- Fionn Reilly
- David Amram
David Amram shares stories of his career ahead of his new album release on March 2.
Outside, the Beacon condominium blends right into the rest of the complex. It's one indistinguishable segment of a white, multi-unit box. But inside it's something unexpected: not the big-screen-and-a-Barcalounger end spot of a downsized retiree.
Every inch of flat surface is given over to the tools, the raw material, the reminders, and the products and byproducts of a constantly creative state of existence. Tabletops, desks, dressers, and bookshelves tower and overflow with stacks of lead sheets, paper-packed manila folders, books, and CDs. A woodcut sits side-by-side with a sleek MacBook; a primitive wooden flute lays perched atop a modern electronic keyboard. It's as if the walls of this place—randomly decorated with framed and unframed photos, award certificates, and concert posters—are all that's keeping this entropic extension of what's clearly an inventive mind from exploding into the world outside.
But in the end mere walls, be they metaphorical, artistic, or, yes, physical, can't contain the genius of the resident, David Amram. At 87, the inspirational polymath cited as "the Renaissance man of American music" continues to remind us of that wonderful fact.
"When I was a little kid, it was hard to explain to people what my dad did because he was always doing so many different things," says his daughter Alana Amram. "The other kids in school would say, 'My dad's a carpenter' or 'My dad's a doctor,' but I wasn't sure what to say. So I asked him and he went into this typically long, deep explanation: [adopts deep voice] 'Well, you can say I'm a composer, multi-instrumentalist, conductor, yada, yada, yada...' And I was, like, 'Dad! Can I just say musician?!'"
Fair enough. But, then again, for this writer of over 100 orchestral and chamber works; scorer of feature films, Broadway productions, and operas; and collaborator of such icons as Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller, Dizzy Gillespie, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, Jackson Pollock, Leonard Bernstein, Charles Mingus, Langston Hughes, Pete Seeger, Franz Kline, Eugene Ormandy, Willie Nelson, Hunter S. Thompson, and Thelonius Monk, to "just say musician" would also mean leaving out many other titles. Like author, narrator, actor, and...farmer.
"It was wonderful," says Amram, who was born in New York in 1930, about growing up on his family's dairy farm in Feasterville, Pennsylvania. "At that time, the population in Feasterville was about 200. I actually learned a lot about the discipline of playing an instrument from being on the farm. The cows have to be milked, even when you might not feel like doing it, and it's the same with practicing: You might not feel like doing it sometimes, but you still have to do it if you want to be good."
There was music around Feasterville, mainly folk styles, it being a rural area. "My parents knew a lot of older local folk artists; I met Pete Seeger at a Henry Wallace rally in 1948 and I was just fascinated by the banjo," he recalls about his future Beacon neighbor. "There was also a lot of traditional Jewish music in my family, and I had some uncles from Las Vegas who exposed me to Native American music. At one point we lived in an area where there was a lot Polish music and "cowboy music," or what we now call country music. Folk music has what I also love about jazz: the spontaneity."
Although he loved music, initially he'd planned to follow his father into the field of agriculture. The elder Amram, who would soon take the family off the farm due to hard times, though, wasn't having it. "My dad asked me what I wanted to be, and I told him I wanted to be a farmer," says Amram. "He said, 'Well, son, there's no money it.' So I told him, 'Well, then I want to be a musician.' And he said, 'There's no money in that, either!' [Laughs.]"
Nevertheless, Amram's parents sensed the promise in his musical passion and nurtured it, especially after the nascent French hornist, at 14, met and was encouraged by New York Philharmonic conductor Dimitri Mitropoulis. He attended Oberlin College Conservatory in 1948 but ended up pursuing a degree in history at George Washington University, graduating in 1952. While in Washington, DC, he performed with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Latin jazz band of drummer Buddy Rowell, and hosted jam sessions and post-gig parties in his basement apartment that were attended by bebop greats Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.