He was a legend long before I met him. When he sauntered into the Bells of Hell the joint would come to a standstill. The Clancy Brothers might have had more star power but David Amram had a word for everyone, and still does.
It would take him a couple of hours of bantering before he’d end up in the back room where Turner & Kirwan of Wexford held court on weekends.
Their psychedelic Yellowbelly music was not for the fainthearted, but it might just as well have been Swahili Polka, Mr. Amram could, and did, jam with everyone.
Even at a distance you could feel him soak up your vibe. By the time he’d hit the stage he already had your measure. I could never get over the ease with which he could blend into the most esoteric and chord-plagued of our songs.
The guy could play the kitchen sink. He must have had pockets built into his skin for he could produce an endless supply of tin whistles and flutes, not to mention ethnic instruments whose names I still haven’t learned.
Come to think of it, he was the first person I ever heard employ the term World Music. He should have copy-written it for, to me, he’s the genre’s living embodiment.
The French Horn was his main axe and, oh man, could he make that sing! Perhaps, his greatest musical feat however was that he made the Bells’ beer-soaked, perennially out-of-tune, upright piano sound like a Steinway.
One night Frank McCourt, then a discontented, somewhat curmudgeonly schoolteacher, filled me in on David. The Limerick man could be as sharp as a tack and even less charitable if the mood was on him, but his eyes lit up as he rattled off his friend’s achievements.
“Do you know,” said he, “that David was a Beat?”
“Like Jack and Alan,” I replied without missing a beat, as if Kerouac and Ginsburg took daily strolls along Wexford’s broad boulevards.
Namedropping was an art form in the Bells but you had to be careful around McCourt for he could spot a poseur a mile away.
With great gusto he informed me that Amram and Kerouac invented the Poetry/Jazz combination. Doesn’t surprise me now for David could put sweet music behind a crowd of braying donkeys, and often did when Turner and I drank too much Southern Comfort.
Frank’s list went on and on. Was there anyone this man hadn’t played with - Bob Dylan, Dizzy Gillespie, James Galway, Tito Puente?
The next time he graced the stage with Turner & Kirwan I was a tad nervous but there was no need, for David’s belief is that everyone has music within them, some just have to dig deeper to find it.
A few years back he celebrated his 80th birthday with a show at Symphony Space. It was vintage Amram – he began with some of his symphonic and chamber pieces. Then, as if tiring of such formality, he joined a succession of musical friends in jams that he initiated, but then allowed to progress in whatever way the moment called for.
He began the Black 47 piece with a slip jig that ended up in some alternate Celtic Jazz universe and had me high for a week following.
Coming up on February 16th he’ll celebrate his 59 years of keeping downtown Manhattan hip with a world premiere of Greenwich Village Portraits at Poussin Rouge on Bleecker Street. It’s dedicated to three of his many friends, Arthur Miller, Odetta and, you guessed it, Frank McCourt.
I can only imagine how he’ll musically sum up the Limerick seanchaí but I’m sure it will be with much the same sparkle as I saw in Frank’s eyes when he boasted to me long ago of the achievements of his dear friend, David Amram.
How often do you get to see and experience a living legend? Miss this show at your peril! There’ll be some famous ghosts bellying up to the bar. But even more important, David Amram will be the straw stirring the musical drink. As he said to me on his 80th birthday, “this is just a warm up for the 80 years ahead!”
Greenwich Village Portraits An evening with David Amram and Friends
Celebrating the music, the artists and spirit of New York’s beloved Greenwich Village
Feb 16th 7-9 pm at the Poisson Rouge Bleecker and Thompson Streets in Greenwich Village