David Amram in the News

Articles from 2022
Yahoo! News, March 7, 2022 Cineaste magazine, Fall 2022 issue

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From Yahoo! NewsTop
March 7, 2022
Jack Kerouac at 100:
How a heady cocktail of trauma, faith and rotgut wine made a literary legend
By Kevin E G Perry
Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac

David Amram started collaborating with Jack Kerouac before he even knew his name. The celebrated composer first met the novelist in 1956 at an artist’s party in Manhattan. “This guy came up to me in a red and black chequered shirt, looking like a French-Canadian lumberjack,” remembers Amram, now 91, from his New York home, which is littered with souvenirs of an illustrious career spent making music with everyone from Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie to Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. “He said: ‘I’m gonna read, you play.’” Amram took out his French horn and penny whistle and set about accompanying the stranger’s performance. “I just closed my eyes and listened to him,” he recalls. “I had no idea what he was going to do, and it was magical. I’m hesitant to use the phrase ‘ESP’, but not hesitant enough not to use it! That’s the best way to describe what it was like to get the feeling you’d known somebody your whole life, and that they were talking right to you and making sense.”

Afterwards, Amram still didn’t get an introduction. “He ran off to go dance with some fine young woman,” he says with a chuckle. “We were all out there flirting and drinking and having a good time.” It was only when they bumped into each other again at another party a couple of weeks later that Amram learnt Kerouac’s name, and that he was an author whose first major work, the 1950 novel The Town and the City had been published to a chorus of widespread indifference. That all changed in 1957 with the publication of his second book: On The Road.

A poetic and profound account of his years traversing America, often in the company of his irrepressible friend and inspiration Neal Cassady, On The Road made Kerouac a celebrity overnight. Its runaway success helped him to publish another dozen novels before he drank himself to death in 1969, at the age of 47, but he never enjoyed his sudden fame. “Most of the time, he was very quiet and very shy,” says Amram. “That’s one reason he used to drink, so that he could anaesthetise himself enough to be comfortable with people.”

As the centennial anniversary of Kerouac’s birth approaches, Amram remembers his friend best for his “sweetness and purity of intent”. This remained intact even after he’d been declared the voice of his generation. “Someone came up to me at a party [after meeting Jack] and said: ‘If that guy’s so great, why was he talking to me so long?’” laughs Amram. “Jack never saw any differentiation between a ‘nobody’ and a ‘somebody’. He never considered any human being to be a nobody.”

Kerouac’s natural shyness, and his love of humanity, is captured in the most famous passage from On The Road, the one that continues to connect with new generations of fans online. In it, he describes how he felt stumbling along a New York sidewalk behind his more gregarious friends Cassady and the poet Allen Ginsberg. “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me,” he wrote, “because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

Kerouac was born on 12 March 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. The child of French-Canadian immigrants, he spoke no English before he started school at the age of six. As a teenager he won a football scholarship that took him to Columbia University in New York, and after dropping out he enrolled in the Merchant Marines in 1942 to serve in the Second World War. “He was very patriotic,” says Amram. “He’d shipped out on the SS Dorchester and was due to go out on it again but he got bombed out partying up a storm and missed the boat.” The partying likely saved his life. “The SS Dorchester got blown up and over 600 people were killed,” explains Amram. “He always felt that could have been him.” Many people Kerouac knew, including his childhood best friend Sebastian Sampas, were killed in the war. “He never recovered completely, and always thought about that,” says Amram.

In 1943, he enrolled in the navy reserves but got a psychological discharge after just eight days because, as Amram puts it, “he couldn’t handle that disciplinarian stuff”. After that, Kerouac set out to see America. He criss-crossed the country several times over the course of seven years, often hitch-hiking, and then, according to legend, wrote up his experiences in a Benzedrine-fuelled three-week blitz in April 1951, typing on a 120ft scroll of paper. It took him another six years to get On The Road published, when it became an immediate sensation. The New York Times called its publication “a historic occasion”, although it was sheer chance that led to that glowing review. Kerouac fan Gilbert Millstein was only assigned to write it because the main Times critic Orville Prescott had gone to Europe to try and halt his daughter’s wedding. “When he came back he trashed Jack’s book, but by that time it was too late because it had already gotten that phenomenal review,” explains Amram.

