David Amram
Composer, Conductor & Multi-instrumentalist

Keeping the Flame Alive

DavidAmram, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac
from left to right: Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac,
David Amram, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso (with back to camera)

The Kerouac Project of Orlando
"And Their Beat Goes On Today" - The making of "Pull My Daisy"
Levi Asher's Literary Kicks page on Jack Kerouac
C-SPAN Live Tribute to Jack Kerouac with David Amram
About David Amram at Insomnacathon 04

(Originally written for Evergreen Review in 1969, published early 1970 at the request of publisher Barney Rossett as an obituary for Kerouac)

I used to see Jack often at the old Five Spot in the beginning of 1957, when I was working there. I knew he was a writer, and all musicians knew that he loved music. You could tell by the way he sat and listened. He never tried to seem hip. He was too interested in life around him to ever think of how he appeared. Musicians understood this and were always glad to see him, because we knew that meant at least one person would be I listening. Jack was on the same wave-length as we were, so it was never necessary to talk.

A few months later, poets Howard Hart and Philip Lamantia came by my place with Jack. They had decided to read their poetry with music, and Jack said he would join in, reading, improvising, rapping with the audience and singing along. Our first performance was in December of 1957 at the Brata Art Gallery on East 10th Street. It was the first jazz-poetry reading in New York. There was no advertising and it was raining, but the place was packed. Jack had become the most important figure of the time. His name was magic. In spite of the carping, whining put-downs by the furious critics, and the jealousy of some of his contemporaries for his overnight success (he had written ten books in addition to On The Road with almost no recognition), Jack hadn't changed. But people's reaction to him was sometimes frightening.

He was suddenly being billed as the 'King of The Beatniks', and manufactured against his will, as some kind of public Guru for a movement that never existed. Jack was a private person, extremely shy, and dedicated to writing. When he drank, he became much more expansive, and this was the only part of his personality that became publicized. The people who came to the Brata Gallery weren't taste makers; they were friends.

A few months later, we began some readings at the Circle In The Square. Everyone improvised, including the light man, who had his first chance to wail on the lighting board. The audience joined in, heckling, requesting Jack to read parts of On The Road, and asking him to expound on anything that came into his head. He also would sing while I was playing the horn, sometimes making up verses. He had a phenomenal ear. It was like playing duets with a great musician.

Jack was proud of his knowledge of music and of the musicians of his time. He used to come by and play the piano by ear for hours. He had some wonderful ideas for combining the spoken word with music. A few weeks later, jazz-poetry became 'Official Entertainment', and a few months later was discarded as another bit of refuse, added to the huge mound of our junk culture. It was harder to dispose of Jack. The same journalist and radio and TV personalities who had heralded him were now ripping him to shreds. Fortunately, they couldn't rip up his manuscripts. His work was being published, more widely read, and translated.

In early 1958, all of us went to Brooklyn College, where Jack, Phillip and Howard read. Jack spent most of the time answering the student's questions with questions of his own. He was the down-home Zen master, and the students finally realized he wasn't putting them on. He was showing them himself. If they wanted to meet the Author Jack Kerouac, they would have to read his books.

His public appearances were never to promote his books. They were to share a state of mind and a way of being. The only journalist who picked up on this was Al Aronowitz. He saw Jack as an artist.

In the spring of 1959, the film Pull My Daisy was made. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Larry Rivers and myself - the Third Avenue All-Stars as one wit described us - appeared in it. Alfred Leslie directed it and Robert Frank filmed it. Jack had written the scenario, and after the film had been edited, Jack saw it. Because it was a silent movie, Jack was to narrate it, and I was to write the music afterwards. He, Allen, and Neal Cassady also wrote the lyrics for the title song Pull My Daisy, for which I wrote the music and was sung in the film by Anita Ellis. Jack put on earphones and asked me to play, so that he could improvise the narration to music, the way we had done at our readings. He watched the film, and made up the narration on the spot. He did it two times through spontaneously, and that was it. He refused to do it again. He believed in spontaneity, and the narration turned out to be the very best thing about the film. We recorded it at Jerry Newman's studio. Jerry was an old friend of Jack's from the early forties and afterwards we had a party-jam session that lasted all night. Jack played the piano, sang, and improvised for hours.

In the early sixties I used to see Jack when he would come in from Northport to visit town. Once, he called up at one in the morning and told me I had to come over so that he could tell me a story. I brought over some music to copy, and Jack spoke non-stop until 8:30 a.m., describing a trip he had made through North Africa and Europe. It was like hearing a whole book of his being read aloud, and Jack was the best reader of his own work, with the exception of Dylan Thomas, that I ever heard.

"That's a fantastic story." I told him. "It sounds just like your books."

