Corrections or additions?

This article written by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on April 21, 1999. All rights reserved.

At 68, This Folk Musician Is Now In Fashion

David Amram, now 68, ever the humble multi-instrumentalist

musician and populist composer, has a website. But he’s reluctant

to tell people about it. He prefaces his closing words in a phone

conversation from his home, a small farm in Putnam County, New York,

with, "I know it sounds really self-centered — but go to my

website for more information on my upcoming gigs."

Amram, who has successfully networked himself into the worlds of jazz,

Latin jazz, folk, and classical music over four decades in music —

and earned the respect of his peers in each idiom — will headline

this year’s silver anniversary edition of the New Jersey Folk Festival.

The festival, run by Douglass College students, is a free gathering

on Woodlawn, the big field in front of the Eagleton Institute of Politics

on the Douglass College campus of Rutgers University. Over the years,

the festival has played host to everything from sheepherding demonstrations

by Scottish border collies, modern fire-fighting techniques, glass

blowing, cooking, crafts demonstrations, and even the unveiling of

a huge American flag. All that is secondary, however, to the musicians

and the storytellers who perform (see pages 30-35).

Amram has performed at the festival, founded in 1975, before, but

it was still in its infancy. Recalling the last New Jersey Folk Festival

he played, in the late 1970s, Amram says, "It was very small and

very personal."

"I remember that they had a group wearing T-shirts that said,

`Piney Power.’ They were playing some of the music that was played

there, and I thought that was terrific! It was very open and a lot

of people sat in and played with one another’s groups, which is something

I’ve done all my life," he explains.

Amram, raised on a farm in Feasterville, Pennsylvania, not far from

the New Jersey border, moved to New York City in the early 1950s to

pursue a life as a musician. In those days, his primary instrument

was French horn, but over the years, he has added more than two dozen

Western and non-Western instruments to his repertoire, including piano,

guitar, the dumbek (an Arab drum), and various Native American flutes

and whistles. Amram was a part of the first jazz-poetry readings in

New York City in the early 1950s.

"I had the chance to work not only with Lionel Hampton and Charles

Mingus and Thelonius Monk, but also to work with Jack Kerouac at his

poetry readings," Amram says. Later, he met Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’

Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger, and Odetta.

"Jazz and folk music were very close spiritually in those days,"

he recalls, "and all of these people felt that music was about

sharing."

Amram also recalls that a lot of people in the classical music world

had difficulty accepting his interest in folk music and jazz, "but

the folk musicians and jazz musicians and a handful of the classical

musicians understood and always encouraged me."

Amram, the son of a lawyer and farming father and a translator mother,

says his youth included many trips to the Jersey Shore, still one

of his favorite places. His uncle David took him to see the Philadelphia

Orchestra when he was six and the Duke Ellington Orchestra when he

was 10. His uncle also took him to a concert of Native American music.

These early musical experiences made a lasting impact.

When he first moved to Greenwich Village in the early ’50s, Amram

recalls, he was able to eke out a living playing jazz with classic

bebop musicians.

"I was attracted to the purity of spirit of all of these musicians.

[Saxophonist] Charlie Parker, who I first met in 1952, who was on

a bill with the Clovers, [urban group harmony] and I remember he told

me, `If you want to understand me, you have to understand the Clovers.’

Even though they were the most sophisticated vocal group around at

that time, they came out of the streets and took a neighborly approach,"

he recalls.

"All of these people, they all had this integrity and this down-to-earth

accessible quality about them," he says. "That’s why I love

playing with Willie Nelson now," he says, "because he’s the

same way." Amram has performed with Nelson at several of the annual

Farm Aid benefit concerts through the 1990s.

Similarly, Amram has a down-to-earth, accessible quality

that festival booking agents and others in performing arts administration

find irresistible. Aside from his time playing folk festivals, Amram

also spends a good portion of each year conducting orchestras around

the country, including the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Nashville Symphony,

the Austin Symphony, and several Canadian symphony orchestras.

Recently, the esteemed Irish flute player, James Galway, commissioned

Amram to write a flute concerto. He has named it "Giants of the

Night," and each of its three movements is dedicated to an artist

— Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, and Dizzy Gillespie — whom

Amram knew and performed with.

"Most of my symphonic pieces come out of my real life experiences,

not the symphony hall, but experiences I’ve had in Brazil, in the

mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Japan, in various places

around Canada, and all across the United States on different Indian

reservations that I’ve spent time playing in," he says.

Folk festivals have changed since he first began performing at them

in the early 1960s. Amram says today’s folk festivals are less snobby

and more inclusive. In May, he will co-headline for his 23d consecutive

year at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, a massive gathering

west of Austin that goes on for 15 days. Amram has also performed

at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Hudson River Revival, the Winnipeg,

Mariposa, and Vancouver folk festivals in Canada, and dozens of others.