When he read the initial Times review, Kerouac wondered why he wasn’t happier about it and went to bed. “Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life,” wrote his then-girlfriend Joyce Johnson in her 1983 memoir Minor Characters. “The ringing phone woke him next morning and he was famous.” Along with fame came disparaging reviews and insulting parodies. Kerouac had coined the phrase “The Beat Generation” in 1948 to describe anti-conformist youth, but when he planned to use that title for a short film in 1959 it had already been trademarked by somebody else. “[Producer Albert] Zugsmith made one of the world’s worst movies, called The Beat Generation, and he owned the title,” Amram explains, adding with a laugh that Kerouac wasn’t too upset, having grown wary of being branded by his own idiom. “Jack said: ‘Well, they deserve one another.’”

Kerouac renamed the film Pull My Daisy, after an innuendo-laden poem he’d written with Cassady and Ginsberg in the Forties. The silent film, which Kerouac later ad-libbed narration for along with Amram’s score, was based on a real-life incident in which Cassady’s wife Carolyn, hoping to embrace a more strait-laced lifestyle, had invited a bishop and his wife and daughter to dinner. Her dreams of respectability went up in smoke when their bohemian friends crashed in and caused chaos. In the film, Ginsberg and fellow poet Gregory Corso play the bohemians, along with Amram as “Mezz McGillicuddy, a deranged French hornist”. Clockwise from bottom: poet Gregory Corso, artist Larry Rivers, Kerouac, composer David Amram and poet Allen Ginsberg in 1959 (John Cohen/New York Public Library/Lincoln Center Branch/David Amram Archive)

The film was co-directed by the ground-breaking photographer Robert Frank and the artist Alfred Leslie, and filming conditions in Leslie’s studio were suitably exuberant. “It was just a continual, stoned-out, crazy party for two or three weeks,” remembers Amram. “We all would come barging in, drinking and smoking reefer and yelling and having a good time. Alfred was like a hostage negotiator getting people to please do whatever the scene was supposed to be about. He would say: ‘Allen, please don’t drop your pants during this scene, this is supposed to be Fellini-esque’ and everybody would go wild.”

The spontaneous, improvised film is now considered a significant cultural artefact, preserved in the Library of Congress, and has proved highly influential. “Larry David from Seinfeld was interviewed in the Nineties and asked: ‘How could you make a bunch of people hanging out into the most successful series on television?’” says Amram. “He said: ‘Our model was Pull My Daisy. We made a television show about nothing, and Pull My Daisy was a film about nothing.’ Of course, it was about everything, because it was just showing a document of people hanging out.”

Kerouac was initially disappointed that his script hadn’t been followed more closely, but Amram watched in amazement as the writer came up with new narration on the spot. “We bought him a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, rather than the customary Thunderbird wine, which was the worst rotgut we often imbibed, being in the economy level of life,” says Amram. “He drank the whole pot, glug, glug, glug, and then he said: ‘Je suis prêt’, ‘I am ready’.” Amram, Ginsberg and Kerouac at a gallery opening in March 1959 (John Cohen/New York Public Library/Lincoln Center Branch/David Amram Archive)

While critics of Kerouac, then and since, have often focused on his perceived licentiousness, notably his depictions of drug use and uninhibited sexual relationships, at heart his work is concerned with a spiritual quest for meaning. In Pull My Daisy, the bohemians harangue the bishop with a series of questions about what is “holy”. “Is baseball holy?” they ask. “Is everything holy? Is alligators holy, Bishop? Is the world holy? Is basketball holy? Is the organ of man holy?” Likewise, in On The Road, Kerouac is perpetually searching for God in the American landscape. “As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border,” he wrote, “I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, ‘Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.’”

