Out of the blue, the Bucks County-raised Amram has a sizable birthday-bash concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Trinity Center for Urban Life, not part of any preexisting concert series, but the work of the New York Chamber Festival, which will repeat the program Monday in New York. Almost all of the concert's eight pieces will be Philadelphia premieres, in a program that comes close to encompassing the composer's impossibly eclectic life.
On the classical side (sort of), there's Three Lost Loves for violin, saxophone, and piano, written this year. But typical of Amram, musical boundaries blend together. He is a longtime student of Native American music, and he and his son Adam will perform the Lakota tribe "Welcoming Song" he also used in his symphonic work Trail of Beauty, written in 1977 for the Philadelphia Orchestra in a cultural mixture that then-music director Eugene Ormandy found vexing. The concert ends with Amram improvising along with readings of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
A core member of the Beat Generation, Amram partied with Charlie Parker, enjoyed long afternoon talks with Thelonious Monk, and spent longer evenings improvising on his French horn while Kerouac slammed out poetry. On Wednesday, family members will read Kerouac while Amram jams on piano and other instruments.
Anyone who knows Amram -- once considered the unofficial mayor of Greenwich Village -- won't be surprised that the concert is free of charge. Or to see him moving his own concert equipment. Or arriving on stage in a coat and tie, but with numerous necklaces and mementos around his neck -- all evidence of the his many travels and contacts. Similarly, his classical pieces are often memorials of sorts to the great personalities who have gone before him, whether Sitting Bull or proto-hipster monologist Lord Buckley. The new Three Lost Loves is based on stories by Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, and Kerouac.
"Each person can be creative in using your own story in music. The old jazz players used to shout out, 'Tell your story!' Part of the visual arts and literary arts is a way of storytelling," Amram says. "But that's not the way we're taught in composition."
Yet what he does is hardly musical portraiture, as, unlike theater, music can't hope to survive on its implied outside meaning: "You have to have a really strong structure."
Amram extravagantly encourages young artists, but the example he sets in his own life should be enough for anybody with a taste for picaresque living. Growing up in then-rural Feasterville, he would hang out at the gas station, listen to Mariachi bands from Philadelphia, and hear the northbound trains going by, wondering whether he would ever pursue his big-city dreams. From there, his Vibrations: A Memoir (Routledge, 58 pages, $29.95) tells of his adventures in postwar Paris, and downtown New York City, playing with Charles Mingus, writing incidental music for Arthur Miller's After the Fall, and being chosen by Leonard Bernstein to be the New York Philharmonic's first composer in residence. During isolated West Coast visits, he scored the original Manchurian Candidate film. He was known to sleep only three hours a night. Once, when he described himself as a homebody, a girlfriend supposedly remarked, "Sure. Any home, any body."Some years later, when making the 2011 documentary film David Amram: The First 80 Years (full disclosure: I wrote it), he wasn't so keen to recount some of the wilder stuff.
During his long and storied career, Amram has witnessed, and taken part in, several tectonic changes in music and culture: the rise and fall of the Beat Generation, the ascendance of jazz as a countercultural art form before rock ’n’ roll superseded it, and collaborations with directors like John Frankenheimer and Elia Kazan when Hollywood was moving towards a new form of personal expression. All the while his prolific work for the concert hall was never limited by popular trends.“
I’ve been very lucky,” Amram says about his longevity. “And also, struggling to survive and do what we love to do — that sense of challenge — is so absorbing that you don’t have a chance to age properly; you don’t have that luxury in your schedule. Self-pity, despair, narcissism and careerism are not only disgusting for other people to be around, but I think they’re bad for your health. Also, I have great kids and a good little grandson. That makes you realize you’re part of the whole picture of life, and that life goes on with or without you.”
