When musician David Amram introduced me before I read with him at Cornelia Street Cafe on September 3, 2012, he very generously said people should pay attention because one day they’d see me on television. To me, though, reading with David Amram was a much bigger deal than being on television. There are countless television shows, but there is only one David Amram. While there are many fantastic musicians and writers out there whom I’d be honored to read with, there are few who hold such a special place in forming my creative identity as Amram does.
I first became acquainted with Amram through studying Jack Kerouac when I was just a teenager. I was enamored with his improvised performance as Mezz McGillicuddy in the 1957 Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie film Pull My Daisy. In fact, this photograph, featuring Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso, who all collaborated on the film, is probably my all-time favorite photograph of the poets, writers, and artists associated with the Beat Generation. It seems to so purely capture their friendship: just a couple of people hanging out at a cafe, maybe talking about the arts, or maybe just drinking coffee late into the night and enjoying each other’s company.
Although it was literature that introduced me to Amram, his music fascinated me. Here was a musician who was more than just skillful. Amram is an innovator. He’s someone who experiments, improvises, blends genres, captivates. He is, quite simply, mesmerizing to watch and listen to.
Through reading biographies on Kerouac and also reading Amram’s own biographies, I came to discover the jazz-poetry readings Amram and Kerouac began doing in the Village in 1957. These were improvised sets, requiring each to masterfully foresee and adapt to changing tempos and moods in each other’s works. These jazz-poetry collaborations captured my imagination, challenging my view of art and the way in which it’s created, the musicality of words, and the role of collaboration, improvisation, and performance in literature. As I read about the collaborations in musty library books, forty-some-odd years after they’d taken place, I envisioned what it must’ve been like to be in the crowd at a painter’s loft or at the Circle in the Square. Did the people there realize they were part of history?
In 2001, I had the opportunity to ask Amram just that when I interviewed him for some research I was doing at the time. I sat enthralled, clinging to his every word, as he told me about all the places he used to hang out at in New York, about collaborating with Kerouac, and about how the term “Beat Generation” is just a marketing term that people later attached to the individual artists who each create unique works. As he talked, answering all of my questions and never rushing me, and later as I read another biography of his, I realized that Amram is the real deal — a creative genius and also a beatific individual, an artist who inspires and encourages.
Amram has been someone whom I’ve long admired, both on an artistic and a personal level. Reading about those 1957 jazz-poetry readings he did with Jack Kerouac, I never imagined that one day I would have the opportunity to read the book I’m writing on Jack Kerouac with him. When my former editor suggested we attend Amram’s show at Cornelia Street Cafe in the Village, I excitedly said yes. A few days later, I had to email him back to say Amram had invited me to read with him. It was completely surreal.
The September 3, 2012, show was completely sold out. I had some friends who were turned away at the door. Special thanks to Cornelia Street Cafe’s Robin Hirsch and the staff for hosting the reading and for doing such an excellent job in organizing the event. I read a short selection about Kerouac’s time in Mexico from Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the book I’m co-authoring with Paul Maher, Jr. It was really exciting because author Larry Closs and painter Jonathan Collins, both of whom I met through the Burning Furiously Beautiful Facebook page, were in the audience. Poet and producer RA Araya, who has been hugely supportive of my work and whose birthday bash was the premiere reading from Burning Furiously Beautiful, was also there, and graciously provided the photography you see here. I had some other family and friends there as well and am so appreciative of their support. It means more to me than most people realize.
As soon as my videographer, Liz Koenig, sends the video, I’ll post it so you can hear me reading with David Amram and his band. The band, consisting of Amram, Kevin Twigg, and John de Witt played so beautifully — even more of a feat, considering Twigg had hurt his hand before the show. The music was haunting and fit the piece that I read so perfectly. I wanted to remain present in the moment, to really hear what they were playing, and savor the moment. It was one of those times in life that I wanted to tuck into my heart and cherish.
David Amram, Stephanie Nikolopoulos, Joe Pacheco
Stephanie Nikolopoulos, David Amram, RA Araya