"I try to make my writing sound just the way I talk." he said. His ideal was not to display his literary skill, but to have a conversation with the reader.

I told Jack about an idea I had for a cantata about the four seasons in America, using the works of American authors. He launched into a travelogue of his voyages around the country, and referred to writers I might look into. I took notes, and ended up reading nearly fifty books, to find the texts. I included a passage from his book Lonesome Traveler. The concert was at Town Hall [in New York City], and Jack wrote that he couldn't come. It was the Spring of 1965, and he didn't like being in New York.

Sometimes he would call from different parts of the country just to talk, and we continued to write to each other. In one letter he said "Ug-g-h. Fame is such a drag." He wanted time to work, but found that success robbed him of his freedom. At the same time, he felt that he was forgotten. I told him that all the young people I met when I toured colleges loved his books. To many, he was their favorite writer. But writer meant something different now. It was what was being said, not how it was said. It was content that counted, not style. Jacks' message was a whole way of being, and he was becoming more an influence than ever.

Truman Capote dismissed Jack's work as "typing." I never heard Jack put down another writer. He went out of his way to encourage young writers. His work reflects this spirit of generosity, kindness and love. This is why his "typing" is so meaningful to young people today. Jack was ahead of his time spiritually. Like Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, his work is constantly being rediscovered.

Through knowing Jack, I wrote some of my best music. Without knowing him, I never would have written my book. More important, young people all over the world are reading and rereading his work. His death only means the beginning of a new life for everyone who shares in the joy of knowing him through his books.

David Amram, October 24th. 1969

(Written in 1994 for Dharma Beat at the request of co-editor Attila Gyenis)

Twenty five years after I wrote this, I was at Jack's memorial site in Lowell, for the first time. David Orr, a life long friend of Jack's family, and someone who reminded me of Jack in spirit and being, took me on a voyage to the Stations of the Cross, Jack's grave, and the Kerouac Memorial, where i ran into Attila Gyenis, co-editor of DHARMA beat.

I liked the magazine DHARMA beat because it felt to me to be connected to the feelings of what Jack was about, and contained the broad, yea-saying, multifaceted, unsnobbish, communicative styles that he would have enjoyed reading himself

After a beautiful few days in Lowell, I learned a whole new lesson about Jack and his life. Sitting in the living room of John Sampas and his gifted nephew singer songwriter Jim, both of whom are devoting endless hours to organizing and preserving Jack's work, I met many people who had also grown up with Jack in Lowell. All of these people are helping to paint the picture of where Jack came from, and where his heart always was - in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts.

It was the completion of a long journey. Being with others who truly loved Jack and created the festival Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! was like going to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for me. I felt I had finally come home to a place I had always dreamed about, and longed for.

I could finally understand that Jack's physical passing on was another continuing chapter in the Duluoz Legend, not the final one. The night our group played our concert in his honor, and the program we did for kids were all surrounded by his spirit.

The final Sunday afternoon of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! was climaxed by a reading at a coffee house, where I backed up twenty three terrific area poets, just as I had backed up Jack in the 1 950's. I went home and dug up the tribute to Jack I had written for the Evergreen Review twenty five years before. Everything in it turned out to be true.

It made me happy that a quarter of a century later, the joy and inspiration Jack gave to those of us lucky enough to be with him, was now being shared all over the world by young people. Through his books, his unique and soulful journey has been immortalized.

All the pain and sorrow, the Beatnik myth, the jealous and embittered detractors are part of the past. Jack through his glorious writings, is a shining light to all of us in 1995, and gives us all energy and inspiration.

Merci Jack!

(December, 2002 / January 2003)

I rarely play clubs anymore, but was recently asked to so by four different people, including Levi Asher, founder of LitKicks, to perform at four different events at the Bowery Poetry Club during a six week period. All four of the poets who contacted me, while different from one another, have a common connection to the tradition that Kerouac and I, along with poets Howard Hart and Philip Lamantia pioneered at the first-ever jazz poetry reading given in NYC, in October of 1957 at the Brata Art Gallery.

Unbeknownst to us, it started what became a fad (usually a sure step towards mediocrity and doom), called "Jazz/Poetry." All this died a natural death a short time later, when readers and musicians, thrown together without an understanding they could collaborate and create their own magic, instead were told that they had to compete to see who could drown out each other first.

Still, the seeds had been sown for joining music and poetry in many dif ferent forms.

What Homer did thousands of years ago on a ship, rapping out The Iliad and The Odyssey, accompanied by a musician, what Langston Hughes did in the 30's and 40's with musical friends in Harlem, but which he said was never done formally in public (which he told me about in detail when we collaborated in 1965 in writing a cantata Let Us Remember, a work for chorus, soloists and symphony orchestra which was performed at the San Francisco Opera House shortly before he died), Mingus and Kenneth Patchen, Ferlinghetti and Stan Getz, Jim Morrison with the Doors, Gil Scott Heron, the Last Poets....... all added their own creativity over the years, following what Jack and I started that rainy afternoon in October of 1957.