Amram, who has written more than 100 orchestral and chamber works and continues to be busy as a musician and lecturer, is celebrating the 50th anniversary as the first-ever Composer in Residence for the New York Philharmonic. It was a year-long post he accepted in 1966 when Leonard Bernstein, already a living legend at the time, was the music director and principle conductor for the orchestra. Bernstein also hand-picked Amram for the inaugural position after being considered among 100 candidates by the orchestra’s foundation. Unbeknownst to Amram, who thought he had a snowball’s chance in hell of being chosen due to his unorthodox educational background, Bernstein had become quite familiar with his work, including the scores for Splendor in the Grass (1960) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), his original music for Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park and an opera that was televised on ABC in 1965, The Final Ingredient, An Opera for the Holocaust.
“I never really received a grant because I never did the things that you were supposed to do to be a classical composer in this country,” recalls Amram, who nevertheless spent time studying at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. “I knew that to become a composer you had to go to one school or another school that the New York Times’ arts section deemed as fashionable. The manager of the Philharmonic pointed out to me that in my interview I not only mentioned Bach and Beethoven but also Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver and John Coltrane. He said, ‘You equate barroom entertainers with the treasures of European culture.’ And I said I was brought up on both — the treasures of those great European master composers and the genius of the jazz innovators.”
Bernstein, however, heard something in Amram’s work that spoke to him, including the jazz and Latin elements in his movie scores that reflected Bernstein’s own sensibilities in such works as West Side Story as well as the conductor/composer’s sole suite of music written specifically for the big screen, On the Waterfront. Amram adds that Bernstein taught him he was part of a continuum. “He said, ‘Your job as a composer is not just to please yourself, you are supposed to add something to the repertoire.’ He also said, ‘You have to be an ambassador for music and to bring that to young people.’ He didn’t say, ‘You have to sell that to young people or make it relevant to young people by adding synthesizers or setting guitars on fire.’ He wasn’t into being a fashionista or being trendy. He was interested in quality.”
As a player, Amram is best known for mastering the French horn, which he studied with the late Gunther Schuller — who, like Amram, straddled both the classical and jazz worlds. He was also one of the first serious musicians to incorporate literature into their performances. He was instrumental in creating the first-ever Jazz/Poetry readings in New York with Jack Kerouac, with whom he collaborated for more than 12 years, including writing the music for Kerouac’s experimental short Pull My Daisy (1959). And in 1965, he wrote the music for the cantata, Let Us Remember, by the Harlem poet Langston Hughes. He has also incorporated Native American idioms in his music, as well as other indigenous folk traditions.
In fact, there are few disciplines in the arts that Amram has not been exposed to first hand. Beyond his operatic, symphonic and chamber works, he has written three memoirs: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat (2009), Collaborating with Kerouac (2005) and Vibrations (2001), about which the Boston Globe called him “the Renaissance man of American music.”
Although Amram has been a veritable chameleon as an artist, some things have remained constant during the course of his career. He says he’s been with the same publisher for 53 years, and has been a BMI member dating back to the ’50s. He cites Oliver Daniel, who was in charge of BMI’s classical music department at the time, as an inspiration and a source of encouragement. “BMI was a godsend in my life,” he says. “So many of the people with BMI — the songwriters, the jazz players, the classical composers — were actually able to get an advance when they were barely squeaking by just by signing. At the time that was a huge thing. And they have stood by me all the years I’ve been doing this. They also give young classical composers some hope that they can exist on the face of the earth.”
In the meantime, Amram’s schedule continues to be crammed with activity. He was in Texas performing and also conducting an orchestra at the Kerrville Festival of the Arts over Memorial Day weekend, and recently addressed 1,000 French horn players at an international symposium in Ithaca, NY, before honoring his old friend Pete Seeger at the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, NY. He’s also working on two other music commissions, as well as a fourth memoir with the working title, The Next 80 Years.
All the while, his mission statement has always remained the same. “The organic, defining principle of creating something of lasting value and re-nourishing the soil from whence the fruits of your labor come is the way I’ve tried to live my life,” he says. “As Dizzy Gillespie told me, ‘Time to put something back into the pot.’”
