Friday, January 5, 2007

All Your Doors Are Open

David Amram slept on the floor of the Blair-Caldwell branch of the Denver Public Library, his coat folded into a pillow and Pull My Daisy1 projected on the white wall at the head of the room. He needed sleep after four days in San Francisco with students from the class Jack Kerouac Wrote Here: Criss-crossing America Chasing Cool. Artie Moore, stand-up bass bandleader sitting in with Amram while Jack Kerouac Wrote Here occupied Denver, lounged out in the hall with Tony Black, a drummer with a flair for the martial that stretched through the weekend, also light with brushes, who uses his elbow to distort the tom head, wringing new notes out of the old blue tub.

The room was set for two hundred, but the librarians and event planner had to pass more chairs into the room like a bucket brigade, while kids had sat on the floor and flat-backed on walls. Amram looked across the crowd, already at capacity, twenty minutes before the event’s scheduled start, so he gave a nod to Moore and Black and they played a number to pass the time, Amram switching from a keyboard to winds, his jazz French horn with the bell whanged out by some past drop, his tin whistles that he will play two-at-once, his great head bobbing with the rise and run of his sets of notes.

And the room kept filling. Kerouac was back in town, "Denver at last!" indeed.

Beat crowds have a certain look in the east—teenagers in Salvation Army couture, middle-aged men in bajas, a few turtlenecked, bespectacled elders in long white hair—but this beat crowd in Denver looked like Denver—men and women in fleece, straight-legged blue jeans or khakis that drooped to hiking boots rimed with salt from the snowy archipelagos of sidewalks.

The crowd came to honor Kerouac and to hear Amram, jazz musician and arranger, Kerouac’s first musical collaborator, and the crowd always goes loose from Amram’s music—his original compositions and repertoire of jazz standards, the tables littered with wind instruments and drums. Yet, most people who see Amram are most taken by the man’s erudition—he speaks knowingly and lovingly about music from classical to rap, and he tells stories that highlight what Amram identifies as beat, often quoting Kerouac’s should-be-famous phrase “Live your lives out? Naw, love your lives out”2.

In this, the 50th anniversary year of On the Road, the focus of these celebrations is on Kerouac and his life’s work, yet as these events accumulate—the longer I take my place beside academics like Audrey Sprenger and Penny Vlagopoulos, beside icons like Ed White and John Cassady3, I realize that Amram is the jewel-center of this contemporary quest narrative.

When Amram invites his daughter, Adira, to perform, her scat jazz vocals reach moments of the golden treble in the heart’s center—the audience feels it the way shower-stall vocalists feel those notes that float beyond them, the notes that if sung would say all the ideas and purge all the feelings the singer has carried around since the last exultant phrases.

And only Amram’s words of pure encouragement, not a put on or a false up-with-everything mock beatitude popular among those who seek justification for their excesses, can gird Elijah, a nineteen year old from upstate New York, for a room full of ears attuned to Amram’s band’s professional polish and free ideas, and allow Elijah to stumble through a few bars of freestyle before finding it, the pocket, and to let his words tumble in the harmony of an August rain, drops so heavy and rhythmic with the variations from a shifting wind.

When Amram, with Artie Moore and Tony Black, blow the final notes after the screening, the crowd is rapt and they want more, and Amram has to be told to stop, to keep some in the tank for tomorrow and the next nine days of travel across the country, where he will keep improvising on his horn, his whistles and flutes, proselytizing the spirit and accompanying the multitude.

The people will keep coming.

1Pull My Daisy is, according to Amram, “a kind of a home movie” based, loosely, on a script written by Jack Kerouac and starring Amram, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, among others, and filmed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie.

2From “Beatific: Origins of the Beat Generation” (Good Blonde).

3For a complete list of the many talented people who are making Jack Kerouac Wrote Here possible, visit the website.

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