Just as Kerouac believed that no human being was a nobody, so he was able to find the divine in everything, elevating the everyday into the profound. “Being a devout Catholic, he really believed in the teachings of St Francis,” says Amram. “When he became better known and he spoke about generosity and loving and sharing, people thought he was putting them on. The amazing thing about him was that he was someone who was spiritually connected to the church. He wasn’t doing it out of guilt, or out of ritual, or because his neighbours would think he was a finer person because he went to church. It really meant something to him, and no one could believe that of this so-called ‘wild man’.”

Amram believes that even a fascination with Buddhism which Kerouac explored in several books, including 1958’s The Dharma Bums, was motivated by his Christian faith. “He was very compassionate,” he says. “I think he felt that Buddhism was the most Christ-like way to behave in the modern world.” During a 1959 Kerouac appearance on Steve Allen’s variety show, the host asked him how he’d define the word: “Beat”. “Sympathetic,” replied Kerouac.

For all the success of On The Road, when Kerouac died on 21 October 1969 he had just $91 to his name. Now, a century after his birth, he has been vindicated by posterity. His work continues to be read – which is all he ever really cared about. Amram recalls evening walks around New York during which Kerouac would “mellow out” by repeating the Bible verse: “By their fruits ye shall know them”. He cared about that far more than the celebrity he knew would be fleeting. “He wasn’t prepared to become that worldwide figure overnight, and then to be thrown off that mountain he never wanted to be on in the first place,” says Amram. “He would always say, with that Lowell accent: ‘Davey, I’m an author. I want people to read my books.’ Today, people are reading his books all over the world and it is so gratifying to see that.”

Read the full original article in Yahoo! News.

From Cineaste magazineTop
Fall 2022 issue
The Many Lives of a Musical Master
An Interview with David Amram
By Brent Calderwood

David Amram, a genre-crossing multi-instrumentalist and one of the most prolific and influential composers of his generation, has never considered himself a writer of movie music.

Although he wrote the classic film scores for The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Splendor in the Grass(1961), he identifies instead as a classical composer of more than a hundred orchestral, choral, and chamber music works, plus two operas, who also happens to write music for movies. Now ninety-one, Amram is possessed of seemingly boundless creativity that shows no signs of slowing down and that extends to ongoing collaborations with musicians from across the musical spectrum including jazz and classical, as well as Latin, Native American, and other traditional folkloric music.

Amram is a man who has lived many lives. While studying at the Manhattan School of Music in 1955, during only his third week in New York he came to the attention of bandleaders as a jazz French hornist and began playing with Charles Mingus, then Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Mary Lou Williams, Oscar Pettiford, and a staggering number of other jazz greats. In 1956, Amram met Jack Kerouac at a loft party in New York and within minutes they were performing music and poetry together. The two became friends, and Amram soon began accompanying Kerouac on piano, French horn, and penny whistle at informal downtown gatherings, and in 1957 he and Kerouac participated in the first public jazz-poetry performances ever done in New York City.

Following that series of now-legendary performances, Amram appeared in and wrote the music for the largely improvised short film Pull My Daisy (1959), which featured the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsksy, and Gregory Corso, the artists Larry Rivers and Alice Neel, and Amram himself as a party-crashing French hornist. The first directing effort of the photographer Robert Frank and the painter Alfred Leslie, the film remained out of circulation for decades but was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1996. Today, Pull My Daisy—which features improvised narration by Jack Kerouac over a jazz and chamber music score recorded later by Amram—stands as a remarkable day-in- the-life snapshot (filmed over three weeks) of its historical moment, a sort of semidocumentary look at domestic life in late-’50s West Village bohemia.

In 1959, Amram’s compositions for Shakespeare in the Park—and for smaller productions downtown at the Phoenix Theatre— brought him to the attention of a young director, John Frankenheimer, who was seeking a more classical style of music for his television production of Turn of the Screw, based on Henry James’s novel, which marked Ingrid Bergman’s return to America after ten years in Europe. Bergman’s performance, like Amram’s score, was tension-filled and stunning, and she won an Emmy; viewing the program online in 2022, it’s impossible to deny its visual influence on The Innocents, the 1961 Turn of the Screw adaptation starring Deborah Kerr that in turn has been credited with influencing psychological horror films from The Others (2001) to The Babadook (2014).