A prolific composer for over 50 years, his most recent symphonic compositions include “This Land: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie” (2007), commissioned by the Guthrie Foundation and recently performed and recorded by the Colorado Symphony; “Giants of the Night” (2002), commissioned and premiered by flutist Sir James Galway; “Kokopeli: A Symphony in Three Movements” (1995) and “Three Songs: A Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” (2009).
He has also collaborated as a composer with Elia Kazan, Eugene Ormandy, Langston Hughes and Jacques D’Amboise and as a musician with Thelonious Monk, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Betty Carter, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Paquito D’Rivera and Tito Puente. In 1957, he created and performed in the first-ever jazz/poetry readings in New York City with novelist Jack Kerouac, a close friend with whom Amram collaborated artistically for over a dozen years.
Since the early 1950s, Amram has traveled the world extensively, working as a musician and a conductor in over 35 countries including Cuba, Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan, Israel, Latvia and China. He also regularly crisscrosses the United States as a featured performer at musical and literary festivals.
Amram is the author of three memoirs, all published by Paradigm-Routledge Press: “Nine Lives of a Musical Cat” (2009), “Collaborating with Kerouac” (2005) and the highly acclaimed “Vibrations” (1968, 2007). His archive of professional and personal papers were recently acquired by the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts branch of the New York Public Library. And he was recently the subject of the documentary “David Amram: The First Eighty Years.”
In 2011, Amram was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame as recipient of the Jay McShann Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2013, he was presented with Clearwater’s Pete and Toshi Seeger Annual Power of Song Award. Last year, the Theatre for the New City honored him with its annual Love and Courage Award. Also in 2015, Brooklyn College gave Amram an honorary doctorate of fine arts and chose him as one of its commencement speakers.
Last fall, there were a series of 85th birthday tributes to Amram all over the world. Today, Amram continues to perform as a guest conductor, soloist, multi-instrumentalist and narrator in five languages, while continuing a remarkable pace of composing. His current schedule is at www.DavidAmram.com.
David Amram first joined Local 802 in 1956. Allegro editor Mikael Elsila recently sat down to talk with Amram about his life in music.
Allegro: You turned 85 last fall. Your life story has been extensively documented in books and films. Now you’re reaching out to younger musicians to help them grow as artists. When you look back at all the luminaries you associated or played with, what advice has helped you most that can help younger players?
David Amram: What I learned from all of them was never to put yourself before the music. The music is the star, and our job is to be part of the whole and to pass on those good feelings. I remember a story about Toscanini. An opera singer was taking a whole bunch of liberties with the music, and Toscanini said, “Madam, you are a marvelous creative artist, but the composer did not indicate that’s what was supposed to be done.” And she said, “Maestro Toscanini, I’m a star.” And Toscanini’s response was, “There are only stars in heaven!”
Leonard Bernstein once told me, “David, you’re the first composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic. Your job as a composer is not just to please yourself. It’s to add something to the repertoire.” In other words, you weren’t just supposed to chop the piano in half or set it on fire in order to get a write-up and a grant as the new flavor of the week. You’re supposed to write something that will have lasting value and contribute to that huge amount of great music already written by acknowledged masters. That can mean not just including American music but music from all over the world that’s of lasting value. And Bernstein also told me, “You have to be an ambassador for music. You have to try to reach young people, not to sell records, but to make them aware of the beauty that surrounds us.”
Here’s another example. After playing a sold-out world premiere of my flute concerto “Giants of the Night,” Sir James Galway told me, “When we have a great success like we did tonight, I’ll go home, make myself a cup of tea, and I figure if somebody in the audience went home and spent five minutes thinking about the piece, then I’ve done my job.”
And Dizzy Gillespie gave me the greatest quote of all. He was once asked by the New York Times if he’ll ever retire. And he said, “I’ll never retire. I’m playing music as long as I’m here. That’s what I was put here to do.” These are all devoted people. I never saw any of them snub anybody. None of them ever were afflicted by a mental disease for which there is a cure, which is the “rock-and-roll star syndrome.”
