David Amram on Poetry & All That Jazz
Dec. 4th, 2002
POETRY AND ALL THAT JAZZ
I rarely play clubs anymore, but was recently asked to so 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 of the poets who contacted me, while different from one another, have a common connection to the tradition that 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, and subsequent readings the four of us did together.
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, thrown together without an understanding they could collaborate and create their own magic, instead were told that they had to compete to see who could drown out each other first.
Still, the seeds had been sown for joining music and poetry in many different forms. 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, but which he said was never done formally in public (which he told me about in detail when we collaborated in 1965 in 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), Mingus and Kenneth Patchen, Ferlinghetti and Stan Getz, Jim Morrison with the Doors, Gil Scott Heron, the Last Poets all added their own creativity over the years, following what Jack and I started that rainy afternoon in October of 1957.
What I did when playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Pettford, Mingus and Lord Buckley before and since I met Kerouac in 1956, has now has reemerged, with thousands of new exciting and innovative musicians and poets as Spoken Word.
In HipHop and Rap there is a new ever-changing series of vibrant traditions being created and re-created every day nearly 50 years after our Brata Gallery efforts, as part of our New Millenium's innovations.
Jack and I called what we did at that first reading music/poetry-poetry/music. We had already done it many times before our readings with Hart and Lamantia, always spontaneously, whenever and where ever 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) and 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.
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 whoever else joined us had percolating in the late night-early morning world where we were doing all this, usually for a handful of people.
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.
With the second coming of music/poetry-poetry/music in the Sixties, all that we did for fun in the Fifties (and those of us here always will continue to do for the joy of collaboration, whether for good pay or for free), suddenly had an audience we never dreamed of during our spontaneous forays.
Today, I have the treat of playing with, as well as for, high school and college students, at folk festivals, jazz festivals, with poets young and old, well known actors, my own daughter Adira, people who have never read in public before, and even at symphony concerts I have conducted (at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony and the late E.G. Marshall reading the same parts of On the Road that Jack and I did before it was published, which we dreamed of doing with music I would create for symphonic accompaniment, but had to wait to have the chance to do until 1995 , 26 years after Jack's death).
In addition to playing with and for a small army of poets and musicians each year for the final day of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, at the annual Kerouac Writer's Residence Festival in Orlando Florida, and at a series of Insomniacathons with the indomitable Ron Whitehead in Holland, London, Louisville, New Orleans, Nashville and New York, I played for poets in Japan (including when they read in Japanese) and for readers in French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian.
In Montreal, I did the Jack Kerouac Tribute for the OFF Festival du Jazz in 2002 in Franglais (freestyling in French and English)
Jack and I did this all the time.
In a memorable weekend in the town of Goes in the Netherlands, I first played for Bob Holman when he read. He knocked me out with his spirit, his original style, his humor and his support of others. I sensed after a few minutes that he knew that we were put here to create in any way we felt in our hearts that we should, and that when you are lucky enough to be able to command the attention of others, it is your responsibility to, as Dizzy Gillespie told me when I played for his 70th birthday,"put something back into the pot."
I could see that Bob was interested in more than himself. Bob, like Ron Whithead, wanted to turn on the World on to poetry and music, and make the very best of the arts a part of everyday life for everyone. And to encourage people to be creative and observant of the beauty that surrounded us in every day life.
Both of them were, as all of us were taught to be in our era, in-clusive, not ex-clusive.
A few years after the first of our many performances together, Bob told me that his exciting dream of opening up a new venue for poetry and music was about to become a reality. I was invited by Bob and Danny Shot to play for the first event at the Bowery Poetry Club, in Long Shot magazine's tribute to Gregory Corso, even though the Club was not officially open and still under construction.
I knew that night of February 3, 2002, as we all stood with our overcoats on, drinking red wine from paper cups in the bone chilling cold, (there was still no heat) that the Bowery Poetry Club would become another milestone in New York's long history of great places come to and celebrate our artists past and present, and also celebrate one another.
This was because Bob Holman was applying the principals of organic farming. He was enriching the soil for future generations by building a place that would celebrate life and creativity, rather than another rip-off sleasezoid Temple of Eurotrash for the hearing Impaired, created by adults with no purpose in life except to separate kids from their money, under the guise of being CuttingEdge-Trendy-PostModern-Hip- Nihilistic-Landfill-Bound Payola Promoted Plastic Putrescence. (Fortunately, I am not judgmental, just observant.)
Bob Holman, like an increasing number of people around the world, was looking for something a little more real. He like millions of others of all ages, felt that we all deserve something better. Holman wanted to build a place that celebrated creativity and community through the magic of the arts. Where anybody and everybody of any age and interest could hang out and feel part of it all.