Frankenheimer enlisted Amram again for his second feature film, The Young Savages (1961), starring Burt Lancaster as an Italian American DA caught up in turf wars between Italian and Puerto Rican gangs in East Harlem. If this sounds like a nonmusical version of another 1961 film, West Side Story (and the 1957 hit Broadway play), it occasionally looks that way, too, despite the grittier film gris camerawork of Lionel Lindon. Indeed, the similarities and differences between the two 1961 films illuminate and complicate recent discussions about the differences between the 1961 and 2021 film adaptations of West Side Story, not least of all because more of the Puerto Rican youth in The Young Savages were actually Latino actors.

For the Young Savages score, Amram deftly incorporated jazz, Latin, and orchestral music, sometimes in a single bar, showing glimpses of the complexity he would bring the following year to perhaps his most famous film score, which he wrote for Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. From the opening credits, a full orchestral treatment fronted by horns is tempered with blue notes for a lush but subtly mournful sound, which morphs as the story’s ex-POWs (including Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey) struggle to confront their demons. The Manchurian Candidate’s surreal brainwashing scenes—supported by three piccolos and a harpsichord in an eerie chamber-music setting—are justly lionized by critics and film students today.

Another highpoint of Amram’s film composing is his gorgeous score for Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, whose yearning, string-based main theme mirrors the thwarted romantic and sexual longing of its young protagonists, played by Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Splendor in the Grass’s two principal women characters are shamed, ostracized, and in one case institutionalized for their sexual desires. Guided by Kazan, Wood gives one of her best performances and Barbara Loden—best known to modern cinephiles for directing, writing, and starring in the independent film Wanda (1970)—gives an equally bravura performance as Beatty’s embattled older sister.

After Splendor, Amram would step away from film scoring, writing the incidental music for Arthur Miller’s 1964 play After the Fall, directed by Kazan and featuring Loden in a Tony-winning role as a troubled wife loosely based on Marilyn Monroe, who had died seventeen months before the play opened; this was followed by Amram’s 1966 appointment by Leonard Bernstein as the first-ever composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic. “Suddenly I wasn’t the boy wonder” in Hollywood, Amram told Cineaste, but he would work again with Kazan on the underseen and underrated The Arrangement (1969), in which Kirk Douglas and Faye Dunaway negotiate the period’s changing mores around corporate careerism and nonmonogamy. Composing and recording in New York this time, Amram weaved Turkish and Greek music and musicians into his soundtrack.

Amram has continued to score independent films but concentrates on creating his own compositions, based on his worldwide travels as a multi-instrumentalist and improviser—he has been listed by Broadcast Music, Inc. as one of the twenty most performed composers of concert music in the United States since 1974. As the New York Times put it in 1993, “He was multicultural before multiculturalism existed.” Or as Amram himself put it in the preface to the 2001 edition of his acclaimed 1968 memoir, Vibrations: “In the 1990s, when the term multiculturalism became an official watchword for the Arts, what I had been doing all my life suddenly had a category. Rather than being considered a gifted schizophrenic nutcase, I was suddenly considered a pioneer.”

Amram is the author of three engaging memoirs that capture his joie de vivre and gift as a raconteur: VibrationsOffbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac (2005), and Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat (2009), all published by Routledge. His fourth autobiography, Amram at 90: Notes from a Promising Young Composer, is slated for publication in November of 2023, just in time for his ninety-third birthday. In addition, a five-CD box set titled David Amram’s Classic Ameri- can Film Scores 1956–2016, accompanied by a ninety-four-page booklet, was released by Moochin’ About Records in 2015; and most recently, Amram and his family have set up their own label, After the Fall Records, which puts out previously unreleased recordings and performances of his work, along with recordings by two of his three children, Alana and Adam Amram.

This year also marks the hundredth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s birth, which has been keeping Amram on the road for frequent performances. Cineaste spoke with Amram on March 19, just one week after Kerouac’s official centennial. Amram had just appeared at two events in Los Angeles, performing and hosting at a screening of Pull My Daisy. Amram’s generosity with his time during our ninety-minute telephone conversation was matched by his generous spirit, exemplified by unfettered positivity with a healthy dose of wry wit about the vicissitudes of Hollywood.