Allegro: You played “world music” before it was even known as a genre. You were one of the first Americans to perform in Cuba after the Cuban revolution, and you also traveled all over the world learning new musical traditions and even performing at folk festivals. All the time, you were an accomplished classical composer. What were the best parts of your travels to other lands, and what did you learn from your musical journeys outside of the United States?
David Amram: My postgraduate work was in what I call the “University of Hangout-ology.” In other words, I hung out and traveled the world! My basic tuition in this school was simply learning how to say “Please,” “Thank you,” “That was beautiful,” “Can you play that again slower?” “Where is beat one?” and trying to figure out the scale or mode or structure. And then trying to be a grain of sand in the experience, stay in the background to be a part of it, and get enough of a sense of the feeling so that when you come back home, you can still hear it and feel it and learn it and make it a part of you. Any time I would end up using something traditional in a written-down piece for orchestra or chamber music, I would spend years learning one song or one pattern or one scale or one style from another culture, and then I always notate in the score who taught it to me, the name of it, and where I learned it, even if it was only a two-bar pattern. Copyright law says that snippet of folk music I used is public domain, but the laws of human decency are that when someone gives you a gift, you say thank you. It’s not that hard just to use those two words, which are also good to learn in English as well as all the other languages. And if you do that, then you’re being a gracious and decent person – a real musician and not a thief. And being a thief and a disreputable lowlife is already adding to an overcrowded field in the industry.
In music, all of us are supposed to sacrifice some of our own egomania and narcissism and crazy behavior that we’re taught is supposed to show that you’re a “real leader” and try instead to become part of the whole. The great Native American musicians I’ve played with always said that the best leader is the best follower. That’s why when we conduct a symphony, you’re really told over and over by the musicians and also by the great conductors that you’re there to help out the situation, and if you know the music upside down and inside out, you can help out in certain times, and you can be of use when needed. The rest of the time, you can stay out of the way and try to create a good enough feeling to make everybody forget about you and get into that magical world of music. You get a whole bunch of people somehow all listening, playing with them, for one another. And then those incredible moments happen that no one can create, including a composer – and I know because I’m a composer myself. Some of the greatest moments in performances of my music by others is when the conductor allows the music to tell us what to do. If you can humble yourself, it’s amazing how much you can learn and how much you can develop and how much better you can feel about being in the world of music. Music can take you to places you’d never go, meeting people you’d never meet, and to countries where they might hate Americans, but since you brought your musical instrument, instead getting robbed and killed, you get invited for dinner.
I’ll never forget watching CNN when the New York Philharmonic went over and performed in North Korea. You can see all the North Korean officials snarling at the cameras in hatred, and then when they finally ended up playing all that beautiful music – including a North Korean folk song – all those same people were smiling. That’s pretty powerful.
Allegro: How did you become someone without musical borders or walls in the tradition that Duke Ellington liked to call “beyond category”?
David Amram: Well, to me, every musician, every person on earth has their own special priceless heritage or heritages. My interest is to learn more about things of beauty that touch my heart. So I don’t try to compose a universal, crossover, cookbook of slop. That’s what they call the “melting pot” – take everybody’s precious culture, put it in one gigantic pot, and come out with slop. Now there’s another way of looking at that, which I learned when I was in New Orleans as a teenager. I was told that the concept of gumbo is that everyone puts something in the pot. Each item is a nutritious element of its own. And then when the audience partake of that pot, they are nurtured by all of the other gifted people who contributed their element, and it is something that’s helpful and communal, to which you can make a contribution and from which you can be nourished. The “melting pot” is different – it means that everybody becomes the same basic insecure person. Another idea is the Canadian concept of the mosaic, where everyone is definitely Canadian, but they also have their own heritage or heritages that they brought with them when they came over. This includes a respect for the native people who were here thousands of years before any of us were lucky enough to come over here. And a lot of the problems that we see today are the result of thousands of years of bigotry and hatred and misunderstanding that preceded all of our collective experience today before any of us or our families even got over here. One of the wonderful things about the city, about New York City and Local 802, is that you can go to Queens where there are over a hundred languages spoken, and you can walk around the streets of New York City and it’s like traveling around the world. And once you’ve traveled around the world and continue to travel around the world, you can see that beautiful part of New York and feel more at home than ever because you realize through music, you can be at home around the world.
