INTERVIEW: David Amram (CD Box Set David Amram’s Classic American Film Scores 1956-2016 and UK appearances Nov 29 to Dec 3)

David Amram (french horn) with Percy Heath and Dizzy Gillespie in 1986

DAVID AMRAM (b. 1930) is an extraordinary figure in American music. Starting out on the French horn, he developed into a multi-instrumentalist (proficient on about three dozen instruments) and a distinguished composer and conductor. He has played and worked with an astonishing roster of the greats in jazz music — and those outside it, too — including Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, Sir James Galway and Willie Nelson. 

Amram went into the Army in the 1950s — “I showed up at the induction centre with one civilian suit, my French horn mouthpiece… a copy of Walter Piston’s book on Harmony and a shaving bag.” Amram was not destined to be a career soldier. After two years, he was discharged in Germany and became part of the thriving European jazz scene. 

Back in America, in addition to attending Manhattan school of Music studying composition and orchestration, he played with Charles Mingus at the Café Bohemia and with Oscar Pettiford’s Orchestra at the 1956 concert Town Hall with Thelonious Monk, composed the score as well as appearing in Jack Kerouac and photographer and film-maker Robert Frank's classic underground film "Pull My Daisy”, developing into a composer of major orchestral, chamber and operatic works and scores for film and theatre.

It is Amram’s work in the latter capacity which brings him to the UK next week. He is here to launch a five-CD collection  — "David Amram’s Classic American Film Scores 1956-2016"  — which also features his work for the stage, including music for Arthur Miller’s "After the Fall".

David set the scene for his arrival by taking a whirlwind tour of his equally whirlwind career in a TransAtlantic telephone conversation, in which he was warm, open, fascinating and often hilarious (“I appreciate you doing this on the phone, juggling it in one hand, trying to type with the other and probably swatting flies at the same time!”) Andrew Cartmel asked the questions:

LondonJazz News: To start with — a warm welcome to the UK, where you’re appearing in London and Manchester. It’s a privilege to have you performing here. When were you last over in these parts?

David Amram: The last time — speaking of bebop events — was when they had the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s manuscript for On the Road which was typed on one continuous sheet of paper in a roll —  at the British Library. (It was exhibited in 2012) It was nestling there with Beowulf and Shakespeare and Emily Brontë — all these people Jack adored. Jack Kerouac, who was of French Canadian extraction, only learned English when he was six years old and he really appreciated the masters of English literature. It’s hard to imagine how grateful he would have been to know his scroll was there among his mentors — just like Louis Armstrong, Monk and Bach were for me as a composer. I gave a little concert at the library of the kind of jazz which Jack would have appreciated and which he grew up with. This was in 2012.

LJN: Your musical career began in earnest in Europe in the 1950s, when you escaped the clutches of the US military and began playing with the likes of Albert Mangelsdorff, Jutta Hipp, Bobby Jaspar, Lars Gullin and Raymond Fol. What differences do you see between the jazz scene in Europe and in the States, both then and now?

DA: Back then I could simply say there were daring pioneers, some of whom like George Shearing and Marian McPartland, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine came to the States and they became part of the world jazz scene. But there were these other great players like Tony Crombie, Jimmy Deuchar and Don Rendell, whom I played with when they came to Paris. They were terrific players. We were all part of the same family. But at that time it was difficult to find confident, wonderful bass players and drummers who were free to travel, because they all had day jobs! Now, when I came to London in 2005 I went to Brixton and it was so warm and welcoming. It was just like going to Harlem in the 1950s. Great neighbourhood with wonderful jazz players. They had so many great bass players and drummers. I would say in the last sixty years rather than needing to import somebody from the USA to play bass and drums, now they don’t even need people from the States. This is an embodiment of what Monk told me in his apartment in 1955. He said “Some day those people over there in Japan, Norway, England they’re not just going to get our records and copy what we played. They’re going to make their own jazz. That’s the idea.” Here I was in 2005 seeing that what he said was now happening, and not just in the UK.