By good fortune, all four dates were able to be sandwiched between my other gigs across the country, where I do all the kinds of work I love most to do, which pays for my kids schooling, farm animals feeding, groceries, taxes and everyday survival.
Still, as a year-round seven day a week just turned 72 year old worker, I heed the advice of the late great Tompkins Square philosopher, Ukrainian Ernie, who lived close to me in 1955, only a few blocks from where the Bowery Poetry Club now stands. He gave me some advice on how to live life, when he found out that I had a job playing in the Charles Mingus Quintet in the Fall of 1955.
Ukrainian Ernie would always help out people in the neighborhood, where I lived six flights up, at 319 E. 8th St. (before it was torn down and rebuilt in the past few years).
He explained to all who would listen, how he came to America and fell in love with the New World. He was always reading, slowly but thoroughly, books in English about American history, poetry, novels and stories about the Old West. Ernie used to talk about how he studied the American Indian tradition of the Potlatch, or Giveaway. How the most respected and revered person in the tribe was the one who was the most generous, not the greediest. And how as an immigrant, he loved the openness and spirit of this country, and told us that the spirit of generosity that the Potlach symbolized in this country also existed in the countryside of the Old Country among the farmers in the Ukraine, where he lived as a little boy, despite how hard as it was to survive there.
"Maybe you become big shot some day. No matter..If you no can give it away, you don't got it. Indian people say if you just selfish greedy, you get all dry up and you worth nuttin'!"!!
Whether any of us in today's Full Greed Ahead society still "got it" is a day by day challenge to retain, but I know that being with a group of visionaries and sincere artists to play in a warm, affordable, inclusive, inviting environment, and be able to also pay homage to all my old friends no longer with us is an experience neither my friends or my own three kids would want to miss. And if Ukrainian Ernie were still alive, he would be at the Bowery Poetry Club every night, sharing his often incredible raps with everybody.
At the Bowery Poetry Club, the words and music are a gateway to a larger communal experience. NOT a nonexistent "Movement" or secret society.
None of the places where we all hung out together in the 1950s were considered Official Headquarters of the Beat Generation. None of of us ever described ourselves as being members of that. It was an organization that never existed, until we were told about it years later.
There were no doormen at the Cedar Bar, the Kettle of Fish, the Five Spot, the Village Gate, the Gaslight, Folk City and countless places we gathered to commune with one another. They were like the Bowery Poetry Club. These places were our meeting place for the moment.
Neither Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Diane DiPrima, Neal Cassady, Charlie Parker, Monk, Gillespie, artists Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, Pollack, DeKoonig., myself and thousands of others, ever had a secret handshake, a membership card, a letterhead, an arranged summit conference like the board of directors of the Mafia, the Elks Club, the Shriners, the 4-H Club (I belonged to that as a kid on a Pennsylvania farm in the 30's) the Trilateral Commission or The Ten days That Shook the World.
We were all aquainted on some level with one another. We were all inspired by one another.
Most of us met one another at places like The Bowery Poetry Club.
It is a blessing to have this new meeting place in New York, and hopefully it will encourage people all over the country, and through the Internet, the World, to create similar places in all communities, to suit the incividual needs of each place.
Since several people were surprised tp see i was playing at the Bowery Poetry Club so often during this period, I thought i would write Bob Holman a note to tell him and anyone else who wants to create their own small places to get together anywhere in the world, why I was so happy to do be there with and for him.
This is what I wrote.
WHY I AM PLAYING AT THE BOWERY POETRY CLUB
1. Dec 3rd My trio, accompanying poet Ray McNiece, former writer in residence of the Kerouac Writer's Residence in Orlando, which I helped get started. After playing music for Ray with my trio, I will play a set of my own. Ray is an outstanding poet, scholar, teacher and ambassador for Spoken Word at its finest. I was honored to be asked by him to do this, as a way of also honoring my work with Kerouac
There is a whole Kerouac connection to this evening, because Steve Allen, five weeks before he died, in his last public concert, performed with me in Orlando and we raised enough money to make the Kerouac Writers Residence in Orlando a reality. After three years of fundraising, under the guiding hand of Marty Cummins, we put the Residence in the black. Steve Allen and I were the ones who first played for Kerouac's public readings.
I started collaborating with Kerouac in 1956 until 1969 when Jack died, and Steve Allen first played with Jack in 1958 at the Village Vanguard and that Fall had Jack appear on his national TV show, and also recorded with him.