Allegro: You’re one of the endorsers of Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign. Why is important that society gives justice for jazz artists and that jazz artists get respect?
David Amram: Because jazz artists make the whole world a more beautiful, exciting and creative place. Every time they play, it’s a very special, one-time-only artistic experience. If you don’t know what’s going to happen and you’re dealing with the moment, that’s the most important thing you could ever do in your everyday life. You know, the sink-or-swim reality of life is personified in jazz, and improvisation is something that will bring back creativity in everybody, whether they’re playing an instrument or just dealing with life every day. And spontaneity is the key to mental, spiritual and physical health.
Allegro: How has the musicians’ union helped you during your career?
David Amram: When I was in my 20s, I knew that old people existed but I never thought I would become one myself. I was told most of my life that my chosen career of music was a death wish. I always encourage everybody to follow their career death wishes to the max, because you can have a great life even if you’re at the edge of bankruptcy most of the time. But now, I appreciate the pension that I get from the musicians’ union. It helps me now, but when I was young I never dreamed that I would even live long enough to get it or that I would need it. It’s nice to know that you can get paid for your work and you have someone behind you. The wonderful thing about doing work through the union is that they will make sure that everybody gets paid.
Allegro: What are you most proud of as a musician?
David Amram: I would say first of all, my three children, Alana, Adira and Adam, all of whom were brought up hearing and being with many of those musicians and people we’ve already mentioned, and who rather than rebelling against me and becoming brain surgeons or hedge fund operators, all have their own bands, and they all play their own type of music and sometimes play with me. And secondly, I’m proud that I’ve been able to follow my heart and do what I love to do. I chose the long, nearly impossible road that I’m still on. I’m happy every time I leave the house that I can go out and do that, whether I’m playing at a folk festival or conducting a symphony or writing a new classical piece or accompanying a poet or learning a new genre of music with a bunch of people. My hope is that I can encourage other people not to copy what I’ve done, but to do what they feel they were put here to do and not to be discouraged. Realize that what you do to pay your rent vs. your value as an artist have nothing to do with one another. And we all have a song in our heart. We all have a story to tell. We all have a precious heritage, and we should all celebrate that and respect other peoples. Then you don’t need a guru or a psychiatrist or a career counselor or a dope dealer in order to feel good. That comes for free.
David Amram ended 2015 by celebrating his 85th birthday in grand style, with festivities in New York City, Toronto, and London, among other places. Looking back on those 85 years there is plenty to celebrate. Amram’s career has followed an odd trajectory that has had him playing French horn with a series of iconic jazz musicians; befriending and collaborating on a wide variety of instruments with classical, folk, rock, world, and country musicians; and conducting 75 of the world’s top orchestras. As a composer, he’s written 100-plus works for symphony and chamber orchestra, two operas, 23 Broadway musical scores, and worked on 20 film scores. The member of Locals 1000 (nongeographic) and 802 (New York City) took the time to share his wisdom with International Musician readers.
As a young musician you met and worked with a lot of iconic musicians. What do you think they saw in you?
I think they saw I was very young and very eager. I understand that now because I’m very old, but I’m still very eager. When I see a young person, and I see that look in their eye, I see myself as I must have appeared as a 20-year-old. I remember all the older people, not just in jazz, but in symphonies, folk music, and Latin music, who took the time to try to guide me to feel that I could do something, and most of all, that I should respect the music first and foremost and try to be gracious to every person who crossed my path because they could all teach me a lesson. That was a blessing in my life to this very day.