"I remember one time, back in the ’60s, I said at one of the folk

festivals, `It would be great to get a Native American to play this

music.’ And the people running the festival said, `That’s not folk

music.’ I realize of course in the ’60s and ’70s, some of the people

who were saying these things had never spent any time with these folks,

and didn’t realize there were millions of people from these cultures

who’d been playing these musics for hundreds of years, and some of

them are based on cultures that go back thousands of years."

"Now of course with the interest in what they call `world music,’

it’s very beautiful to see folk festivals include these musics, and

in doing so they present the opportunity for the British Isles music

to sound more beautiful by giving it the context of these other types

of music."

"Thirty years ago when I was doing the early folk festivals, some

people were shocked because they didn’t think what I was doing was

traditional music. I was playing traditional musics I’d learned from

different parts of the world. Now when I go to the festivals, I’m

very often the leading traditionalist there," he says, laughing.

Amram recalls he recently was asked to be part of the Northeast Regional

Folk Alliance gathering in Pennsylvania, held last November in the

Pocono Mountains.

"I was the one who was talking about the virtues of the older

musics," he says, "I stressed to the younger musicians that

they had the Internet and the ability to make their own recordings

to get their music out there, in addition to better business skills,

which, God knows, our generation did not have."

At the same time, Amram says, "it’s important not to forget the

spiritual and the humanistic part of the music. So it’s equally important

to be concerned with having respect for the older music and older

musicians that came before you as well as passing it on to the younger

people."

Amram argues in the 1960s, especially, folk music was

bogged down with so much political rhetoric, musicians were almost

in a realm of having to be politicians or to sound like politicians.

Now, he says, folk festivals are more concerned with letting the music

speak for itself. Folk festivals nowadays, he stresses, "are not

desperately trying to be politically correct, but they’re trying to

be humanistically and musically correct.

"And they’re including everybody. In these types of music, the

left wing and the right wing and the differences are always going

to be there. But the music is about healing and togetherness and celebrating

everybody’s commonality, through that drum, which represents all living

things — as the Native American people would say — and that

song that’s in every human being’s heart and that story that every

human being has to tell."

At all of the hundreds of folk festivals Amram has played, he stresses

he wasn’t only trying to contribute what he knew of different Native

American music and ethnic musics from around the world, but he was

also hanging out and learning about other kinds of music. A master

of "hang-out-ology," as he calls it, Amram has never been

reluctant to take part at folk festival workshops either. While some

performers are hesitant to take part in workshops, thinking it might

be bad for their careers, Amram is usually the first one up to the

workshop stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival or the Hudson River

Revival.

"At the New Jersey Folk Festival, I’ll not only be `closing the

show,’ as they say, but I’ll also be doing a workshop at 11:30 in

the morning. And I’m happy to do it! And I look forward to sitting

in with other people throughout the day," he adds.

Amram has taken more than his share of criticism over the years for

trying to master so many different kinds of music. But such criticism

comes from people who don’t know the man’s purity of spirit and sincerity

of effort in trying to learn and play many different types of instruments.

Talk to musicians in Latin jazz, traditional jazz, folk music, and

the classical world, and you’ll find Amram is held in high regard.

Asked if he ever felt he was spreading himself too thin by being involved

in so many different musical genres throughout his four decades in

music, Amram says absolutely not.

"They used to criticize me," he says, "now, the New York

Times in 1995 says `David Amram was multicultural before multiculturalism

existed.’ Now I’m being called a pioneer of world music, and now —

it’s what I’ve been doing all my life — it’s considered fashionable.

So I’m getting work all over the world."

He notes that all of his classical compositions are being recorded

now "by people I don’t even know, because the strength of them,

their uniqueness, comes from my involvement in all these musics that

I deal with."

"When I’m playing at a folk festival I can do a workshop and play

music from 15 different countries and make it fun for the audience,"

he says. "And it’s not something I do because I read it in a magazine

and thought it would be fashionable, I do it because this is what

I’ve been doing my whole life."

Amram married in 1979, when he was 48. He and his wife Lora Lee have

three children, two of whom are ready to start college. Having children

is "a great healthification program" he says. And when he’s

not on the road, he enjoys talking with his children and their friends.

"Trying to understand what they and their friends are going through

is a very enriching experience," he says. For that reason, he

also looks forward to sharing the stage at the New Jersey Folk Festival

with younger musicians. "This kind of music doesn’t celebrate

selfishness and greed, it’s about sharing our blessings," he says.

— Richard J. Skelly

25th Anniversary Year, New Jersey Folk Festival,

Rutgers’ Douglass Campus, George Street & Clifton Avenue, New Brunswick,

732-932-9174. Saturday, April 24, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free. Rain or

shine.


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