David Amram: Poetry and All That Jazz

David Amram By

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We never once rehearsed. We did listen intently to one another. Jazz is all about listening and sharing. I never drowned out one word of whatever Jack [Kerouac ] was reading or making up on the spot.
I rarely play clubs anymore, but was recently invited 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 poets who contacted me, while different from one another, have a common connection to the tradition that Jack 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 were thrown together without the understanding that they could collaborate and create their own magic. Instead they were told that they had to compete to see who could drown out each other first.

Still, the seeds had been sown for combining music and poetry in a new way. 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, which he told me was never done formally in public, (describing it in detail when we collaborated in 1965, 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), Charles Mingus with Kenneth Patchen, Ferlinghetti with Stan Getz, Jim Morrison with the Doors, Gil Scott Heron, the Last Poets...all added their own creativity over the years, continuing what Jack and I started that rainy afternoon in October of 1957. What many of us did with Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Pettford, Mingus and Lord Buckley has reemerged, with innovative musicians and poets, as "spoken word."

In hip hop and rap there are new traditions being created every day nearly 50 years after our Brata Gallery efforts. Jack and I called what we did at that first reading "music/poetry - poetry/music." We always did it spontaneously, whenever and wherever 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), 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. Jazz is all about listening and sharing. 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 anyone else had when they joined us in these late night-early morning get-togethers. 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!

Today, I have the treat of playing with, as well as for, high school and college students, at folk festivals, jazz festivals, with poets and musicians young and old, well known actors, my own daughter Adira, and even at symphony concerts I have conducted (at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony featuring the late E.G. Marshall reading the same parts of On the Road that Jack and I did before it was published). We dreamed of doing this with music I planned to compose as a symphonic accompaniment, but I never got the chance to, until 1995, 26 years after Jack's death.

In the new millennium, we are no longer passive victims of tastemakers with no taste. Musicians, poets, and painters are now able to determine for themselves what we would like to share with one another. There are new places throughout the country where it is possible to share what we are doing, giving us the feedback and energy to do it even better. The Bowery Poetry Club is living proof that small is beautiful. All America's cities should have venues like this on every block.

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