Now that I’ve turned 85, I realize that it’s my turn to do what Dizzy Gillespie told me I should do. When we played at his 70th birthday party at Wolftrap Farm in 1986, he said, “I met you in 1951 at your basement apartment in Washington, DC. You were then a 20-year-old hayseed, hick and now you have gray hair. It’s time to put something back into the pot.” That’s what Dizzy did his whole life. He understood that that’s what we are supposed to do in music and that’s what we are supposed to do in life. And if you do that, you feel good because you have made a contribution.
You had many interesting opportunities to work with various people—Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, George Plimpton. Can you talk about some of those early projects?
There were a lot of other people in very prominent positions who probably thought I was just a nut case, but I happened to be very fortunate. I’ve met thousands of people, some that no one ever heard of, who have been enormously helpful.
I was working in the US Post Office part time, working as a moving man, playing with both Charles Mingus Quintet and Oscar Pettiford’s big bands, and squeaking by, when I got a call in 1958 from Elia Kazan’s office. At first I thought it was a crank call. They wanted to get a composer for the play, JB. They had gotten in touch with about 10 famous composers, all of whom were too busy. Kazan knew that I was a budding classical composer of sorts, composing music for Joe Papp’s free Shakespeare in the Park, and was a jazz player.
The same thing happened in 1966 when I was chosen as the first composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic. I got this announcement saying that 300 or so composers were being considered. I never thought they would choose me. If I made a list of all the people who never wrote back, or said no, that would be 15 times longer than anything in my bio.
Do you recall the feeling the first time you heard an orchestra play one of your compositions?
They were going to play my “Autobiography for Strings,” in 1959. I had never had a piece for a whole string orchestra, or any kind of a big orchestra, played in a formal concert. The feeling was that all these terrific musicians were doing something, and that I was just like the proverbial fly on the wall; it wasn’t about me. It’s the same feeling I had when my kids were born. Suddenly, there’s something else that you helped to get started and you hoped that it would have a life of its own.
You are one of the most versatile composers/musicians ever, comfortable in jazz, folk, and classical worlds. Is it difficult to “fit in” in all those scenes?
I think that was an issue probably for most of the 20th century, but now, with the availability of YouTube, today’s young people are able to see, hear, study with master Middle Eastern tambourine players; South American pipes players; Afro Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Brazilian percussionists. Each of whom have hundreds of different styles in their cultures … I was called a pioneer of world music, but I’m not. I just have been, and always will be, interested in all kinds of music that touch my heart.
Most of my life I’ve been a full-time student in the university of hangout-ology, where, if you are sincere and you can say, “please” and “thank you,” that’s all the tuition you need. Conversely, if someone gives you the cold shoulder, have compassion for that person, but hang out with somebody else. The thing that really appeals to me about music isn’t about the lifestyle, it’s about the music and all those blessings the music brings to you and all the people you can meet and things you can do. I never have writer’s block as a composer because I have enough inspiration from all the terrific people I’ve been surrounded by. I have a few hundred years of stuff to write.
How important is it for young musicians/composers to put themselves out there and get to know others?
I think the most important thing is to be around music, not just for networking, but for spiritual, musical, intellectual, social survival, and to realize that small is beautiful. [That’s] what Charles Mingus told me on the first night I played with him. Half the people in the Café Bohemia were either asleep, nodding off, or listening to their transistor radios … Mingus would have to fight to get paid at the end of the week. But, he said, “No matter how ratty the joint, every night with me is Carnegie Hall.” Conversely, years later, when I did play Carnegie Hall, it was so much easier, because Mingus made me understand that the challenge was to make everybody at Carnegie Hall feel like they are in your living room.
Why is AFM membership important to you?
