Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing America Chasing Cool
January 19, 2008
by David Amram
Denver | When I first came to Denver in the mid-forties with my family, and later on when traveling through with different bands, I was always aware of Larimer Street and Five Points as the two places in Denver that in no way fit the stereotype of a Hollywood Western town. But there was never any Western I ever saw that remotely captured the vitality and variety of the people who filled the streets. And regardless of where the people living there came from, they all had a certain Denver way of walking, with a kind of lope, as if the buildings and paved streets would disappear some day and they would be at home on that mythical range that us Easterners dreamed about.
One picture I can never forget was the juxtaposition of a Mexican field worker standing outside a jazz club in a sombrero, sharing a brown bagged bottle of Tequila, rapping in Spanish about how Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were combining jazz and Afro-Cuban music with Machito in far away New York, as you could see the sun setting over the distant Rockies in the background. And African-American jazz musicians would stand outside the clubs during their breaks between sets and talk to railroad workers and disenfranchised cowboys now looking for any way to make it in the city.
Denver in the late '40s was also on the radar of those of us who were budding classical composers and performers. The Denver Symphony had a wonderful spirited conductor, Sol Caston, a former trumpeter with the Philadelphia Orchestra, who decided to bid adieu to the Eastern seaboard establishment and settle down in Denver. The symphony even played the music of American composers, included jazz in their programming, and had a young orchestra and a huge following. And there was an underground community of artists and dreamers who loved the Rockies so much that they never sought the glitter and opportunities of New York.
When I conducted my opera "Twelfth Night" at the University of Denver in 1990, and other symphonic pieces since then, as well as performing jazz and world music, I was prepared to be in a city where jazz, Latin music, symphonic music, opera, and country music were all appreciated, and often had the same audiences. This is just a reflection of the nature of Denver past and present. It has always retained its own character of being open, inclusive, friendly and celebratory of its own breathtaking natural beauty. It is a modern city in the best sense, which retains its roots and its old time values. It is not allowing itself to be paved over. People are its first priority. That's why my friend and collaborator Jack Kerouac felt so attracted to it and I do as well for the same reasons.
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.