There aren’t many nonagenarians as invested in the present as David Amram. Almost 92, the man is a wealth of Greenwich Village lore and a working composer, author and musician (he plays 35 instruments) who is still taking commissions and is always open to learning something new.
He recalls asking Charlie Parker in 1952 about how he felt about the title of his 1945 tune ‘Now’s the Time’ being seven years old and getting a reply that he took to heart. “Now was , now is and now will always be the time,” said Bird. “Because now is the right time.”
“I wrote that down,” Amram recalls. “I tell kids now, this is the good old days.”
Amram moved into a six floor walkup in the Lower East Side in 1955 and three weeks later found himself playing in the Village with jazz legend Charlie Mingus. He was friends with Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Jack Kerouac — with whom he performed the first combo of jazz and poetry — but that was just beginning of a career that found him collaborating over the years with Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Lionel Hampton, Joseph Papp, Allen Ginsberg, Stan Getz, Langston Hughes, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Patti Smith, Paquito d’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Thelonious Monk, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Rollins and Johnny Depp – and that’s not the whole list.
He settled into an apartment in 1959 on 6th Avenue and 11th Street that became his home for 40 years. Back in those heady early days, Amram and friends weren’t necessarily aware of the impact they would have, but they sure had a great time.
“I was just enjoying the hell out of it!” he laughs. “We were all spectacularly unsuccessful commercially and we just thought, boy are we lucky that we can all be together doing this at this moment.”
Success would follow however, as he went on to champion world music, record as a leader and a sideman with some of the greatest names in jazz, conduct classical orchestras, compose film scores — notably “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Splendor in the Grass” — and receive various awards including the “Spirit of Farm Aid” in honor of his 34 years of playing with Willie Nelson at that event.
Although he nows lives upstate, “my heart is still here,” he admits.
He happens to be here at the moment as well, as he is not only being honored once again as the “Artist Emeritus” for the Village Trip Festival — an extensive two week celebration of Village-centric music, arts and activism – he is actively participating in many of the events.
After opening the festivities with a free concert on Saturday, he performed in a debut of his piece “Ah, Take Me Back to the Village,” attended a concert that included his work and is now getting ready for even more events.
Coming up for Amram in the festival are more concerts, a walking tour, a discussion of Kerouac, a salute to Phil Ochs and more before he flies to North Carolina to play once again at Farm Aid.
While Amram will reminisce, mentioning lessons gleaned from Lester Young and Dizzy Gillespie and drop anecdotes from Kerouac and Ginsberg, it’s more in the spirit of learning how to go forward than a name dropping session to prop up his cred. He’s got his sights not only on his current projects — a commission from violinist Elmira Darvarova, a book collaboration, an upcoming Kurt Vonnegut celebration — but the artistic well being of the next generation as well.
“I tell young artists that if you feel that you are put here to do something, do it and hope for the best.” And, he has some advice for the population in general: “The important thing is to remember to remain a member of the human race. You just have to respect each other — it’s not that hard.”