Interview: David Amram at 80


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David Amram turned 80 yesterday. If you know David, you know that hitting that age  is almost a ridiculous concept. The musician and composer has the metabolism and mind of a 25-year old, and he's constantly traveling the country like jazz's Johnny Appleseed, performing and motivating all who cross his path. One grows winded just listening to his schedule. [Photo of David Amram at the Five Spot in 1957 by Burt Glinn]

In celebration of David's birthday, I was listening to one of my favorite David Amram quartet albums—Jazz Studio 6, a 1957 recording for Decca featuring David on French horn, George Barrow on tenor sax, Arthur Phipps on bass and Al Harewood on drums. After the album was finished, I gave David a call to wish him happy birthday.

When David answered the phone at 4:30 p.m., he was pumping gas on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, N.Y.:

JazzWax: How did you spend your birthday today?
David Amram: Last night I was playing with my daughter's band, Alana Amram and the Rough Gems, at the Union Pool, a club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her first CD just came out [it's at iTunes].

JW: What did the kids at the Union Pool think of you joining them?
DA: They loved it. They said, “It's really cool that you're doing this at this point in your career." I said, “Hey, I don't know what a career is. I just do what I do. We shouldn't have careers. We should have a life. And if we're lucky, someday our music will have a career."

JW: How late were you out last night?
DA: Until midnight. I stayed at Alana's place rather than drive home to my farm in northern Westchester. Then this morning I drove to Queens College where the university's orchestra performed my Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie. As a surprise, they played part of my In Memory of Chano Pozo at the end.

 JW: What are you doing right now?
DA: Driving back home to my farm to change and then returning to the city to play at the Cornelia Street Café for most of tonight. Then tomorrow morning at 10 a.m., I'm flying to El Paso, Texas, to play my Ode to Lord Buckley, a saxophone concerto, with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra. I'll also be doing some workshops with a music school there. They're going to have me speak to composers and people who are studying classical and jazz.

JW: Don't you get tired?
DA: [Laughs] Everyone asks me that. Here's what I tell them: “Yeah, most of the time. I took a nap in 1957 and it gave me a headache" [laughs].

JW: I was just listening to Jazz Studio 6. How did the idea for the album come about?
DA: Back in 1956 I was hired to play piano as a sub for someone at a club in New Hope, Penn. I had never played as much as a solo up until that point but I managed. On a break, this guy came up to me and said, “You're a genius. You sound like Thelonious Monk." I said, “Are you kidding? Have you ever heard Monk?" He said, “I have a friend at Decca records. You have to record." The guy wanted to be my agent.

JW: What did you say?
DA: I told him that I was flattered but that I was really a French horn player. He said, “No one wants to hear a French horn. Go make a piano record." If I had made a piano album, I would have been arrested for impersonating a pianist. But the guy was determined, so I let him make his connection at Decca.

JW: Who was the guy?
DA: A gentleman named Mel Rose. The person he knew at Decca was Hal Webman, a well-known a&r guy.

JW: How did you and George Barrow come together?
DA: George and I met when I first came to New York in 1955. Charles Mingus had come down to listen to the Bud Powell Trio at Birdland. Leonard Feather had taken me there, too. Feather introduced me to Mingus as a French horn player. Mingus looked at me and asked if I would go out on the road with him for $125 a week. I told him I couldn't because I was studying at the Manhattan School of Music on the GI Bill.

JW: What did Mingus say?
DA: He said, “You'll learn more with me than at that school" [laughs].

JW: What happened?
DA: I think because I said no, Mingus pushed for a “yes." If I had said yes, he probably would have said no. Mingus asked me to play French horn with his group at the Café Bohemia. He told me to pick up this guy named George Barrow. When I picked up George, we hit it off right away. George was a fabulous tenor saxophonist.

JW: How did you convince Webman at Decca to record you on French horn and not piano?
DA: After I formed a quartet with George, I told Webman that instead of recording me on piano, he should record our group. After some back and forth, he finally agreed. I couldn't believe I was getting a chance to make a record on French horn at Decca. The label was a big deal then.

JW: How long did it take you to arrange the 10 tracks?
DA: Actually it was nine. Arthur Phipps, who had played with Three Bips and a Bop, wrote Phipps Quipps. Webman gave me certain standards to arrange, like Darn That Dream. I also brought in some originals. Arranging Shenandoah, the folk standard, was my idea.

JW: Why Shenandoah?
DA: I had always loved the song. I thought it would be great for a jazz group to take a folk classic like that and do something else with it. I was always a big fan of folk and bluegrass, ever since I was stationed at Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky in the Army. I wanted to take something simple and find ways to harmonize it so it would make sense emotionally but also would be a challenge. 

JW: Where did your quartet rehearse?
DA: We had been playing at the Five Spot in Greenwich Village and many different clubs in Brooklyn. We also rehearsed at actor Garry Goodrow's loft and at Al Harewood's house.

JW: When did you see George Barrow last?
DA: Last week, at my birthday concert at New York's Symphony Space. We hadn't seen each other in some time.

JW: What did he say?
DA: He said, “Man you're still doing it." I said, “George, we should be doing it together." Sadly, he stopped playing some time ago. What a great saxophonist.

JW: When you think back on the Jazz Studio 6 recording for Decca, what goes through your mind?
DA: I'm really proud of it. The album was all I had hoped it would be. It's a document rather than what record people used to call a “product." I always thought a recording should be a document. My hope is it will remain a musical document of a certain date and place and have some lasting value. At the time, I was after shelf life more than flavor of the day and in the landfill tomorrow [laughs].

JazzWax tracks: David Amram's Jazz Studio 6 can be found on Jazz Portrait: The Music of David Amram here.

JazzWax clip: Here's the trailer from an upcoming documentary on David...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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