The Beats go on, thanks to vital elder

Jazz composer and musician David Amram does more at age 70 than most people have ever done. Talking by phone (from his car), he says he had just been in Denver; performed with Pete Seeger in upper New York and Patti Smith in the Bowery; been on a panel in Worcester, Mass., and performed in Staten Island -- and that's just one week. "The gyroscope of my life," Amram says, "gives me all the energy I need.

"But," he laughed, "my teen-age years are just about over."

Amram will be in Orlando this weekend for the Central Florida Book, Jazz and Art Festival, in celebration of his friend and collaborator, the late Jack Kerouac. Like the improvisations of jazz, Amram considers his life an improv as well, and that's what keeps him going. With more than 100 pieces written and performed over his lifetime, he says his work is more like a novel than a musical score: "Life experiences, thank-you letters, homages to the amazing people I've known -- I'm always writing."

His latest work, a concerto commissioned by Irish flautist James Galway titled "Giants of the Night" is a dedication to Kerouac, Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker, while "Missa Manhattan," a collaboration with author Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes), depicts the immigrant experience in America.

Amram started his career in the early 1950s recording with Lionel Hampton, and by the end of the decade was an influential figure in the New York Beat scene, originating the jazz/poetry reading concept with Kerouac. Amram sees the Beat ideal as a positive one, in direct opposition to the black, doomsday mindset depicted by the popular media. "It's not the Beat Generation museum stereotype that epitomizes the period, any more than "The Beverly Hillbillies" or "Hee-Haw" has to do with writers from the South."

About Kerouac he simply says, "I was fortunate to know him. More than anything, just like Jack, I'm a reporter about what happened around me, sort of an anthropologist."

His satisfaction at seeing contemporaries like Parker and pianist Thelonious Monk being recognized "as serious composers and not oddities," is also a reflection of the recognition Amram himself finally feels he's getting. He is reportedly one of the 20 most-performed composers in the country. While not a shy man, he's still self-effacing enough to be pleased by the attention. "I never expected it would happen -- that people I didn't even know would be performing my music. I tell young writers and musicians that you don't have a career -- your work has the career. My music is finally having its own career, now that I'm 70."

One aspect of his music has always been a fascination with ethnic percussion and indigenous music. In albums like "Havana/New York" (1977) and "At Home/ Around the World" (1980) he introduced rhythms from Guatelmala, Pakistan and Kenya before "world music" was a twinkle in a record company executive's eye.

"In all the places I've been, this music was given to me for free to bring home. I suppose it's an honor to be called a ‘pioneer,' but I always think of pioneers as traveling through the Donner Pass and eventually getting eaten. Call me an appreciator, not a pioneer."

In addition to his headlining performance at the festival, on Friday, May 4, Amram will be at Border's Books in Winter Park (2 p.m.) and Altamonte Springs (4 p.m.), signing his autobiography, "Vibrations: The Adventures and Musical Times" of David Amram, recently reissued by Thunder's Mouth Press with a new forward and epilogue. He's also performing at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Chapters Cafe & Bookshop, with his percussionist son, Adam, and poet/actress daughter Adira ($35 including dinner; 407-246-1546).

Scroll to read more Music Stories + Interviews articles

Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.