November 17, 1930, is the birthdate of David Amram, an eclectic and multi-talented musician and composer who has connected with audiences the world over. During a long and fruitful career, Amram has both played and written jazz, classical, “world” and liturgical music, and established creative relationships with artists as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Leonard Bernstein, Steve Goodman and Jack Kerouac.
David Werner Amram III was born in Philadelphia, and moved with his family to a farm in rural Feasterville at the age of seven, before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1942. His father, Philip Amram, was an expert in international law who worked for both the government and in private practice, but was also a practicing farmer. His mother, Emilie Weyl Amram, was a translator.
David was named for his paternal grandfather, a Philadelphia-born legal scholar who wrote on both secular and Jewish law, and a Zionist who lived for some time on a kibbutz in pre-state Israel and was director of the Federation of American Zionists. The grandson has said that although his family, living in the country, did not belong to a Jewish community, he learned Hebrew from his grandfather, who would lead Sabbath services at the family home.
At six, David received a bugle from his father, and at seven, he began studying piano. Eventually, he settled on the French horn as his instrument of choice. After graduating from the Putney School, a progressive boarding school in Vermont, in 1948, he studied for a year at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music before transferring to George Washington University. He graduated with a degree in European history in 1952. While living in Washington, D.C., he served as a substitute horn player for the National Symphony Orchestra and also performed with the Buddy Rowell Latin band.
Amram served in the United States army in Germany from 1952 to 1954, playing French horn with the Seventh Army Symphony, and remained in Europe playing jazz until 1955.
At every point along his career path, Amram has refused to be pegged to one particular genre, so that, even as he was studying composition and playing with the Manhattan Woodwind Quintet, in the mid-1950s he was also performing with the Charles Mingus Quintet and Oscar Pettiford’s band at clubs in the city. Amram also started his own quartet, together with saxophonist George Barrow.
In 1957, he performed with the writer Jack Kerouac (playing horn and bongos, as well as scatting) in what is said to have been New York’s first joint jazz and poetry event. He also appeared in the 1959 film “Pull My Daisy” with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others.
By the early 1960s, Amram was writing scores and incidental music for Broadway and Off-Broadway theater, and soundtracks for such films as “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Splendor in the Grass.” He was director of young people’s concerts for the Brooklyn Philharmonic over the course of 29 seasons, and in 1966 was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to be the first composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic.
All the while, Amram (whom The New York Times once described as having been “multicultural before multicultural existed”) was traveling the world – to Brazil, Cuba, Kenya and to American Indian reservations – and returning home with new musical traditions to share. In 1965 he wrote the music for an operatic version of the Holocaust drama “The Final Ingredient,” with libretto by Arnold Weinstein. He also wrote a number of other pieces based on Jewish texts and themes.
The widespread affection and esteem people feel for Amram, who himself gave many scores of benefit concerts over the years, was reflected in the response to a fire that destroyed much of his Putnam County, New York farmhouse in 1999. When Amram and his wife, Lora Lee Ecobelli, realized that their home insurance did not cover them for fire, Pete Seeger sent out a letter to friends asking them to help. Three different benefit concerts were held to raise money to reconstruct.