the very end, because I agreed with John that while it was lovely, it was too pretty for what the picture was about.
I’ve always felt with music for film, theater or opera, that the music has to forward and be part of the drama. It’s not background music, except very, very occasionally. It’s part of the whole picture, and since I’ve always written symphonic music I know what it’s like when you’re a soloist and someone’s playing the wrong thing behind me. It can ruin not only your performance but the entire musical picture. So in doing film music, it’s a question of being sensitive to the whole situation, and having the film itself be part of the music and the music being part of the film. And when you look at it that way, then it’s very exciting, and when you’re able to work with filmmakers who feel that way not only about the music but about the film itself, you can come out feeling wonderful and enriched.
After I did THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE I was flooded with offers and a lot of other work. Even though no one’s ever accused me of being a snob, most of the films, especially at that time, were so awful that I just felt I didn’t want to work on something, after working on three films I was very proud of. In 1969 I did Kazan’s film THE ARRANGEMENT, with Kirk Douglas and Faye Dunaway, which I loved working on, and I haven’t done any feature films since then. But I have done some documentaries - I’ve done music for a lot of films about Jack Kerouac, who I originally performed with. I did the music for a 1959 underground film, PULL MY DAISY. I’m doing music now for a PBS film now about Walker Evans, the photographer. But, again, the person who’s doing it is someone who not only loves music but loves film. Even with THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE coming out on CD now, I’m now being called to do films again. A lot of people, I think, may have thought I’d expired or retired, so when they read the liner notes and saw the enormous amount of stuff that I’ve done and still am doing, I’m sure that I’ll be probably be coming back and doing some more.
Randall D. Larson: How does working on these films today compare with your experience back in the late '50s and early '60s?
David Amram: It’s a lot easier, because the technology is so terrific. I don’t use synthesizers or computers. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with that, but because that’s not my calling, and I couldn’t put my heart into it, so therefore it’s better to have that done by someone who feels comfortable and loves that as much as I love music from all around the world. I think film music now is a much more open situation. I’m proud that I was able to bring really accomplished jazz performers into playing on film scores, which was almost unheard of in 1962. I’ve also shown that a film composer could be a real composer, period, and doesn’t have to use ghost writers or orchestrators.
Randall D. Larson: There have only been a handful of really successful jazz film scores, and yours have certainly been among them. What is your feeling about the use of jazz in film music?
David Amram: Very often, jazz has been used traditionally to depict crime or death or drugs, or depravity. It was limited very often to that, so sometimes it wasn’t used in a kind of mainstream way, the way I was able to sneak it into SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS and THE YOUNG SAVAGES, in fact in all the film scores that I did. And also, I’ve always done jazz and work from the European classical tradition, and I’m equally at home in both. Now, I think there are more composers like that who are versed in music in totality, and I think that’s something that’s yet to come, and I think that we’ll see, in the next ten or fifteen years, a lot of the younger musicians who were brought up being able to be equally at home in many forms of music, contributing some wonderful film scores.
Randall D. Larson: What’s your view of contemporary film composers?
David Amram: I think that there’s a whole group of composers who have really contributed some wonderful scores. I thought the score for SCHINDLER’S LIST was just wonderful; the violin piece that John Williams has taken away from the film is very, very beautiful. I think the Horner score for TITANIC was terrific, just excellent. I really like John Barry’s music. I think every score I’ve ever heard by Jerry Goldsmith or Lalo Schifrin has always been excellent music. I think that the people like Elmer Bernstein, who’ve done film for so long, keep up a wonderful standard. And of course a lot of the European composers have opened up film music.
Randall D. Larson: What do you think has made your score for THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE so special and memorable, so that now, even after 35 years, finally now appearing on CD is quite an event?
David Amram: People have always commented that they cared for it. So thank heaven Bob Stern was interested in putting the entire CD out so you could hear all of it. I think maybe what makes it special is that, aside from trying to do a good job, something that would enhance the film, I also tried to write the very best music that I possibly could, because even back in 1962 I had the wild dream that somebody someday might notice what I had done!
Composer, musician and wordsmith David Amram does so many things that it's hard to predict the focus of his appearance Wednesday at Urban Think!
Aside from one obvious area of passion:
"My hope is that my presence in Orlando will encourage people to see that Jack Kerouac lived, created and worked there," Amram says, "and that in 2009, new writers are living and creating there, and that everybody has something creative to offer."
Amram, 78, contributed music to the first Beat poetry session in 1957 in Greenwich Village. He composed the score for Pull My Daisy, the landmark 1959 Beats documentary narrated by Kerouac. That's part of a lengthy résumé that includes film scores, work with iconic jazz musicians and educational projects.
A short list of accomplishments includes film soundtracks for Splendor in the Grass and The Manchurian Candidate, two operas, a stint as the first composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic in 1966 and collaborations with Langston Hughes, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Odetta, Arthur Miller, Charles Mingus, Lionel Hampton and others.
On Wednesday, he'll be bringing along toys from an instrument collection that represents 25 countries.
"I'll have some wind instruments from Egypt and the Middle East, all kinds of flutes, my French horn, and whatever kind of keyboard they have there," he says. "There will be hand drums and a Sheeho, a native American courting flute."
Along with the music, Amram will be reading from two of his books, Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac and Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat. Nationally known Kerouac author and expert Bob Kealing of WESH-Channel 2 also will be on hand.
Amram expects that some local jazz musicians also might be in the mix.
"We used to have a thing called Amram Jam, and this will have that kind of egalitarian spirit," Amram says. "I know enough folk music from around the world, and jazz, to play for 60 hours.
"Since I'm 78 and good taste is slowly creeping in, I'll try to limit it to a bearable amount — and we'll see who shows up."