     —Brent Calderwood

Cineaste: Since the centenary of Jack Kerouac’s birth was last Saturday, let’s start there. Can you tell me how you met Jack Kerouac, and how you wound up working together on Pull My Daisy?

David Amram: We first met in the fall of 1956 at a bring-your-own-bottle party in a painter’s loft, and this guy came up to me in a black-and-red-checkered flannel shirt, looking like a Canadian lumberjack, and said, “Play for me.” And he just started what we would call today “scat rapping.” I didn’t know if he was just freestyling or it was something he had written, or if it was Victor Hugo, which he could do in French and English, or Beowulf or Gregory Corso, which he could recite, or if he was just making it up. I had my horn and whistles with me, and I just tried to accompany him, and just go with that feeling of what he was doing, just tuned in so much it was incredible. We kept bumping into each other, and then I found out his name. It was amazing to meet somebody like that who was so gifted.

Cineaste: And then you began playing piano at those famous jazz-poetry readings with him, along with the poets Philip Lamantia and Howard Hart. How did you go from those performances to collaborating on the film Pull My Daisy?

Amram: Well, we continued hanging out together. It was just before the beginning of 1959 when Jack felt that this old play that he had written called The Beat Generation, would be a wonderful film, but he couldn’t use the title because this guy Albert Zugsmith had just made the worst movie of all time and called it The Beat Generation [1959], which I’m happy to say hit the landfill right on schedule. It had every possible cliché. This was before snuff films. [Both laugh] But he owned the title, so Jack kind of forgot about it, and he didn’t like the term “Beat Generation” either.

But suddenly he decided, “Well, maybe we can take part of it and make a little documentary film”—and then he could finally get Marlon Brando to do a film version of On the Road or somebody to do something, because he loved movies as we all did. So, he took a tiny bit of the third act of that play. Alfred Leslie had a studio apartment where we knew we could plug in enough metal washers in the fuse box for lights without burning the building down. He decided he would direct it, along with Robert Frank who was a wonderful still photographer who owned a wooden tripod and a 16mm movie camera. Everybody was basically themselves but in a stoned-out vein. It just turned out to be sort of a three-week party with people walking in and out whenever they were done with their day jobs. Just two nights ago, they showed the film in Los Angeles, and it was wonderful!

Alfred Leslie was amazingly patient and talked with a very soothing voice like a hostage negotiator and tried to get everyone to do something that would resemble Jack’s play. Jack came to a few rehearsals and said, “They’re not doing anything I wrote” and couldn’t stand it. Contrary to some reports that he was thrown out, he threw himself out because he couldn’t handle seeing his work being massacred or ignored by a bunch of clowns. [Laughs] Finally, Leon Prochnik, who was the editor, somehow edited all that clowning around into a film. Jack came in to do the narration, and Robert and Alfred were there, and instead of offering Thunderbird or Gallo or any other rotgut wine like the rest of us at the economy level usually drank, they bought him a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He drank the whole thing—glug glug glug—and said, “Je suit prêt!”—I am ready! I said, “Jack, we never put on earphones with all the readings we did. Why don’t you put on earphones, and I’ll play the piano just like we always did during our readings to give you that feeling. Then we can cut the music out and I can make a score where there’s a lot of silence.” And he said OK.

We started off and I heard him begin the narration, “Early morning in the universe...” and suddenly I said, “Boy, it was just like an epiphany!” And this narration continued—it was just miraculous! All these years later I still marvel at it. How did he ever get it out of this? He made a narrative out of the massacring of his script!

Years later, when Larry David, who made Seinfeld, was asked why he decided to do a TV show about nothing, he said Pull My Daisy was an inspiration because it was a film about nothing. [Laughs] 

Cineaste: Pull My Daisy is such a quintessentially New York, underground film. How did you wind up going from there to Hollywood?

