Through music and memory, David Amram helps keep Kerouac’s flame alive

By David Perry

It is a friendship of the purest sort. And it does not end, though one of the friends died in 1969.

David Amram’s allegiance to Jack Kerouac is unbowed. He knows all the stories of Loudmouth Jack and Drunken Jack. He knows there’s a whole picture. He just doesn’t want the Jack he knew lost in the rear view.

Call upon Amram to salute his Beat buddy and he will show up. Maybe alone, with his whistles and scat vocals, maybe with a jazz combo. He will be off somewhere else tomorrow, because he never stops to rest.

You can count on Amram to project the pure ecstatic joy that fills him. He remembers a similar spirit infusing Kerouac’s personality, especially before fame and expectation swallowed him.

Amram, 81, and Kerouac, whose 90th birthday falls Monday, March 12, met in 1956 and became fast friends and cohorts, staging seminal spoken word performances in New York.  Their first performance was in December 1957 at the Brata Art Gallery on East 10th Street. Amram played while Kerouac read. It flowed like jazz, from moment to moment, one man inspiring the other in a continuous circle.

Amram sometimes gets lost in all of this. He couldn’t care less.

And yet, the man with the wiry, curly silver hair is, by any estimation, one of the most remarkable musicians of modern times. Classical composer of more than 100 works of orchestral and chamber music, Amram has written operas, film scores (The Manchurian Candidate and Splendor in the Grass to name two) and three books.

If anyone knows a musician who used the French horn to improvise before Amram, please stand up. Amram can make the penny whistle sound like a million bucks. He has always been fascinated with cultures of the world and woven them into his music. He’s as at home onstage with Willie Nelson as he was Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie or Leonard Bernstein.

And yet, when he comes to Lowell, none of that matters. He seems to forget nothing, including the local musicians who come out to jam with him.

“Jack was emblematic of this whole group of people,” says Amram by phone from New York, following a six-hour recording session for a film sound track.

He ticks off some names, art pioneers and trailblazers all –  Bernstein, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock. “There were all of these people in the world where Jack took his place as a writer. An amazing time.”

David Amram and Jack Kerouac
Left to right: Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso (with back to camera)

Kerouac “was the embodiment of that warm, wonderful and very special feeling that so many people had and still have,” says Amram. “He was able to get his work out there. He wanted to be appreciated as a writer and artist.”

Fresh ground was broken regularly in the arts, and Kerouac yearned for acceptance by his fellow artists.

But there was a problem, says Amram. He wanted acceptance. Fame was another matter.

“You would be acknowledged as such but you were supposed to follow a certain role. And Jack was that rare person of his generation who did not want to be a rock and roll star. When we’d go hang out, he’d always look for the most insecure person in the room and hang out with them.”

He says he saw the same thing in another friend, Hunter S. Thompson, a genteel southern gentleman until the camera clicked on or the curtain went up. Then, he adopted the persona folks expected. And it fit like a crown of thorns.

“He was the nicest person, but his act eventually became his reality,” says Amram.

Others were jealous of the attention that swelled around Kerouac and the success of On the Road, says Amram. Critics sniped at him. Plenty of other writers called him a “nobody.”

Folks embraced him as the King of the Beatniks. They donned bongos, and sprouted goatees. You could even watch the Beatniks on TV, in Bob Denver’s Maynard G. Krebs. Amram hates all of that, but he knows Kerouac wasn’t about to join any exclusive literary club.

“When success found him after he’d been writing for years, they expected him to suddenly put on a tweed coat and affect a British accent,” says Amram. “Then, if he had, he would have been accepted into the club.”

And he is thankful for the way Lowell has remembered Kerouac in Eastern Canal Park, with sculptor Ben Woitena’s commemorative. Amram most loves that it is not a statue of the man’s body but a series of eight granite panels holding his words.

“It is him, written in stone, literally,” says Amram.

Amram was recently part of a pre-Super Bowl celebration hosted by Indianapolis Colts owner James Irsay, a Kerouac fan who owns the original scroll of On the Road. He played while the Colts’ radio announcer read excerpts from On the Road. Amram also sang “Pull My Daisy.”

And this is what Amram was thinking. His old friend, who played football at Lowell High, would have loved the setting.

Amram won’t be in Lowell for Kerouac’s birthday celebration. He is in Tulsa, Okla., leading a jazz tribute to Woody Guthrie with players from the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. It’s all part of the kickoff of the yearlong celebration of Woody Guthrie’s centennial.

But when it comes to Jack, music and memory are always close at heart.

David Perry is a vinyl addict and freelance writer living in Chelmsford, Mass.