|Beat jazz pioneer David Amram has collaborated with Jack Kerouac,
Gregory Corso, Willie Nelson, and Charles Mingus. He is a multi-
talented musician, composer, conductor, world traveler, scholar, and
on top of all that, the first time I phoned the 76-year young dynamo, he
was outside fixing a tractor on his farm in upstate New York. Here is
the interview I conducted with David Amram during two phone calls
that took place on Saturday and Sunday, December 16 and 17, 2006.
Bill: How would you explain the term "orchestral colors"?
David: One of the first people who ever spoke to me of orchestral color was Charlie Parker, in 1952, in my
basement apartment in Washington, DC. Parker asked me if I had ever checked out the music of Frederick Delius.
I said, "Bird, we were always told Delius was a minor composer," because in those days, there was a lot lacking in
American music studies, and most music teachers referred to Delius that way.
Bird said, "Check out his orchestration. Frederick Delius was a great orchestral colorist."
Bill: But what does that mean?
David: Orchestral colors and the art of orchestration is like taking a series of black and white illustrations and filling
them in with colors. In symphonic music, those black and white images are the actual notes played; how and who
plays them is what you do when you orchestrate something. A composition is like a great painting in that it has
contrast, form, takes you to places you've never been before, and keeps you wanting more.
Bill: What was Charlie Parker like?
David: Charlie Parker had brilliance and sophistication that the movie Bird didn't
capture. He was very knowledgeable and he was a lifetime student of
'hang-out-ology', always learning, open-minded, so he didn't rank Delius as a "minor"
or "major" musician. He heard the music of Delius for what it was. I talk about this is
my book Vibrations .
Bill: Your song about Hunter S. Thompson, on the Southern Stories CD, is perfect. It
captures Thompson's life story so simply and yet, so completely. Did you ever meet
David: Yes, I first met Hunter in 1959. I had a cabin in Huguenot, New York when
Hunter Thompson was a reporter for the Middletown Daily Record. There was a little
store I went to for my week's supply of groceries, and the old man who ran the store
hardly said a word, usually just a grunt for 'hello.'
But finally, one day, the guy said to me, "I've seen 'em."
"Seen what?" I asked.
"The saucer people," he says. "The flying saucer people in the field across the street."
"Oh ..." I said. "Okay ..."
He said, "I've only told two people about this. You, and that crazy writer up on the hill."
Of course, the crazy writer was Hunter Thompson. Years later, when Ron Whitehead and Doug Brinkley organized
an award ceremony for Thompson in Louisville, Kentucky, they asked me to be the music director. I had the chance
to sit and reminisce with Hunter about the guy in the Superette who saw the saucer people and other, more serious
things, as well. Hunter was more than just a crazy Gonzo character, he was first and foremost a serious writer.