For 82-year-old musician, composer, conductor and author, David Amram, music and literature are inseparable. As much as the author of On the Road Jack Kerouac credited jazz for inspiring the rhythm of his writing, Amram’s jazz, and other music seems to erupt from the words of his old friends, including Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso.
Still working 16 hour days, “burning all THREE ENDS of the candle!!,” Amram wrote earlier this week, he is currently composing two musical numbers deeply rooted in the rhythms of literature.
The first is called Three Songs from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, sung by classical baritone James Martin, is due to premier at the New York Festival of Song next Spring. In an email to Literary Manhattan Amram wrote that the songs “Are three excerpts from On the Road which Jack used to read when I accompanied him in 1957 at New York City’s first-ever public jazz poetry readings which we pioneered together.”
The second, commissioned by classical saxophonist Ken Radnofsky, is called Greenwich Village Portraits: A Sonata for alto saxophone and piano. Amram told us three movements of the sonata are dedicated to the memory of playwright Arthur Miller, blues singer, Odetta, and author, Frank McCourt, and will be premiered in Greenwich Village by Radfofsky and forty other classical saxophonists scattered around the world, on February 15 of next year.
Amran is also author of three books, Vibrations, an autobiography, Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac, a memoir, and Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat, all published by Paradigm Publishers.
We asked the musician-author to tell us what the streets of New York meant to him as a writer. His response, dated April 14, 2013, will be included in Amram’s forthcoming new book David Amram: The Next 80 Years, according to a note at the bottom of our correspondence:
The streets of New York reflect the character and spirit of the city, and serve as a personal historian to anybody and everybody who has ever walked through them. No matter how lonely you might be, New York’s city streets always talk to you whether you are listening or not.
When Jack Kerouac and I used to take our late night/early morning strolls after an evening of poetry/music get togethers, usually at a painters loft for a bring your own bottle party or in a coffee house, the back room of a dingy bar, or on a park bench in the Village, accompanied by chess players, NYU students, off-duty bartenders, waiters, waitresses, or whoever was around, we would end the evening by taking strolls for hours down those quiet streets to discuss our seemingly impossible plans and look at what Jack referred to as the diamonds in the sidewalk.
New York’s city streets were definitely different than the cobble stone streets of Lowell Massachusetts, the mill town where Jack grew up or Bustleton Pike, the two lane country road that was the only thing resembling a street in Feasterville Pennsylvania, running by the farm where I grew up.
While every street in the world has at least one good story, New York’s streets have so many stories that whenever you walk them, you sense that your presence is simply part of a great sprawling epic adventure.
New York City’s streets tell you that if you are quiet and listen, you can absorb the unspoken history that is available if you really pay attention. These streets share all the memories of those ghosts of the past who return at night to visit. And when you walk down any of those streets today, old friends from the past, many of whom are no longer here, and the ghosts of people you wish you had known who walked those same streets all come back to greet you for a moment.
The sidewalks of every block have memories to share with you that are as strong and indestructible as the asphalt that is their foundation and those diamonds in the sidewalk still glisten every night and welcome you to new adventures.
On May 5 Amram will read from one of his favorite works on the rooftop of the Library Hotel for Literary Manhattan’s Spring Symposium, also featuring Beat Generation author and National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Joyce Johnson, Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop founder Julia Fierro, and Shane Romero, three-time National Slam Poetry Team member.