What I did when playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Pettford, Mingus and Lord Buckley before and since I met Kerouac in 1956, has now has reemerged, with thousands of new exciting and innovative musicians and poets as Spoken Word.

In HipHop and Rap there is a new ever-changing series of vibrant traditions being created and re-created every day nearly 50 years after our Brata Gallery efforts, as part of our New Millennium's innovations.

Jack and I called what we did at that first reading music/poetry-poetry/music. We had already done it many times before our readings with Hart and Lamantia, always spontaneously, whenever and where ever the spirit moved us. On park benches, at each others and friends apartments, at Bring Your Own Bottle Parties at painters lofts (it was at a B.Y.O.B. party at a painter's loft that Jack and I began to do this together in 1956) and at coffee houses, art openings and the jazz clubs where I performed, usually after 2 a.m. for a handful of mostly zonked out but enthusiastic New York night owls.

We never once rehearsed. We did listen intently to one another. I never drowned out one word of whatever Jack was reading or making up on the spot. When I did my spontaneous scatting (today called freestyling) he would play piano or bongos and he never drowned out or stepped on a word or interrupted a thought that I or whoever else joined us had percolating in the late night-early morning world where we were doing all this, usually for a handful of people.

We had mutual respect for one another, and anyone who joined us received the same respect. We almost never used a microphone. Most of the time, there weren't any available.

With the second coming of music/poetry-poetry/music in the Sixties, all that we did for fun in the Fifties (and those of us here always will continue to do for the joy of collaboration, whether for good pay or for free), suddenly had an audience we never dreamed of during our spontaneous forays.

Today, I have the treat of playing with, as well as for, high school and college students, at folk festivals, jazz festivals, with poets young and old, well known actors, my own daughter Adira, people who have never read in public before, and even at symphony concerts I have conducted (at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony and the late E.G. Marshall reading the same parts of On the Road that Jack and I did before it was published, which we dreamed of doing with music I would create for symphonic accompaniment, but had to wait to have the chance to do until 1995 , 26 years after Jack's death).

In addition to playing with and for a small army of poets and musicians each year for the final day of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, at the annual Kerouac Writer's Residence Festival in Orlando Florida, and at a series of Insomniacathons with the indomitable Ron Whitehead in Holland, London, Louisville, New Orleans, Nashville and New York, I played for poets in Japan (including when they read in Japanese) and for readers in French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian.

In Montreal, I did the Jack Kerouac Tribute for the OFF Festival du Jazz in 2002 in Franglais (freestyling in French and English). Jack and I did this all the time.

In a memorable weekend in the town of Goes in the Netherlands, I first played for Bob Holman when he read. He knocked me out with his spirit, his original style, his humor and his support of others. I sensed after a few minutes that he knew that we were put here to create in any way we felt in our hearts that we should, and that when you are lucky enough to be able to command the attention of others, it is your responsibility to, as Dizzy Gillespie told me when I played for his 70th birthday, "put something back into the pot."

I could see that Bob was interested in more than himself. Bob, like Ron Whitehead, wanted to turn on the World on to poetry and music, and make the very best of the arts a part of everyday life for everyone. And to encourage people to be creative and observant of the beauty that surrounded us in every day life.

Both of them were, as all of us were taught to be in our era, in-clusive, not ex-clusive.

A few years after the first of our many performances together, Bob told me that his exciting dream of opening up a new venue for poetry and music was about to become a reality. I was invited by Bob and Danny Shot to play for the first event at the Bowery Poetry Club, in Long Shot magazine's tribute to Gregory Corso, even though the Club was not officially open and still under construction.

I knew that night of February 3, 2002, as we all stood with our overcoats on, drinking red wine from paper cups in the bone chilling cold, (there was still no heat) that the Bowery Poetry Club would become another milestone in New York's long history of great places come to and celebrate our artists past and present, and also celebrate one another. This was because Bob Holman was applying the principals of organic farming. He was enriching the soil for future generations by building a place that would celebrate life and creativity, rather than another rip-off sleasezoid Temple of Eurotrash for the hearing Impaired, created by adults with no purpose in life except to separate kids from their money, under the guise of being CuttingEdge-Trendy-PostModern-Hip- Nihilistic-Landfill-Bound Payola Promoted Plastic Putrescence. (Fortunately, I am not judgmental, just observant.)

