A Lifetime of Musical Wisdom: Words with David Amram

This is part one of three parts derived from an in-depth interview with David Amram, the musician/composer/arranger/conductor/author who just turned 90. Mr Amram’s legacy and contributions to the art form which are vast and varied (and defy description here) were celebrated recently at his 90th birthday where he and his quintet streamed live from Mark Morganelli’s Jazz Forum Club in Tarrytown NY.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I was under Mr. Amram’s musical direction at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the 1970s as a student in junior high and first chair of the second violin section; a terrifying and wonderful experience.]

How did you become interested in jazz?

I was brought up on a farm in Pennsylvania in the 1930s and used to hear some of the great bands of Count Basie and Benny Goodman on the radio. My uncle, a merchant seaman, loved jazz and he took me to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski in “Peter and the Wolf” and without my knowing it, it gave me a picture of what I hoped some day I could be involved in.

They had a little music education in the public schools and in 1938 when I was in second grade all the kids were allowed to take an instrument home with them. I was working with my father, he had the day off from his regular work, and he said “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said I’d like to be a farmer. He said that was “hopeless” and what else did I want to be? So I said I’d like to be a symphony composer and a jazz musician and he said “that’s worse.” So I had no place to go but up.

In studying classical music, they were improvisers in their own time and also interested in the music outside their own territories. Jazz is all about the moment, celebrating the moment, and trying to do the right things at the right time. Less is more, when in doubt leave it out. Jazz has survived because as Dizzy told me at his 70th birthday “this music is so beautiful, I don’t know if America even deserves it but I’m going to keep playing it anyway.”

Now we have a bigger audience and we have to have the arts catch up with the times we are in. We are in a time where greatness and beauty are available.

For more information visit www.davidamram.com.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

(c) 2020 Debbie Burke

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