Random Acts of Culture: David Amram and his 35 instruments
Often, you don't have to buy a box seat and put on a tiara to experience great art in Colorado. In our new "Random Acts of Culture" series, we invite Coloradans to share stories about unexpected arts experiences that happen around every street corner.
A couple of years ago, I had an amazing experience when a friend took me to an event at the Mercury Café in Denver, the annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash.
It was terribly boring, until my friend whispered a strange word: Amram!
And it all changed.
But let me back up and explain. The Birthday Bash honors Neal Cassady, who was an inspirational figure for the Beat poets and writers of the 1950s and '60s. He grew up in Denver, and he is the reason that so much of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel "On the Road" is set in Denver. He died in 1968.
The event to honor him that night at the Mercury didn’t start well. It involved various people with various connections to Cassady, talking about him in vague, nonspecific ways. This went on and on and on. A scholar of the Beats might noted details of interest.
But I was not such a scholar.
My friend and I were ready to leave at the next opportunity when suddenly my friend sat up straight, and whispered: Amram!
I heard it again, from someone at another table: Amram! Amram!
I nudged my friend and asked, “What’s an Amram?”
My friend stared across the room. He said, “Amram’s here!”
Amram, it turned out, was a name – the last name of David Amram. A few minutes later, David Amram stepped on stage. I don’t think anyone in the audience knew he would turn up that night. Certainly no one had mentioned it to me – I’d never heard of the man before. And before that night I’d never seen anyone take a room so completely in hand, simply by walking onto the stage.
Though nearly 80 years old and soft spoken, Amram had the energy of a younger man and enormous stage presence. You could see he knew what he was about. He said a few words about Cassady, about Kerouac – Amram had been friends with them both – and then he snapped his fingers, setting up a rhythm.
A bassist and a drummer behind him joined in, and Amram began to scat – about Cassady and Kerouac and Denver.
Then he picked up a saxophone, which he played with enormous skill and delicacy. Then he put down the saxophone and picked up a French horn, which he played just as wonderfully. Then he sat at a keyboard. Then he took up a Middle Eastern stringed instrument. Then, a Native American flute.
More and more instruments, one after another.
I read later that David Amram plays at least 35 different instruments. And not only is he a terrific jazz musician on dozens of instruments, but he has composed symphonies and written books and collaborated with Jack Kerouac, Dizzy Gillespie, Leonard Bernstein, Woody Guthrie and many others. His biography is a microcosm of 20th-century music and culture.
Amram arrived, and suddenly Neal Cassady got the birthday bash he was due.
Neal Cassady wasn’t a great writer himself, but he lived with enormous energy and he possessed a charisma that entranced and inspired the Beats.
The friend who brought me to the Cassady Bash was Cort McMeel, a Denver-based writer, and a gifted novelist in his own right. Energetic and charismatic, Cort was a little like Neal Cassady, if Cassady had been a better writer.
I say “was” because my friend Cort passed away last year, too young.
When I think about Cort, I often think of that Cassady Bash, two years ago. And when I think of the Cassady Bash, I always think of Cort. I think of him whispering: Amram!
And whenever I’m at an event that’s a little boring, I have hope. I look around. Maybe something wonderful will happen. Maybe someone knows something I don’t. Maybe someone will start whispering something strange.
On Saturday, May 10 as part of the NE Walk Fest in northeast Denver, local author Jon Leslie will lead a free walk and discussion of Denver’s literary past, particularly its connections to the Beat Generation, including writers like Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and musicians like David Amram. Click here for tickets and information.
To hear Nick Arvin share this "Random Act of Culture" on the air, tune into this week's arts show on Friday at 10:30 a.m. or 7:30 p.m. or listen online anytime!
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Nick Arvin is the author of three books. His most recent novel is "The Reconstructionist."