Over the past year, Bob Porco, the grandson of Gerde’s Folk City owner Mike Porco, has promoted a series of concerts at the original Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, bringing back acts from the 60s who created the folk music revolution of that era.
There have been some wonderful performances, ranging from Delta blues to jazz, with a heavy dose of great stories about the historic Gaslight and the many famous people who played and listened to music there. But perhaps the best of the year came just before Christmas from David Amram, a composer, musician and master storyteller who worked with virtually every important artist of the past 50 years.
Amram, now 82 but not showing it, is a living history book. He has worked with—believe it or not—Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Langston Hughes, Charles Mingus, Pepper Adams, Leonard Bernstein, Sir James Galway, Tito Puente, Mary Lou Williams, Joseph Papp, Arthur Miller, Miles Davis, Arturo Sandoval, Stan Getz, Pete Seeger, Elia Kazan, Odetta, Lord Buckley, Dustin Hoffman, Steve Allen, Machito, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Allen Ginsberg, Nina Simone, Gregory Corso, Steve Goodman, Hunter Thompson and Johnny Depp—just to name a few.
That’s quite a list, but it’s what 57 years in Greenwich Village will do when you are in the right place at the right time. Amram was back on stage at 116 MacDougal Street, where in 1958 his buddies Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso used to read poetry before the folk scene, led by Bob Dylan, took over. Better yet, most of this wide range of performers came to hear each other, feeding off totally different kinds of art.
As a classical composer and performer, Amram's integration of jazz into ethnic and folk music has resulted in more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works. But beyond the music are the stories. One of his funniest was the trial of trying to write Indian music for Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Amram’s impressions of Ormandy were dead-on and hilarious.
Scattered in his historical stories about life in Greenwich Village, was some excellent advice for any aspiring artist. After writing the scores for Splendor in the Grass and The Manchurian Candidate, Amram was offered a seven picture deal by a Hollywood studio.
However, the studio wanted the seven pictures completed in only one year. When he asked how could he possibly do that, the studio suggested he use assistants, which, of course, would mean the work would not actually be by Amram. He walked away from the lucrative deal and what he called “Hollyweird” and came back to the Greenwich Village, a lot poorer, but still with his artistic integrity.
His advice: Turn off the television set, mass media and popular entertainment, and follow your own talent, regardless of the advice you get from others. Watch YouTube, he advised, saying there’s much to be mined from it. He reminded the audience that most of the really big things he was involved in began as a very few people in small groups.
One of those was the jazz and poetry movement with Jack Kerouac and what is now known as the Beat Generation, though most of the living poets hate the term today. Amram scored and acted in Pull My Daisy, a 1959 film narrated by Kerouac and co-directed by the great photographer Robert Frank. Rather than just tell about Kerouac and all his buddies, Amram did it in song—often ad libbing the lyrics as he went.
His style of “scat” singing was one of the highlights of the energetic two-hour performance, each totally unique due to his improvisation of lyrics. With that singing, Amram is also a pioneer player of the jazz French horn as well as a virtuoso on piano, numerous flutes and whistles, percussion and dozens of folkloric instruments he collected from travels to more than 25 countries. His performance on these instruments made it a truly eclectic, international concert.
Perhaps, however, the greatest thing about Amram’s performance was how gave the old Gaslight it’s proper historic context. As the night went on, young kids paraded through the club oblivious to the hallowed ground on which they were standing. But for those who listened and paid attention, this was one of the few men alive who can fill in the blanks and tell the rich stories of the Gaslight’s legacy.
This was the place that hosted the likes of Bill Cosby, Bruce Springsteen, Wavy Gravey, Richie Havens, Jose Feliciano, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Eric Anderson, John Herald, The Greenbrier Boys, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Dave Van Ronk, The Blues Project, Mississippi John Hurt, Jimi Hendrix, John Hammond Jr., Odetta, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bonnie Raitt, Rev. Gary Davis, Big Mama Thornton, Link Wray, Mimi Farina, Charles Mingus, Happy and Artie Traum, Doug Kershaw, Bob Neuwirth and David Bromberg.
For the stories, I’m grateful for this rare connection to an earlier era in New York City, when so many of our musical tastes were being shaped by the legends Amram knew and worked with. He humanized them in a very special way.