David Amram
Composer, Conductor & Multi-instrumentalist

by David Turner

David Amram is a rare talent who can score the work of Thelonious Monk for symphony, guest conduct an evening of classical European music, play the piano, guitar or Pakistani flute with equal facility - and still find time in the week to load a hundred bales of hay on his livestock farm.

"My back is KILLING me," he said in a recent phone interview from his upstate New York retreat, where he was taking a day off from his staggering schedule as composer, recording star, teacher and conductor.

"Living on a farm is great for frying to keep a family together, because there's always something to do," said the Pennsylvania native and father of three. "It keeps your priorities straight."

High on his list of priorities these days is the upcoming World Fest '90, to be held al Galleria Gardens Oct. 12 through 14. Amram's appearance will be the touchstone for a weekend of theater, music and cuisine offered by a worldwide cast of talented artists.

Amram's versatility and command have pleased listeners for more than 30 years. He has penned 100 or more orchestral works, two operas, the soundtracks for such films as Splendor In The Grass and The Manchurian Candidate and numerous recordings by his own jazz quartet. Younger viewers may even recognize his rugged persona from regular appearances on "Sesame Street."

Amram's discovery of his musical talent and ability to enchant audiences dates back to his childhood on a farm in Feastersville, Penn. He started playing piano at 7; by age 10 he was picking up the bugle and trumpet as well. After the family's move to Washington D.C., the 12-year-old was sitting in with local jazz combos and attempting his first formal compositions.

Encouragement from his father Philip, a farmer/teacher/author himself, no doubt spurred the young Amrarn's love of music. But a 1942 appearance in Philadelphia by the Duke Ellington big band crystallized Amram's conviction and the direction his music would take from then on.

"It's something I can still see in my mind. It was at the Earl Theatre ... and every single person in the band got a chance to shine and to solo. Ellington was a terrific piano player and he was also a terrific backup, so I got to see the jazz philosophy in action; where the leader is also a good follower or a good sideman and he made everybody feel appreciated." Amram paid homage years later by conducting the orchestral premiere of Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige Suite at New York's Lincoln Center.

In between, he has amassed a resume that includes association with some of the giants of American culture: Arthur Miller, Lionel Hampton, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillispie. As a musical goodwill ambassador for the State Department he has visited every corner of the earth and absorbed the varied traditions that enrich his own compositions. And always, he returns with a trunkload of arcane, native musical instruments that eventually surface in Amram's "world music."

Closer to home, Amram realized early on the significance of pioneers such as Charlie Parker and Jack Kerouac, becoming a catalyst in the artistic ferment of the '50s. His own song "Pull My Daisy," written for one of Kerouac's silent films, captures in music what the Beat Generation was all about.

The potential of music to unite the world's varied cultures is a subject that visibly animates Amram. His excitement at the upcoming festival was palpable, even after his peace of mind had been irreversibly jarred by an interviewer's late-night phone call.

"I'm bringing in my jazz quartet, which just made a recording, Live At Musikfest," said the artist, who will appear with 18 symphony orchestras before the year is out. "We're going to do some of (Bela) Bartok s Romanian Dances, which will show the Hungarian and central European tradition. Then we're doing the Ritual Fire Dance," which Amram describes as a suite based on the music of the gypsies.

Also scheduled for the Oct. 14 show is collaboration with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on a Duke Ellington composition, The Three Black Kings, the third movement of which is based on the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

"So they're really not just 'pops' concerts, they're cultural music events that are enjoyable as well."

With such an itinerary, Amram might easily be forgiven a lapse of interest in matters agricultural, but this is not the case. Amram, raised on a {arm until the age of 12, was a featured performer at Willie Nelson's Farm Aid concert in April. He has been a tireless champion of the fanning family, and lakes every opportunity to speak out against encroachment on this "shining legacy."

"The encouraging thing is that people all over the country, people I speak to lots of times, are finally aware. Also, a lot of the farmers are organizing to see if it's possible to diversify what we're doing in order to survive, and not just have all the farmland become condos."

The fact that Amram has a working farm of his own lends weight to his outspoken support of the American farmer. He maintains it with wife Lora Lee whenever the demands of a musical career aren't pulling him in an opposite direction.

When the globetrotter who's been called "the Renaissance man of American music" breezes into Atlanta for the first-ever World Fest, it should be a concert to remember. But with a playfulness that once led him to pen a ditty called "Alfred The Hog" for guitar and penny whistle, Amram will only hint at the evening's showstopper, which he calls "the realization of something I've always dreamed of doing musically."

"You see, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie saw jazz as a natural way to make music that was related to all these other cultures. Now, there's this enormous interest - and with the Olympics, we're already doing it - of bringing different peoples together through music. It's gonna be fun!"

And that's no fertilizer.

Copyright © 2019 by David Amram
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