Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing America Chasing Cool
by Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D
New York | When I was seventeen I fell in love with Jack Kerouac, both the stories he wrote, as well as all the stories about his life. Which led me to David Amram, who was, of course, a part of Jack Kerouac's stories, as well as a part of his life. I first noticed David in that famous photograph of the cast of Pull My Daisy, that one where Gregory Corso and Larry Rivers and Jack and David and Allen Ginsberg all sit crammed in a booth in some diner, taking a break in between takes. Then I read Vibrations, David's 1967 memoir. Then came an old article I found in a library bound copy of Life magazine.
Under the headline, "Rising Young Composer," the article starts, "David Amram, his teeth clenched with conviction, delivers a warning, 'Anyone who expects me to be an introspective cosmic sourpuss to prove I'm a serious composer had better forget it.' The article continues: "As for being a sourpuss, (David Amram) tackles a set of snare drums with the bravado of a Buddy Rich, breakfasts on rice, almonds and peppermint-flavored tea and goes lumbering down Park Avenue in a battered Land Rover." What can I say? For a girl who loved Jack Kerouac, David Amram was a find, as brilliant and as artful as Jack, but lesser known, less a part of the popular American imagination, at least to me at seventeen. At the time, I didn't really know anything about classical music, about jazz. But I knew cool when I saw it and David Amram in that 1967 edition of Life magazine was impossibly cool. Unabashedly enthusiastic, generous, uncompromising, he was everything I wanted to be: An artistic genius living in 1950s New York.
Today I laugh when I think about how that article enchanted me, because at the time it was already twenty-years old. In 1987 David was no longer a "rising young composer," but an "established, respected" one. He had long moved out of New York City and was married, a father, all facts about his life that I had no idea about when I first found his story and photograph in that library bound copy of Life magazine. Such is the power of stories and photographs, especially published ones. They forever freeze a person in time, lasting far longer than the actual person, the actual time itself.
I know this truth well, since today, amazingly, I know David Amram in life and not just Life magazine. We met three years ago through our mutual interest and work on the writings of Jack Kerouac. And even though I know its wrong to deny the passing of all those years in between, nothing thrills me more than taking his hand and letting him lead me into all of those places he and Jack Kerouac hung out in New York City, places, which, today, don't seem that much different from what you can see in those photographs taken all those years ago -- at least when I walk alongside David.
Tuesday, February 12
by David Amram
New York | When Jack Kerouac and I were strolling down McDougal Street in Greenwich Village one night in the 1950s, he paused and pointed to the sparkling slivers of metal imbedded in the litter-strewn asphalt. "Look at the diamonds in the sidewalk, Davey," he said. Jack was referring to some of the hidden treasures of New York that we all felt surrounded us. We didn't see the grime and trash in what was a pre-ecologically conscious city, nor were we upset by the stench of garbage and the car fumes or the constant racket of fire engines and police cars blaring sirens or the roar and rattle of subway trains or buses. We were both small-town boys in the most exciting and glamorous city in the world.
It was a city where you could live with rents so low that if you had a few roommates, you could live working only a few days a week, and odd jobs were plentiful. There was a small army of authors, poets, painters, sculptors, actors, dancers, film makers, composers, jazz and Latin musicians, all of whom mingled with students, tourists, winos, checker players and souvlaki chompers all at home in the streets of Greenwich Village and parts of the Lower East side. Jazz clubs, folk music venues, coffee houses and small eating places allowed you to buy a cup of coffee or a beer and sit all night long, socializing with anybody and everybody. While there was electricity and energy in the air, down town New York was both a Mecca and a haven for all the people who came to visit and to those who lived there. And in a huge and heartless city, you instantly felt at home.
The uptown world, everything north of 14th street, was the adult world, but downtown was the refuge and the magnet that had been a community for artists back in the day when O. Henry wrote "Rose of Washington Square." Kerouac used to always talk about the writers he loved with strong ties to Greenwich Village like Whitman, Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, Jimmy Baldwin, Edna St Vincent Millay, E. E. Cummings, Eugene O'Neil and Gregory Corso (who was born there). This was the place in New York where the more unconventional you appeared to be, the more you fit in. The first public jazz/poetry readings ever done in New York City, which Jack and I debuted in the Village in the Fall of 1957 were just an extension of what we would do privately at bring your own bottle parties held in painters, lofts, at friends apartments, on park benches or pizza parlors during the late night/early morning hours when the rest of America was asleep. It felt natural for us to do it anywhere and any time the spirit moved us in this environment.
Today, a half a century later, I still treasure playing on the first Monday of every month at the Cornelia Street Cafe, two blocks from where I first played my first jobs in New York in 1955 with the Charles Mingus Quintet at the old Cafe Bohemia. I pay homage to the old New York of the 50s and the New York of today. Sometimes old timers join my quartet, and young poets and musicians sit and read with spontaneous musical accompaniment. I recreate some of the readings which I did with Kerouac and young musicians join to play my music, including my son Adam now 23, and my two daughters Alana and Adira, still in their twenties, The Cornelia Street Cafe is more elegant and user friendly than any of the places that Kerouac and I used to hang out in, but there is a warm spirit and cozy atmosphere that reminds you that in the giant megapolis of New York, small is still beautiful. When I go out at the end of the night to pack up my instruments, I walk underneath the nearest street light and always see those diamonds in the sidewalk, still glittering as they did so long ago, and welcoming anyone walking by to feel at home, as Jack and I always did.
Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D is an ethnographer, audio producer and professor of sociology. The author of the true-life novel/community study Home Goings, she creates artistic and educational programming for the Denver Public Library. David Amram is an internationally acclaimed composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and author. His most recent orchestral work, "Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie" made its world premiere in San Jose, California this past September and his third book, Upbeat, Nine Lives of a Musical Cat was published a month later. This blog is a seven-day diary they are collaborating on together about the life, times and 50th anniversary of On the Road, Jack Kerouac's second novel while teaching Sprenger's cross-country sociology and documentary making course "Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing American Chasing Cool."
Ashley Vaughan is a documentary photographer. Currently a journalism student at the University of Denver, she has received several academic grants for her photographic projects including a Fred McDarrah Grant for Young Photojournalists. An assistant archivist for biographer Bill Morgan, she is also the art director for the David Amram Archive and is currently working with Audrey Sprenger on Jack Kerouac's America, 50 Years Old.