Amram: With Turn of the Screw, the woman who was married to John Frankenheimer—his first wife, Joanne—used to go to Shakespeare in the Park, where I was their composer for eleven years, and she also went to off-Broadway plays, and by that time I was writing incidental music for the Phoenix Theatre. For Henry James, they wanted something that wasn’t just by a super hack with an army of ghostwriters to grind something out. She said, “There’s this kid at the Phoenix Theatre writing music for plays by Eugene O’Neill and Aristophanes,” and she thought this might be appropriate for Henry James. Frankenheimer called me and hired me, even though I had never done a score for network television. Ingrid Bergman was terrific, and it came off so well that Frankenheimer decided he wanted to use me again.

As a result of that, I did the music for his second film, The Young Savages. He used to turn purple when he was bellowing out the screen shots. When he was speaking about me to Harold Hecht, who was the producer, Hecht said, “Well, we never heard of the guy; he’s never done anything, forget about it.” Frankenheimer screamed so much on the phone that I saw his neck turning red and the veins bulging out. So, he squeezed me through the trap door into doing that.

Cineaste: That score, as well as the one for The Manchurian Candidate, incorporates jazz. Did you talk to Frankenheimer about that? Did you have to do any convincing?

Amram: It was my idea. He said, “Do what you want; I trust you.” When I finally did The Manchurian Candidate, he said two things: “It’s not a Chinese war movie,” and “The film will tell you what to do.” The Manchurian Candidate was shot all out of sequence, and he said, “Here’s one scene where I need you.” We had a Moviola where he’d turn a crank and play the film, and he showed me the famous scene where you see these terrifying Chinese military officers in front of a bunch of scared American POWs, and then suddenly it becomes a Savannah tea party with women dressed in evening gowns, and then back again.

I was watching this on the Moviola and thinking, “What the hell is this?” He called later and said, “How did you like it, how did it make you feel?” And I said, “Man, it made me feel like I was going nuts.” And he said, “Well, that’s what it’s supposed to do to the audience. It’s supposed to show them what it’s like to use psychotropic drugs and just be so out of your mind that you become hypnotized, and you would do what you were told to do.” I got the idea to have three piccolos and other instruments playing, and then bring in a harpsichord almost like a Viennese waltz. I never had written like that but, as he had said, “The film will tell you what to do.”

Cineaste: On the other hand, in the same movie your theme for the protagonist, played by Laurence Harvey, is very romantic, which is a really nice counterpoint to his character, who could be viewed just as cruel and robotic, which would lose the audience’s sympathy. Tell me how you made the decision to go in that direction.

Amram: Because of working in Shakespeare in the Park and working with Shakespeare’s plays, I realized that this was a heroic person who was doomed—but heaven forbid if it had been played that way or it was announced; it would have wrecked the whole thing! So, I tried to show that this was fate, like the Greek tragedies I had worked on, or when I composed music for Shakespeare’s tragedies like MacbethHamlet, and Othello. They were all fated to die; every time you see those plays you hope the heroes won’t die, and you hope Hamlet won’t get stabbed. That was what I had in mind. The romantic music was much harder to compose than the freaky music. People said, “Gosh, how did you do the crazy stuff with the harpsichord?” I just thought of the most unmusical, hideous, wrong notes. When I played with Dizzy Gillespie and Mingus and Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker, they always said, “Every note has to be a winner.” I like the idea that in music built to last, everything should make sense and be beautiful and somehow still feel natural. A beginning and middle and end that you could follow but still made you feel something and was for real and wasn’t “saying something.” I had to work like a dog on that.

Cineaste: After all that work, how did it feel when the film got a mixed reception and was later withdrawn from distribution from 1972 to 1987?

Amram: I understood, because I had already been through all of this with Pull My Daisy when Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie had their feud because of legal issues, and it wasn’t shown again till something like fifty years later. So, finally, in 1987 I got a call about The Manchurian Candi- date. They were calling in anyone who wasn’t dead. I spoke to the producer, Howard Koch, and I said, “That’s amazing that this is happening so many years after poor Kennedy got assassinated,” and he said, “Well, often with Hollywood movies there are unsavory people involved, but once the statute of limitations is up and they determine there’s still money to be made, then anything is possible.” During all that time I figured, well someday it’s going to be seen again. As I tell my kids today, Moses was in the desert for forty years, so I’m right on schedule.