LJN: Besides working and hanging out with jazz greats like Monk, Charley Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sonny Rollins, you’ve also known Bob Dylan and literary titans like Arthur Miller, Jack Kerouac, Terry Southern and Hunter S. Thompson. Can you explain this knack you have for falling in with such legendary figures?

DA: I can tell you, believe it or not, that it’s just the the same way that Jason Lazell [of Moochin’ About Records] contacted me out of the blue and said he wanted to put out a five CD box set of my music. Everything of significance in my life has come of bumping into people. Back in 1958 Elia Kazan’s costume designer for the Broadway play JB said, “There’s this kid who writes music for these free productions of Shakespeare in the Park.” And Kazan had just tried to hire ten famous composers, but they were all busy. It was a fluke. John Frankenheimer’s wife went to all these off-Broadway plays for which I was composing incidental music and that led to me doing the score for the 1959 television version of The Turn of the Screw for Frankenheimer. Then when he moved into feature films, he took me with him. Hunter Thompson and I bought baked beans and turpentine from the same general store in the wilds of New York State. The guy who ran the store and who never said anything suddenly one day said to me, “I’ve seen the flying saucers landing and the people getting out of them. I can’t tell anyone else because they’d take my store away. But I can tell you because you’re a musician. The only other person I told was that crazy writer living on the hill.” And the crazy writer turned out to be Hunter S. Thompson who was then working for a little local newspaper. In 1956, before On the Road was published, I met Kerouac at a bring your own bottle party at a painter’s loft. I was carrying my instrument and he handed me a piece of paper and asked me to play to the words. Arthur Miller I began to work with because he was doing his new play After the Fall to open the Lincoln Centre Theatre and Kazan was directing it. As they say in the bible, “All things come to those who wait.” As they say in New York City — even better— “What’s the rush?”

LJN: Beyond jazz you’ve done impressive work in the world of theatre and film music, writing soundtracks for Elia Kazan’s "Splendor in the Grass" and "The Arrangement" and John Frankenheimer’s films "The Young Savages" and "The Manchurian Candidate". Your score for the latter film is particularly brilliant, and I believe that Frank Sinatra (the star of "The Manchurian Candidate") was especially impressed with it?

DA: Sinatra actually said that in an interview. That was a mind-blower because he was not known for throwing around compliments. And that’s putting it mildly. I never got to meet him when he was working on the film. Then a few years later there was a party at the Village Gate for George Plimpton and somebody said “Frank’s downstairs and wants to see you.” I said “Frank who?” And it was Sinatra. I went down there and he was sitting at a table and he was really nice. He said “I loved your music for The Manchurian Candidate. I’m sorry the film’s no longer available.” [An eerily prophetic tale of political assassination, The Manchurian Candidate was withdrawn from circulation for about 15 years. Many people believed this was because its plot was too similar to the killing of John F. Kennedy.] Sinatra was nice and really gracious. I’d like to have seen more of him — but he had so many handlers, and you could never get past the handlers! He wanted to know why there was never a soundtrack released. A lot of people liked that score. I’d worked with the tenor sax player Harold Land on it, and also on my earlier movie for Frankenheimer, The Young Savages. Harold Land had never played on a film score before and I had to fight and argue and beg and plead to get the powers that be to use someone they’d never heard of. Then they said, “This guy’s fantastic — where does he live?” I said, “Two blocks away!” But in 1962 jazz was no longer in fashion. The score also featured classical orchestral music, like the main title, which people seemed to love, but they couldn’t equate the fact that there was such diverse music operating in the same world. They were looking for something straightforward, with a hit song, to launch a soundtrack album. But the music was appreciated. I was offered the opportunity to compose seven film scores in one year after I did that. I said I couldn’t write, orchestrate and conduct that much in one year and do a really good job. And they said, “Oh, you don’t have to. You can use ghost writers and orchestrators.” And I said “I don’t use ghost writers or orchestrators. I’m a composer. I write my own music.” And they looked at me like I was something out of antiquity. So I followed my career death wish. But I knew that if I had followed that course, and gone down that particular rabbit hole, five years later — if I were lucky — I would have been the ghost writer for the next David Amram. So I followed the long road and I’m still on it, at the age of 85. I urge everyone to take the long road and follow those career death wishes.