I think that ever since Ronald Regan trashed the air traffic controllers and made it fashionable to ignore over 100 years of hard struggles, and sometimes even the loss of life, to give people some kind of a decent reward for their lifetime’s work, a lot of people use that as an excuse to exploit others into doing what they now call outsourcing—taking work to places where people are still in almost a slave labor economy. And I always found it disturbing that something musical, created in the United States, would become part of that outsourcing process. So when I do the very occasional film score I always request that it be done in the United States through the musicians union.
How did your Woody Guthrie project come about?
I met Woody in 1956. We spent hours talking about all of his experiences traveling, when he shipped out to sea, the places he traveled across the US, all the kinds of music, and people he heard, from the time he was brought up in Okemah, Oklahoma, to his travels around the world. He loved New York because you could have the world all in one place. He described how he used to walk through all the different neighborhoods and hear all the languages, the food, and all the different people and the fantastic music in those communities.
Decades later, Nora got in touch with me and said that the Guthrie Foundation was taking thousands of his poems and lyrics and having different people set them to music and they would like to have a classical piece. She said we had to use “This Land,” his most emblematic song. She asked me to reimagine Woody’s travels from when he left his hometown of Okemah.
It came out beautifully and Symphony Silicon Valley gave a wonderful premiere performance.
Is it difficult to conduct your own music?
Not if you remember that, when you are conducting your own music, it’s not your music anymore. It’s everybody’s music who’s playing it; you are there to help out the situation. Hopefully, the musicians will find something in the music that touches their hearts and they can then put their own creativity into what’s down on the paper. Rather than assuming the dictatorial approach, I try to be a fellow musician, appreciative of being around a lot of people, most of whom play better than I ever will. If you are clear and listen, stay out of the way, and help when needed, the music somehow always tells us what to do.
What is your outlook on the music industry today? Are you hopeful for its future?
The music industry, like the Titanic, has sunk to the bottom because it was too big, too fast, poorly administrated, and did not serve the needs of the customers. All of us who are in it—lifers in the music field—are in the rowboats that didn’t go down with that ship. We are going to shore for our next gigs and we are not going away. That’s the thing that’s so encouraging today. Those of us who love it and those who love to listen are now forming our own relationships. It’s a new day and a better one.
There are so many phenomenal young musicians, composers, conductors. When I go to schools and colleges they say, “Mr. Amram, your egalitarian attitude certainly is refreshing, but don’t you realize that, according to demographics, there are too many performers, composers, conductors, and not enough opportunities, and it’s a hopeless situation?” I always respond: “There are never too many sunsets and there’s never enough beauty.” I also tell the kids that what you do to pay your rent has no bearing on your value as a musician. Secondly, in our society, what you deserve and what you get have nothing to do with one another. And third, if you feel you were put here to do something and that is your calling, then regardless of all setbacks and struggles, do it anyway.
I think what we lack in today’s world is older people remembering that part of our gig is not to make younger musicians, composers, conductors, and soloists love us, but for us to show that we love them and we are all here to put something back into that pot.
What can we do as musicians to help ensure the health of our industry?
We should all continue to work towards keeping quality music of all genres in our public schools. Just as certain people in our society are trashing unions, they are also trashing public education. Part of our gig is to be advocates for all music.
What Leonard Bernstein told me in 1966, when I was the first composer in residence for the Philharmonic holds true today. He said, “David, your job as a composer is not just to please yourself, you are supposed to contribute something to the repertoire, to be an ambassador for music.” I think that’s part of what we all somehow have to find a way to do.
And, never to give up your love and enthusiasm for music. Treat all your other brother and sister musicians with respect. That’s really important.
I understand there’s a new five-CD set David Amram’s Classic American Movie Scores (1956-2016). When will that be available?
It highlights my music that was used in films and Broadway productions from 1956, leading up to my latest for the 2016 film Isn’t It Delicious. Some of this music never made it to the final cut of the films and is being heard for the first time. The set will be released in the US in February.