Speaking of his days as Jack Kerouac’s musical accompanist, David Amram says that he and the “On The Road” author were “master hang-out-ologists.” If there were a Hall of Fame for that, Amram would be in on the first ballot – even if he’s always spent more time working than just hanging out.
In a career spanning more than a half-century, Amram has played with everyone from jazz trumpeter Miles Davis to country singer Willie Nelson, along with conductor Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Johnny Depp and countless others. He also has some iconic soundtracks to his credit, including “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Splendor in the Grass.”
Though he’s in his 80s now, Amram keeps busy performing around the New York area, where he lives, and beyond.
We caught up with him by phone in advance of his appearances around Chapel Hill this week for a series of performances and presentations, “Celebrate David Amram!” Hassan Melehy, a professor of French who also specializes in film studies and is writing a book on Kerouac, organized the event in honor of Amram at UNC-Chapel Hill, which houses one of the largest collections in existence of published “Beat Generation” material.
Q: Is Jack Kerouac the collaborator you’re asked about the most?
Not always, but a lot. For so many years he was so horribly perceived and misrepresented, and it’s wonderful to see Jack being appreciated and acknowledged now, he’s read in different languages all over the world. At the British Museum in London, they had his original scroll from “On The Road,” in the same building as manuscripts by Dickens, Thackery, Shakespeare. He’d be grateful to be in the same place as these iconic English writers. He’d say in that Lowell accent, “I’m an AUTHOR, a-u-t-h-o-r, why don’t they read my books?” He was a modest person in a culture focused on egomania and narcissism, very much out of place and misunderstood.
Q: How did you break into the film soundtrack business?
It was mostly the result of a mantra Kerouac was chanting over burgers someplace at 3 a.m. This was 1956, nobody was interested in anything we were doing – he’d had one book published that no one read, I was writing music no one was performing. “By your works shall ye be known,” he said that over and over until we were asked to leave. So I just kept at it. “Splendor in the Grass” came about because two years before I’d done a play called “JB.” It was so far out, I don’t think anyone else wanted to be involved. They’d asked 10 people who all said no. Then (costume designer) Lucinda Ballard said, “There’s a kid doing music for Shakespeare in the Park, he might fit.” It was a thousand to one, but (director) Elia Kazan got me to do the music, and “J.B.” ended up winning the Pulitzer. Kazan liked the music, so he got me to do “Splendor in the Grass.”
Q: What advice would you have for young people who want to get into film?
My only advice from my own experience would be, every time you leave the house always do the best you can whether you’re playing a bar or a prison or Carnegie Hall – and I’ve done all three. “No matter how ratty the joint, every night is Carnegie Hall to me,” (jazz bassist) Charles Mingus would say. You have to do much better than what is expected and more. The other way is to become a super networker, and there are a lot of people like that. But as a composer, ultimately all you have to offer is your music and your attitude. Write good music, and understand how to tune into the feelings of others. It’s about respect, industriousness and concern about the whole picture and being a part of it. Fifty-seven years later, those films are still on TV all the time and they hold up. Young people might not think they have a chance to become Elia Kazan. But the best thing to do is find a friend who’s making a film, which you can do on an iPhone nowadays without one cent from investors, and write music to go with it. That’s better than thinking, “How can I get my big chance to become a one-hit wonder?”
Q: How did you like Hollywood?
I was astounded at what Hollywood was really like, compared to my dream. In spite of that, I did some good music. I did all the writing and orchestrating myself, didn’t hire someone and put my name on it – which happens a lot. After “The Manchurian Candidate,” I was offered seven films in one year, and I told them I couldn’t possibly do that much work and do a good job of it. They looked at me as if I needed mental help. “That’s why you have ghost writers,” they said. “I don’t do that, I do all my own work,” I said. They looked at me with such disgust that I realized, even though I was only 31 years old, I’d better go back to New York and my $85-a-month apartment. If I didn’t, five years later I’d end up being the ghostwriter for the next David Amram after they got sick of me, if I was lucky.
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