LJN: The intersection of jazz and film music is a fascinating one, and you’ve been one of the key composers in this area. Are there any other milestone jazz scores, by other musicians, which you admire?

DA: Duke Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder is just magnificent and Miles Davis’s Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) is terrific. And Alfie where you can hear Sonny Rollins playing. There was a documentary film made of Ornette in Paris in 1966, documenting Ornette and his trio creating the score for the Belgian film Who's Crazy? directed by Dick Fontaine. Mingus wrote a great score for Shadows and Lee Konitz wrote one for Lowell Blues, a documentary about Kerouac.

LJN: Are there any new jazz musicians working on the scene today you particularly admire and whom you’d like to draw our attention to?

DA: There’s an incredible jazz French-horn player from Holland called Morris Kliphuis; he’s fantastic. He’s taking what I and Julius Watkins were doing 50 years ago, and taking it to a new level. In Denver, there’s a trumpeter Hugh Ragin, another trumpeter (who also plays bass), Brad Goode, a drummer Tony Black and a bass player Artie Moore. Elsewhere in the States there’s singer-songwriter John Fullbright, a true jazz sensibility with great Oklahoma folk style and killer harmonies. Austin Texas trumpeter Ephraim Owens, a natural lyric voice with very much his own style and Esmerelda Spalding, a great singer and virtuoso bass player who serves as a role model for excellence, soulfulness and sophistication.

Dsvid Amram in 2012

LJN: For someone who is unfamiliar with your own music, what records would you recommend as a good place to start listening? Besides the new Moochin’ About set, of course.

DA: My Triple Concerto for Woodwinds Brass and Jazz Quintets. And there’s a new recording you can get online called This Land (Symphonic Variations On a Song by Woody Guthrie), which contains all the different kinds of musics I’ve worked in all my life.

LJN: Speaking of which, your writing and playing embraces a vast range of styles and influences, including classical, folk and world music. Do you feel jazz is at the root of it all?

DA: The jazz philosophy is at the root of it all. This was best expressed by Monk’s son T.S. Monk. He said, “Just remember you’re one of the last living old cats whom my father had come by the house.” (Back when T.S. was five, now he’s 65!). “You have a responsibility to every five-year-old, high school kid and guitar player in the land. Always try to get across the passion of what this music is about. The young cats these days have the chops but they don’t have the philosophy.” And the philosophy is that everybody deserves to have the chance, if they’re eager, and respectful, to sit in with the band. It might be at 4am, after the show, but they have a chance. Even if it’s just a wishful kid in a near-empty room with just a drunk, or an angry bartender. It’s our job to pass on that egalitarianism and that passion and that sense of the now. That beautiful spirit of knowing you’re only going to hear it played in this way that one time. That’s the sanctity of the now — the purity of intent and that exquisite choice of notes.

David Amram’s Classic American Film Scores 1956-2016 is released by Moochin About.(MOOCHIN09- WEBSITE)

UK TOUR DATES: LONDON 29th NOVEMBER: Amram will be performing with Guy Barker in London at the Electric Carousel in association with the Rah Rah Room, a cabaret venue in Piccadilly. (BOOKINGS)

LONDON DECEMBER 1st: A 6 30pm event at Ray’s Jazz in Foyles bookshop, Charing Cross Road. (BOOKINGS). 

 MANCHESTER DECEMBER 2nd and 3rd Two nights at La Gitane (DETAILS / BOOKINGS)

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