Children's Concert at the Newport Folk Festival

Cineaste: We also must talk about the two film scores you wrote for Elia Kazan, starting with Splendor in the Grass in 1961. That film starts and ends in rural Kansas in 1929, and you grew up on a farm in Feasterville, Pennsylvania. Did that affect how you viewed the film and your approach to composing the music?

Amram: Definitely. It was shot in Long Island, but it looked like you were out there in Kansas. Having been brought up on a farm in Feasterville, I identified with the boy played by Warren Beatty who wanted to be a farmer and who could never quite adapt to the norm. Natalie Wood was just amazing; it was one of her great performances. I had a great time working on that. Kazan said, “People might think this is corny, but I think it’s really saying something.” 

Cineaste: It definitely is saying something. I think it holds up today better than ever. It deals with young people’s sexuality and especially society’s suppression of women’s sexuality. There’s so much yearning in the film, and your music really captures that.

Amram: When I wrote that theme, I insisted they put in the counterpoint and voicings the way I had written it, but a person who was the Warner Bros. music publisher said [imitates growling voice], “It don’t sound like movie music!” I said, “It’s not movie music, it’s music for a movie.” Kazan happened to be there, and Kazan screamed at him and said, “Don’t you tell him what to do! I got him to do something that I think is beautiful, and it is beautiful!” and the guy was so terrified that he sulked out of the room.

Cineaste: When you’re writing a score, how does it work? Are you there watching dailies, or just reading the script beforehand, or waiting till it’s all done?

Amram: It was the same for Frankenheimer and Kazan. I would go over the script with Kazan, going over ideas, with me usually arguing, “Let’s not have any music there; it’s going to interfere with the dialogue and wreck the scene. It stands better by itself.” The music should reflect and support what it is and still be good music that you could hear without the film—real music, not just grinding away with a series of diminished seventh chords with no beginning or middle or end like the music in elevators and supermarkets, which is created to put people in a state of not paying attention to anything.

Cineaste: In 1964, your score for Seven Days in May was rejected and replaced with a score by Jerry Goldsmith. Can you tell me what happened there?

Amram: I was invited to go see Miles Davis, and the producer [of Seven Days in May] Edward Lewis wanted to meet him. I had known Miles Davis for a long time, and I didn’t want to inflict anyone like Edward Lewis on him for my own peace of mind and my own reputation, and Lewis was so offended. I also said to him, “This is an amazing departure for John Frankenheimer. He’s taking the whole idea of the military industrial complex taking over the world and taking it a step further.” Lewis turned to me and said, quote, “It’s a piece of crap fairly well executed.”

I called up John Frankenheimer. I said, “John, I think they’re trying to wreck my score.” He said, “Look, I’m over here in Paris. I can’t do anything to help you out, I’m working on another movie. Just hang in there.” So, I was told [by Lewis], “We’re gonna scrap your score but we’re gonna pay you for what you did,” and I realized, well fine. Suddenly I got the hate vibes, suddenly I wasn’t the boy wonder. Jerry Goldsmith told me years later—that was one of his first film scores—that it was one of the easiest scores he ever did because all the producer Edward Lewis wanted was drumbeats; he cut out everything except for a fifty-seven-second section where they had a jazz group playing on the jukebox. So I didn’t feel bad about that because it was a wonderful movie and I was proud of the score I did, and I ended up using a part of it in my opera The Final Ingredient.

Cineaste: That was the last feature film you made in Hollywood during that period. You didn’t feel bad about leaving that behind?

Amram: I loved working with Kazan and Frankenheimer because, among other things, they were great directors and took pride in what they did and remained artists no matter what they were up against. Fortunately, I’m not a film composer; I’m a composer who occasionally writes for films. That’s not highfalutin, that’s just a choice you make. This was something wonderful to have the chance to do music for their films, and I had done the best I could, and all these years later I don’t have to apologize and say, “Well, I had to do that for money.”

