Afterward for David Amram's Vibrations (Paradigm 2009)
I first read David Amram's autobiography Vibrations in 1987 when I was seventeen, having found it by chance in the library looking for books about Bob Dylan and James Dean. And even though I had no ambition of becoming a composer or a musician like David happened to be, I was completely and utterly in love with New York City in the late 1950s and its impossibly romantic bohemian scene. Vibrations was set right in the middle of it.
David worked with jazz greats Lionel Hampton and Charlie Mingus, playwright Arthur Miller and movie director Elia Kazan, he recorded jazz albums in Paris, wrote an opera about the Holocaust for network television, shot a cameo in Robert Frank's experimental film Pull My Daisy and was the first composer for Joe Papp's Shakespeare in the Park.
He spoke fluent French and Spanish and German, learned to play two and three penny whistles at once, the Middle Eastern dumbek, the Chinese husai and wove into his symphonies and concertos rhythms from Native and Latin America, from India, from Marrakesh. And even though his work was refined and eclectic and sometimes a little bit obscure, he was forever immortalized into American pop culture by both Esquire and Life magazine.
The Esquire article came first, in 1957, just two years after he arrived in New York, a photograph of David all buttoned up in a jacket and tie playing the French horn with his quartet at the Five Spot in Greenwich Village with directions for readers on how they could find him. The article in Life was published a little over ten years later after that, a three-page story laid out in the exact same format the magazine had used to introduce new talent before, like Jackson Pollack in 1949 or Jean Seberg in 1963.
Under the headline, "David Amram, A Rising American Composer," Diana Lurie wrote, "David Amram, his teeth clenched with conviction tackles a set of snare drums with the bravado of a Buddy Rich, breakfasts on rice, almonds and peppermint tea and goes lumbering down Park Avenue in a battered Land Rover."
The article continues, "He has composed dozens of works for orchestra and chamber groups which are becoming widely performed, three movie scores and several jazz pieces. Last year he became the New York Philharmonic's first resident composer in the 1966-67 season. In this post he wrote The King Lear Variations, which was performed last spring. After hearing it, one veteran critic predicted that if young Amram kept it up, he would most likely help set a direction for modern American music."
Vibrations was just another part of all this, just another unexpected project from David's quirky well-lived life. He had first balked at the idea of writing it thinking that at the age of thirty-six he was still far too young to write his autobiography. But an editor at MacMillian persisted and so David eventually gave in deciding that if nothing else a book would reflect well on his literary family, (his mother and sister were both translators, his father and grandfather legal scholars), as well as help promote his music, for the classical composer always an unpredictable and often less than profitable pursuit.
He started writing and not without hesitation for aside from an undergraduate history thesis on the social effects of whaling in Nantucket and a barely started novel about a young Greek American French horn player, he had never really written anything longer than the occasional poem or letter.
Still, over the years much of his best musical compositions and performances had been inspired by plays, movies, novelists and poets, he had a memory well-honed from learning and conducting classical music scores and he knew from his work as a composer and musician that the best forms of self expression always required two simple things: Purity of intent and an exquisite choice of notes. After a long year of writing, Vibrations would have both.
Which, is why, I think, it left such a powerful impression on me. For even though David's life was filled with extraordinarily talented people and circumstances and moments and scenes, his telling of it was very humble and very beautiful, very real.
He came into this life out of nowhere he wrote, (having spent his boyhood on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, the only Jewish family in a town of a hundred and twenty and his adolescence in one of the few integrated neighborhoods in Washington D.C.), he worried about pleasing his parents and smarter older sister and knew very well what it was like to try and try and sometimes be rejected or fail and how hard such rejections or failures were, especially when times were lean.
But there was also the grand old community of composers and musicians, who since his boyhood had encouraged him and taken him under their wing, (like Dmitri Metropolis and Leonard Bernstein), his West Village community of like minded poet and painter acquaintances and friends, (like e. e. cummings and Franz Kline), and the warmth of his one and half room Sixth Avenue walk-up, barely big enough to move a piano in. "When are you going to give up on this bourgeois existence," his close friend Jack Kerouac once joked while temporarily camped out in a sleeping bag on his couch.
Lives like this really happen, I thought. Lives like this could include -- me. I studied the photographs in Vibrations for evidence of stories I read in the text, (if the bungalow David shared during the summers he worked on Fire Island was as bare as he wrote, if he really walked through wintry streets with his French horn and a bag full of instruments slung over his shoulder like a sailor headed out to sea). And made lists of the addresses of places I promised myself to one day go out into the world and find, to one day go out into the world and be, (the Art Foods Deli, the Café Figaro, the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate).
Today I laugh when I think about how this book enchanted me, because at the time it was already twenty-years old. In 1987 David was no longer a rising young composer but an established, respected one composing hundreds more symphonic works including ones for the Philadelphia Orchestra, choreographer Jacques D'Amboise, flutist James Gallway and the family of Woody Guthrie.
He had gone on to perform in Cuba with Dizzy Gillespie and all over the country with Floyd Red Crow Westerman and Willie Nelson, become a lyric in a famous children's song and had long moved out of his Sixth Avenue apartment having married and become a father, all facts about his life that I had no idea about when I first read his autobiography when I was seventeen. Such are the power of stories, especially life ones. They forever freeze a person in time, lasting far longer than the actual person, the actual time itself.
I know this truth well, since today, amazingly, I know David Amram in life and not just his autobiography. In the early spring of 2005 I met him after asking him to participate in one of my courses on the sociology of American culture and we quickly became artistic and pedagogical collaborators, putting together a series of lectures and courses not only about this topic but also, the often discordant relationship between our respective disciplinary homes, his being the arts, mine, the academy.
It has been an exciting and productive collaboration, one that has taken us from the University of Denver to Shakespeare's New Globe Theatre to the 2008 Democratic National Convention to Brown University. We have created courses and programming about the 50th Anniversary of Jack Kerouac's novel On The Road, the historical links between jazz poetry and hip hop, the legacy of the American civil rights movement and of David's own artistic and cultural legacy.
But it has also been a challenging one, for no matter how much alike in mind and taste and spirit we may be, there is always the burden of my seventeen year old imagination haunting us. Though I know that he is seventy-eight and his autobiography, forty-three, David at thirty-six, (almost my exact same age at our first actual, real live meeting), is often all I can ever see -- even at his sixtieth high school reunion.
I try to talk about this with David all the time, of what it might have been had we met and had been the same age. But this conversation doesn't really interest him. For David, age is all at once an inevitable and unimportant truth about who we are. That is, he is, quite simply, who he is today, the exact same person he was in his late thirties, only older. He doesn't see himself as being anything more or less than who he was then.
And as for what it would have been like to meet me then, the question just seems silly to him. "Audrey," he always says calmly. "You weren't born yet. Charlie Parker always said 'now' is the time, now is the time. Let's talk about 'now,' not then."
So we talk about "now" and I think about "then." I can't help it. Especially whenever I venture to his old neighborhood doing him a favor by delivering his latest symphonic work to his music copyist or meeting him after his monthly gig in the city.
I make my way to Cornelia St. and Bleecker and walk down the steps to the basement club where he plays. And then I suddenly I stop, right there in the middle of the steps and said out loud to myself, "What are you doing? You have to get over this. You have to stop thinking you're going around with David Amram in Greenwich Village in the 1950s."
But then I suddenly heard David playing through the tunneled doorways in that basement bar and am left with no other choice but to keep going, feeling all the stories in Vibrations I once read and re-read and forever committed to my memory feeling solid beneath my feet. "Just once more," I whisper to myself walking down the steps. "'Now' can wait one more night."