by Scott Yanow
UPBEAT: NINE LIVES OF A MUSICAL CAT
Whether playing French horn in jazz settings, writing for the New York Philharmonic or jamming on pennywhistle and flutes in dozens of countires, David Amram has seeming encountered everyone in music over the past 60 years. At one point in Upbeat, Amram writes of being stranded in London while waiting for a flight to Kenya. "I was so wrecked I couldn't sleep, so I called up Andre Previn. Then I called up my cousin, Robert Amram; writers Fran and Jay Landsman; music journalist Mark Gardner; a Charlie Parker scholar and champion of jazz, French horn virtuoso Barry Tuckwell; and singers Annie Ross and Georgia Brown."
Since Amram has already written his memoirs (Vibrations), Upbeat is an episodic remembrance of a variety of colorful, surprising events from his long career; all of it rings true, even the most remarkable stories. Starting with an ad-libbed jam session at an airport in India that saves the day, Amram discusses an extensive party that celebrated the late Hunter S. Thompson, his lengthy visit to Kenya, visiting Cuba with Dizzy Gillespie in 1977, the legacy of Jack Kerouac, an exploration of Native American music, his disastrous (but often hilarious) experience working on a Broadway show that bombed, and how he makes up rhyming lyrics on the spot during concerts, definitely an unusual skill for a classical conductor.
Throughout this very colorful book, Amram somehow remembers hundreds of conversations and incidents. While he displays a vast knowledge of music, he makes everything seem not only accessible but also irresistible. All kinds of unexpected characters pass through these tales, including guest appearances from the likes of Ray Barretto, Leonard Bernstein, Johnny Depp, Bob Dylan, Sir James Galway, actress Janet Gaynor, Charles Mingus, Parker and George McGovern. Amram has clearly been a musical genius since the 1950's, and through his enthusiasm for all varieties of sound (he was one of the very first Western artists to become skilled at various forms of world music from Asia, Africa, and South America), he makes it all sound logical and effortless. He celebrates his famous acquaintances without bragging about his own abilities, and he constantly displays a wide-eyed wonder about music as a universal language.
While all the stories can leave one dazed, after one gets used to the fact that Amram is a citizen of the world, who can improvise (either musically of verbally) in any setting, Upbeat is a delight.
From The Boston Globe
March 2, 2008
Been there, played that
Amram recounts a life of writing, making music
Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat
David Amram identifies himself as "a full-time composer who is also an improviser, a conductor, a free-association scat singer," but that hardly covers the range of his work. Amram seems to have done everything there is to do in the world of music. He has written operas and symphonies, played jazz with Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, composed the musical scores of the movies "Splendor in the Grass" and "The Manchurian Candidate" (the original version), conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, played backup piano for Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg reading from their work, directed the free summer concerts of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, played Farm Aid concerts with Willie Nelson, and composed a flute concerto premiered by Sir James Galway. That is a sampling of his work that includes more than a hundred formal musical compositions, an educational video, and a documentary film.
Now in his late 70s, the seemingly inexhaustible Amram tells us in his new book, "Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat," how he played with "Masai tribesmen in Kenya, country musicians in Texas, in a bell tower in Holland, and at a workshop in New Orleans for 300 flutists." Amram writes, "Improvising words and music on the spot and doing what feels right at the moment is what I have done since my days in the army in 1952." That ability led him to collaborate with Kerouac in improvising and writing the music for a kind of home movie of the Beat Generation called "Pull My Daisy," and in recent times to lead the playing and singing of his "Theme and Variations on My Old Kentucky Home" at a combination memorial and celebration for Hunter S. Thompson that featured the late author's ashes being fired from a cannon.
When Jimmy Carter gave permission to a group of jazz musicians to go to Cuba in 1977, thereby becoming the first sanctioned American tourists to visit since Fidel Castro took over, Amram joined Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and Earl "Fathah" Hines for 36 hours in Havana. Dizzy refused to follow the itinerary planned by Cuban officials, telling Amram, "We don't have to give out or take in any propaganda. Let's just hang out. We'll be cool wherever we go." They ended up, happily, in the outdoor gardens of the Havana Libre, jamming with local musicians including the renowned trumpeter Arturo Sandoval.