Ray McNiece was chosen as a Kerouac House writer a few months after Steve Allen and I performed our benefit concert for the Kerouac Writers residence in the Fall of 2000. When Ray recently asked me to play for him, as I did with Jack, for a New York/Florida connection, I was happy that I was free to do so. The Bowery Poetry Club is one and a half blocks from the old Five Spot, where I played in 1957 before On the Road was published, and Jack used to come to the Five spot to read with me.
(Bob Holman has a poster with a photo of me playing there from Esquire magazine, in his office. He is supposed to have it framed for the club. This photo is in Time Warner History of the 20th Century and the cover of two books. There are black and white copies available, and the proximity of these two places, with the Bowery Poetry Club a few hundred feet from the old Five Spot, where it all started, should be of historic interest). Playing at the Bowery Poetry Club completes a circle, started 45 years ago!!!!
2. Dec 11th MY trio, + Ralph Alfonso/Bongo Beat (a visionary poet/songwriter/singer/publisher from Vancouver ), singer/songwriter Lauren Agnelli (she was with the trio "The Village Squares" and is WONDERFUL) and a group of poets chosen by WebSite founder Levi Asher. Levi's site LitKicks was the first one ever to deal with Kerouac, myself and so many others in an intelligent way.
They want me to be the Guest of honor and also celebrate my 72nd birthday (which is actually November 17) as well as have me play. My daughter and Levi's 17 year old daughters will also be performing.
Like Bob Holman, Levi Asher brings distinction, scholarship and a sense of joy to a fresh way of looking at our ear of the 50's. Not Beat but rather Beatific...open, inclusive, warm and multifaceted.
3. Jan 5th Poet George Wallace has a book and CD (I did all the music for him) published in Italy that is coming out in USA with all his poetry that he is reading on CD and I am playing for him and also doing a set with my group. This will be from 4-7 p.m. and should be fun.
In the past two years, I have helped him to contact Carolyn Cassady, her son John, Ferlinghetti, McClure and many other surviving members of our group to participate in two major events which he conceived and administered himself. The first, where the town of Northport celebrated Kerouac's presence there, and the Big Sur four city marathon readings, were both substantial and critically praised events that concentrated on the cultural aspects of our era,, rather than a rehash of negative stereotyping.
Jack and many of us still surviving were honored as artists who contributed something of lasting value and inspiration to present day artists. George Wallace, in addition to being a prolific and highly gifted poet with a unique style of writing and reading of his work, has a radio show for poets past and present and has created a website that is a major outlet for many great young poets, as well as established ones.
4, Jan 18th Lord Buckley keeper of the flame Jason Eisenberg is coming from Boston Mass to recite Lord Buckley's incredible raps. Lord Buckley was the major influence for Lennie Bruce, George Carlin and was the first to combine the works Shakespeare, stories from the Old Testament, the Bible, the biographies of Jesus, Mahatma Ghandi and Abraham Lincoln with 1940's hip talk. the poetry of the streets.
Buckley died way too young in 1960, I played with him for the last time the night before he died, at an event given for him by George Plimpton, to help him gain wider recognition. Jason is his standard bearer.
Jason Eisenberg is phenomenal, the best I ever heard with the exception of Lord Buckley himself.
I will also be playing a set with my group at each of these four events.
Some press people have expressed interest in knowing why, at this stage of my life, I am doing this. I can tell them that, having performed at the beginning days of the Five Spot in the Fall of 1956, and with Cecil Taylor, initiated the club as a major jazz center, following Cecil there with my band in January of 1957 for eleven weeks, having performed with Kerouac in New York City;s FIRST jazz/Poetry readings in Oct of 1957, composed music for FIRST Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare Festival's FIRST summer in 1957, composed music for the Lincoln Center Theater's FIRST production (After the Fall by Arthur Miller in 1964), having been chosen by Leonard Bernstein as the New York Philharmonic's FIRST composer-in residence in 1966, was with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz, the FIRST musicians to play in Cuba since the Revolution in 1977, and was the FIRST musician to perform at the Bowery Poetry Club in a Gregory Corso Tribute before the Club was even supposed to be open, in February of 2002. If nothing else, I believe I know what is of REAL VALUE.
The Bowery Poetry Club is one New York City's major cultural innovations of the new Millennium.
At a time when Arts organizations are in chaos, it leads the way. Bob Holman is an outstanding poet, a visionary and community minded, just as Joe Papp was.
He will set the standard for a whole new way (and a very traditional one) of bringing the performing arts back to where they belong...accessible, for all ages, of many different artists from varied genres rubbing shoulders with one another and having direct contact with their audience, always communi cative, reflecting the poly cultural treasures that make New York City a great place to be.
I am grateful to be free to be at these events. I not only see old friends in their 70s and 80s who come. My own children 23, 21 and 18 also love going there and so do their friends.
David Amram Nov 11 2002