David Amram: Artist, Composer, and Beloved Villager
David Werner Amram III is an American composer, arranger, and conductor of orchestral, chamber, and choral works, many with jazz flavorings. He plays piano, French horn, Spanish guitar, and pennywhistle, sings, and is passionate about teaching music to newer generations. In 2014, Village Preservation conducted an oral history with Amram that explores his childhood, adolescent inspirations, young adulthood in Greenwich Village, amazing career, and his thoughts on the past and future of the Village.
Listen to the oral history or read the full transcript here. The interview took place the morning after Pete Seeger died; Amram was visibly affected by the loss, and received several calls throughout the day.
Amram was born on November 17, 1930, and even as a child knew the Greenwich Village was THE place to be, saying “Greenwich Village to the people of our generation was always a place that we heard of, sort of one of those magical places in the 1930s.” By the mid-1940s Amram was regularly visiting the Village and immersing himself in the scene. He moved here in 1955, living at 319 East 8th Street from 1955-57, Christopher Street from 1957-1959, and 6th Avenue and 11th Street until he was thrown out of his rent-controlled apartment.
In 1956, Amram was hired by Joseph Papp to compose scores for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Amram went on to compose scores for twenty-five of Papp’s productions. In 1957, Amram, along with Jack Kerouac and poets Howard Hart and Philip Lamantia, staged one of the first poetry readings with jazz at the 10th Street Galleries.
Amram worked with world-class talent including Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Willie Nelson, Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, Charles Mingus, Pete Seeger, Allen Ginsberg, Nina Simone, and Bob Dylan, to name a few. Amram was a regular at many of the most renowned Village clubs and cafes of the 20th century such as Cedar Tavern, San Remo, Lion’s Head Tavern, The Gaslight, and Kettle of Fish (Amram joined us for the unveiling of our historic plaque marking the former site of the San Remo Cafe).
In 1966 Leonard Bernstein chose Amram as the New York Philharmonic’s first composer-in-residence, and in the oral history, Amram discusses the feelings of traveling between the different worlds of “uptown” and Greenwich Village.
Amram is passionate about both the history and future of the Village “I mention that because those of us who respectfully disagree with NYU’s disgraceful behavior cannot be dismissed as a bunch of loud-mouthed, Left Wing, self-promoting activists…..” and in a statement that aligns perfectly with Village Preservation’s mission, notes: “Most of the people who want to preserve the Village have all said in effect, “We’re going to devote our whole lives to what we think is right—not just for us, but for all people, but for their children and grandchildren—and try to preserve what we have for all New Yorkers and all who visit New York.”
Our oral history with David Amram is one of more than sixty we’ve conducted over the years with leading activists, artists, preservationists, and business and community leaders from our neighborhoods, including Jane Jacobs, Merce Cunningham, Marlis Momber, Jonas Mekas, and so many more — peruse them all here.