Bob Holman, like an increasing number of people around the world, was looking for something a little more real. He like millions of others of all ages, felt that we all deserve something better. Holman wanted to build a place that celebrated creativity and community through the magic of the arts. Where anybody and everybody of any age and interest could hang out and feel part of it all.

By good fortune, all four dates were able to be sandwiched between my other gigs across the country, where I do all the kinds of work I love most to do, which pays for my kids schooling, farm animals feeding, groceries, taxes and everyday survival.

Still, as a year-round seven day a week just turned 72 year old worker, I heed the advice of the late great Tompkins Square philosopher, Ukrainian Ernie, who lived close to me in 1955, only a few blocks from where the Bowery Poetry Club now stands. He gave me some advice on how to live life, when he found out that I had a job playing in the Charles Mingus Quintet in the Fall of 1955.

Ukrainian Ernie would always help out people in the neighborhood, where I lived six flights up, at 319 E. 8th St. (before it was torn down and rebuilt in the past few years).

He explained to all who would listen, how he came to America and fell in love with the New World. He was always reading, slowly but thoroughly, books in English about American history, poetry, novels and stories about the Old West. Ernie used to talk about how he studied the American Indian tradition of the Potlach, or Giveaway. How the most respected and revered person in the tribe was the one who was the most generous, not the greediest. And how as an immigrant, he loved the openness and spirit of this country, and told us that the spirit of generosity that the Potlach symbolized in this country also existed in the countryside of the Old Country among the farmers in the Ukraine, where he lived as a little boy, despite how hard as it was to survive there.

"Maybe you become big shot someday. No matter..If you no can give it away, you don't got it. Indian people say if you just selfish greedy, you get all dry up and you worth nuttin'!"!!

Whether any of us in today's Full Greed Ahead society still "got it" is a day by day challenge to retain, but I know that being with a group of visionaries and sincere artists to play in a warm, affordable, inclusive, inviting environment, and be able to also pay homage to all my old friends no longer with us is an experience neither my friends or my own three kids would want to miss. And if Ukrainian Ernie were still alive, he would be at the Bowery Poetry Club every night, sharing his often incredible raps with everybody.

At the Bowery Poetry Club, the words and music are a gateway to a larger communal experience. NOT a nonexistent "Movement" or secret society.

None of the places where we all hung out together in the 1950s were considered Official Headquarters of the Beat Generation. None of us ever described ourselves as being members of that. It was an organization that never existed, until we were told about it years later.

There were no doormen at the Cedar Bar, the Kettle of Fish, the Five Spot, the Village Gate, the Gaslight, Folk City and countless places we gathered to commune with one another. They were like the Bowery Poetry Club. These places were our meeting place for the moment.

Neither Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Diane DiPrima, Neal Cassady, Charlie Parker, Monk, Gillespie, artists Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, Pollack, DeKoonig., myself and thousands of others, ever had a secret handshake, a membership card, a letterhead, an arranged summit conference like the board of directors of the Mafia, the Elks Club, the Shriners, the 4-H Club (I belonged to that as a kid on a Pennsylvania farm in the 30's) the Trilateral Commission or The Ten days That Shook the World.

We were all aquatinted on some level with one another. We were all inspired by one another.

Most of us met one another at places like The Bowery Poetry Club.

It is a blessing to have this new meeting place in New York, and hopefully it will encourage people all over the country, and through the Internet, the World, to create similar places in all communities, to suit the individual needs of each place.

Since several people were surprised to see i was playing at the Bowery Poetry Club so often during this period, I thought I would write Bob Holman and the readers of All About Jazz/New York a note to tell him and everyone else who wants to create their own small meeting places anywhere in the world, why I was so happy to do be there with and for him.

Musicians, poets, painters and everyday people from all walks of life are now able to determine for themselves what we would like to share with one another.

The collapse of Enron is similar to the slow caving in of the huge record companies.

They are not run in a businesslike way, and they so not serve the needs of their customers. In spite of the waste of millions of dollars, the landfills are bulging with old LPs and CDs that are thrown away because they have no lasting value to the people who bought them. The listeners of the new Millennium are no longer passive victims of tastemakers with no taste.

We need beauty, inspiration and uplifting expression of lasting value, no matter in what form, for our artistic consumption, with as many styles and varieties as there are artists who create them. Song writers, opera singers, classical composers, rappers, folk musicians and symphony orchestras are now all beginning to put out their own CDs, and use the Internet to let people know about it.

This is happening all over the country, and is exciting. It means you can record with the idea of having the recording be a document of lasting value that is the very best you can possibly do.

And that you can find places around the country where it is possible to share what you are doing, to give you the feedback and energy to do it better.

The Bowery Poetry Club is one example that small is beautiful. All of America's cities should have venues like this on every block.

Copyright © 2019 by David Amram
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