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David Amram: Inspiring Musicians in the Village, and Throughout the World

While our blogs typically focus on the history of our neighborhoods and the incredible trailblazers who came before us, it is particularly satisfying to write about great artists who are still among us.  David Amram is one of those extraordinary people. Village Preservation conducted an oral history with Mr. Amram on January 28, 2014, and at 92 this year, it is an honor to write about his work and the Village environs that have shaped his work and continue to do so today.

David Amram conducting a walking tour of his Village haunts for The Village Trip

A composer, conductor, and multi-instrumentalist, Amram began his life as a musician in 1951 playing the French horn for the National Symphony Orchestra. After serving in the US Army from 1952-1954, he moved to the Village in 1955, and played French horn in the legendary jazz bands of Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, and Oscar Pettiford.  

Amram playing the French horn at the 5 Spot

Amram was a vital force in the Beat Generation, and in 1957 presented the first-ever public jazz-poetry concerts that he created and performed in with novelist Jack Kerouac, a close friend with whom he collaborated artistically for over 12 years. The readings were groundbreaking and were performed at the 10th Street Galleries, a cooperative of modest artist-run galleries that started opening their doors during the early 1950s.

Jazz Poetry night on East 10th Street

In 1956, producer and Villager Joe Papp, hired Amram to compose scores for his fledgling New York Shakespeare Festival. Over the years, Amram composed scores for 25 of Papp’s productions, including a number of Shakespeare in the Park productions. He premiered his comic opera 12th Night with Papp’s libretto in 1968.

From 1964-66, Amram was the Composer and Music Director for the Lincoln Center Theatre, and wrote the scores for Arthur Miller´s plays After The Fall (1964) and Incident at Vichy (1966).

The Cedar Tavern photo courtesy of the Estate of Fred W. McDarrah

University Place and 10th Street, where the Cedar Tavern used to be, was a frequent haunt of Amram’s. In the late 1950s and ’60s, a mix of Beat writers and Abstract Expressionist painters, including both up-and-coming and veteran creative people, filled the place. He was a regular there alongside Allen Ginsberg, Larry Rivers, Alice Neel, and so many other seminal artists of our neighborhoods. It is interesting to note that Amram and his “Cedar Tavern clique,” which included Neel and Rivers and, of course, Amram (who also composed the music for the film), all were in the Robert Frank movie Pull My Daisy. “Larry David said ‘Pull My Daisy,’ which was about nothing, was the model for ‘Seinfeld,’” noted Amram in an interview.

Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, Amram, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso at Lewis’ Tavern during a break from filming “Pull My Daisy”

Even though he traveled the world extensively conducting, playing, teaching, and/or supervising concerts of his composition, Amram was a resident of our neighborhoods. In fact, in 2014, he wrote “Greenwich Village Portraits,” a piece in three movements for saxophone and piano commemorating our neighborhoods and dedicated to his late Village friends Arthur Miller, Odetta, and Frank McCourt. “I wanted to use [the piece] as a way to honor the people and streets of a fantastic neighborhood in a great city that’s given so many of us a life that we never would have had. That’s what kept me going to finish it. The beautiful thing about a composition is that you’re trying to build something that has value and is meant to last. Not as an ego trip, but as a thank you note for being alive and to all the people who are no longer here,” he said. “I hope those who come to look and listen feel at home and get a glimpse of the rich ongoing spirit of this unique community. My forty years as a resident of the Village continue to be a gift for everything I am doing today. I am sure that many young people will feel inspired to pursue their dreams in life by being in such a special place.”

Today, as he has for more than 70 years, Amram continues to compose music while traveling the world as a conductor, soloist, bandleader, visiting scholar, and narrator in five languages. He has composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works, written many scores for Broadway theater and film, including the scores for the films Splendor in the Grass and the original version of The Manchurian Candidate.

Amram is passionate about both the history and future of the Village. In his own words from our oral history

“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, he 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 — read and listen to them all here.

David once quipped, “One of the things I always liked about New York was, you could finish the most colossal project and people would just say, What are you doing next?”

We are very much looking forward to seeing and hearing what you are doing next, Mr. Amram! It is always fascinating and such a pleasure!

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