Soon after that Leonard Bernstein chose me as the first composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic, and I figured my dream was to do what I’m doing now, to write symphonies and chamber music and play jazz and world music, to be a free person and be out there like an old-fashioned artist. It’s a precarious, unstable, and uneconomical way to do things, but I’m really glad that I was dumb enough to do so. [Laughs] My lawyers said you can do all that jazz and classical stuff later, but I said, “There is no later.” I hung in there. I always remembered what Jack Kerouac said. He got those phenomenal reviews for On the Road, but he thought his other books were better and they didn’t get the same attention. He said, “It made my book, but it ruined my life.”

Cineaste: I know you didn’t go back to Hollywood, but you did work with Kazan again on The Arrangement in 1969. I have an esoteric question about that. I know producers often wanted to work a pop song into scores to improve soundtrack sales. I’ve read that Joni Mitchell was asked to write a theme song for the film, but it didn’t get used, even though it showed up later on her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon.

Amram: I have always enjoyed her music and I thought it would be a thrill if she would be involved. The producers at Warner Bros. decided they wanted to scrap the symphonic music I had written for the title and have a song at the beginning. Today they do that all the time; it’s about money. I don’t think she thought of it that way. I went out to California and saw her do something with the LA Philharmonic back in 1969 and really loved it. She had these miraculous tunings, and she was sitting there for about five minutes to make sure that that miraculous tuning was in tune. All the musicians in the orchestra started looking grouchy, and she turned around and said, “Hi, fellas.” [Laughs] Everybody in the audience breathed a sigh of relief and chuckled, but the orchestra looked really angry. Finally, she said the classic line, “Well, that’s close enough for symphony.”

I still marvel at what an amazing songwriter, singer, and artist she’s been all these years and kept such a high standard as a painter and person and everything she’s written, including that beautiful tribute she wrote to Mingus, whom I played with in 1955. With all the stuff she’s done, she’s maintained an artistry and purity of spirit. I really admire all artists who didn’t fall into the trap of no longer caring about what they do. I was sorry I didn’t get to work with her because I thought she was just terrific.

Cineaste: Looking back at that time in Hollywood and everything you’ve done since then—you travel a lot and talk to audiences and especially students. What do you tell them when they ask about film composing? 

Amram: All I’ve learned is to respect every person and try to make a soul-to-soul connection and not to fall prey to being a bigot. The same thing goes for music and literature and for life. I call it the “University of Hangoutology”—I’m still learning from people who can teach you something. Working in music there are always people who are better than you’ll ever be and instead of being resentful or jealous, hang out with them and try to get better yourself.

I still love films and still consider film scoring to be an art, so I’m happy that the film world is now including fresh new films by African American, Latin American, Asian American, and Native American directors and writers, actors, and composers—all telling their stories to enrich our lives! Many gifted men and women like Danny Elfman, Terence Blanchard, Thomas Newman, and Kathryn Bostic are all having the chance to write excellent scores. There’s an army of fantastic young composers and musicians of all genres, ready to enhance new films, creating fresh new music that’s built to last.

David Amram, with Muhammad Ali, Buffy Ste. Marie, Red Crow Westerman,
Stevie Wonder, Marlon Brando, Dick Gregory, Richie Havens

Cineaste: Speaking of Hangoutology, so much of your work has been about the connections you make. How has COVID affected that? 

Amram: It’s just that I’ve had to hang out alone and say, “Well, man, if I believe in all these principles and espouse them, then I better practice what I preach, and walk the walk that I talk and remain truthful to those ideals.” There’s an old Hebrew prayer, the Yizkor, and it talks about something called Al Kiddush HaShem, which essentially means you set the standard not by what you’re talking about but by being that way—that’s some heavy stuff. Music and art and life itself is something beyond understanding, beyond anything you can control. You can only control your own behavior and realize that we’re all responsible for one another.  ■


1 The term “jazz poetry” first emerged during the Harlem Renaissance to describe the unaccompanied jazz- and blues-inflected writing of Langston Hughes, with whom Amram also worked; they cowrote the cantata “Let Us Remember” in 1965.

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