The World Council of Churches sent Amram to Kenya to put on two concerts in Nairobi, and he found his way to the countryside to play with Masai tribesmen, returning with "two new songs I could play and sing in Swahili."
In the United States, Amram has immersed himself in the music of Native Americans, composing two symphonies - "Trail of Beauty" and "Kokopelli" - based on songs and melodies of the Pueblo people. He also learned to play the Lakota duck flute, called a sheeho, and performed at benefits on reservations and at folk and jazz festivals throughout the United States and Canada with singer and guitarist Floyd Red Crow Westerman. He has encouraged the programming of quality music by serious composers who work in cultural genres that are not included in what he calls "the tunnel vision of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Achtung approach of many orchestra managements."
Amram's travels and exploits exemplify the "upbeat" of his title. But he also explores the "downbeat," expressing the hope that his book may offer inspiration for "how to deal with the struggling and rejection that we all face in life between our occasional triumphs, without letting your own flame ever be extinguished, no matter how much it flickers." He tells what it's like to work on a Tony Award-winning show on Broadway ("Medea") and what it's like to work on a flop - the disastrously overproduced stage version of the movie "Harold and Maude," for which Amram had labored long and hard on a musical score.
That last experience left a downbeat taste in the mouth of this habitually upbeat musician. He laments that the "producers who used to bring world-class theater are being replaced by a new generation of entrepreneurs who think that Batman, Jerry Springer, reality TV programs, kung fu, ultimate fighting, porno movies, and shows designed to look like video games are what Broadway needs on stage to satisfy as well as to attract audiences."
After his venting, Amram soon is busy composing his saxophone concerto "Ode to Lord Buckley," conducting young people's concerts in Brooklyn, Vancouver, and Montreal, and performing with his quartet. Like his entertaining previous book "Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac," Amram's "Upbeat" is a kind of concerto in rap, a scat on his globe-trotting talks and performances, advising people wherever he goes to "turn their TV sets off and find much more fulfillment and renewed mental health by enrolling in courses at their own regional tuition-free University of Hangoutology."
Dan Wakefield's memoir "New York in the Fifties" has recently been republished by Greenpoint Press.
From The St. Petersburg Times
October 14, 2007
Music makes Amram's stories go 'round
David Amram is busy, making music, making connections
by William McKeen, Special to the Times
David Amram could use one response for everything: "Been there, done that." Because he has. Amram is a 20th century musical Zelig, and like that Woody Allen character, he stands at the edge of hundreds of historical photographs, swapping stories with musicians, writers and actors.
Upbeat, Amram's latest memoir, finds him again spreading his musical wings over the world. Before the people at Best Buy figured out there was a category called "world music," that's what Amram was doing: speaking the universal language.
He tells a story - and he's very good at that - about being marooned in an airport in India. He and 100 other passengers learn via the airport squawk box that their flight is delayed again. Curses. Anger. What does Amram do? He starts a drum circle to ease the tension. Everyone was giddy when the flight finally took off.
Maybe it's corny, but it proves music's ability to bridge cultures. Even in his seventies, Amram remains busier than most musicians a third his age, conducting here, lecturing there and on the road heading for another gig.
He's made some interesting friends. Back in the 1950s, he met and collaborated with Jack Kerouac on Pull My Daisy, a bebop musical sketch that sounds just as fun and relevant today (because Amram always changes the words). In Upbeat, he recalls how that 50-year-old piece of music continues to evolve and open doors for him.
With Dizzy Gillespie, Amram was part of the first U.S.-Cuban musical exchange of 1977, full of political and social significance - and another chance for improvisation as he and Dizzy serve as pied pipers to the street kids of Havana.
Amram is a great musician, composer and storyteller. Shouldn't it be against the law for someone to be so good at so many things?