No one can believe David Amram is now 80. Yes, you can do the math. But, to see him cavorting about the ample stage in front of a packed Symphony Space on Thursday for his birthday celebration was surely to see a man in mid-life: Hence the title, "The First 80 Years."
In typical Amram style, performances of this quintessential American composer and ethnomusicologist's "greatest hits" were not self-reflexive, but rather homages to the greats he performed with, learned from, those who inspired him: Odetta, Joe Papp, Woody Guthrie, Frank McCourt, Max Roach, Dizzy, and Kerouac. In memory of Floyd Red Crow Westerman, he played with Tokasin Ghosthorse on Lakota Courting Flutes. The Queens College Orchestra conducted by Maurice Peress played "This Land is Your Land," and I could feel his Whitmanesque expansive juxtapositions. Similarly his "Home on the Range" was bebop Americana.
Perhaps my favorite part of the evening was the medley of his music for movies: "Splendor in the Grass," the original "Manchurian Candidate" where John Frankenheimer just directed him, Take it where it takes you. And of course, "Pull My Daisy," Working with Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie and also a version created for a documentary I worked on in the 1980's, "The Beat Generation: An American Dream." Scatting his signature "senior" spontaneous bop, he sounds good, a hip guy in a suit with pipes and pennywhistles hanging off his neck making it up as it suits him. The actor John Ventimiglia brought this sequence home with his reading of the last paragraph of Kerouac's "On the Road:" And don't you know that god is Pooh Bear.
Surrounded by family, his kids, Adira, Alana, Adam, his ex wife Laura Lee, and many fans and friends including Jacques D'Amboise, Barbara Kopple, Ira Gittler, Malachy McCourt, Ray Mantilla and John McEwan of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, David Amram hosted the evening without sentimentality, without excess, eschewing the typical testimonials for such a grand occasion. After all, we've got the next 80 to anticipate and cherish.
This post also appears on Gossip Central.