by Thomas P. Healy
Dan Wakefield and David Amram are living testimony to the rejuvenating power of the creative life as they continue making durable cultural contributions in their ninth decades.
The two living legends will reunite June 4 at the Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave. in Indianapolis for “An Evening With David Amram – hosted by Dan Wakefield.” The following night, June 5, Amram will be a guest on Wakefield’s “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour” radio show, held at the legendary Red Key Tavern, 5170 College Ave.
Native Hoosier Wakefield, 84, has published more than 20 books, including the bestselling Going All the Way, New York in the Fifties, and Spiritually Incorrect: Finding God in All the Wrong Places. He is also renowned for his spiritual autobiography workshops and for lending his editing skills to several collections of fellow Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut’s work. “I just got the proofs of the book I was working on last summer and fall, Complete Stories of Kurt Vonnegut,” he said recently. Wakefield co-edited the book, which will appear in September, with Vonnegut scholar Jerome Klinkowitz.
Wakefield’s friendship with composer Amram dates back to his days as a freelance writer in 1950s Greenwich Village. “I probably met him at Allen Ginsberg’s apartment,“ he recalled. “I spent a lot of time there while researching an article on marijuana that I was commissioned to do by Playboy magazine in 1961. They wanted a serious article about every aspect – legal, social, literary and legal. Ginsberg knew more about it anybody.”
Wakefield said Ginsberg’s apartment was always full of people, including musicians like Amram. Ginsburg was pals with novelist Jack Kerouac, who had a long collaboration with Amram, creating the first jazz/poetry readings in New York City in 1957. Amram, Ginsberg, and Kerouac were featured in Robert Frank’s 1959 short film, “Pull My Daisy” – a cult classic documenting the Beat era.
“Everybody hung out in Washington Square Park,” Wakefield said. “There was a fountain in the middle of the park. That’s where you went on Sunday—I saw everybody I knew. David was probably there playing—people would play guitars, and I remember once there were times when people would roll a piano into the park.”
Through the years, they have stayed in touch. While serving as writer in residence at Florida International University from 1995 to 2009, Wakefield would invite Amram to visit. “It was the high point of my class “New York in the Fifties,” he said. “I would invite David down and he would talk to the class. He has this whole bag of musical instruments from all over the world. He would play the instruments and tell stories.”
In 1997, Amram reached out to Wakefield to support the Kerouac Project in Orlando, a successful effort to acquire and restore the house where Kerouac and his mother had lived, and to establish a writer-in-residence program. “I went to the big opening after they fixed up the house—it was a big weekend.” Wakefield said. “We showed a DVD of “New York in the Fifties,” which David is in a lot, sitting at the piano and talking.”
“Dan is amazing,” Amram said during a recent phone interview while he waited for a plane to take him to his next gig. “When we did ‘New York in the Fifties’ together, I would listen to him talk and make all these people dare to feel that they could write and that it would be good. The ability to make someone feel worthy is a big gift.”
At age 86, David Amram is an accomplished composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist, and memoirist. He’s looking forward to visiting with Wakefield and hanging out in a park that the City of Indianapolis named in his honor in 2016. “It’s great to see people get that appreciation when they’re alive,” Amram said. “I have enjoyed many great times there since first visiting ‘Naptown’ with the trumpeter Whitey Harris in 1952, when I was a draftee at Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky, and Whitey—who was stationed there—took me to Indiana Avenue, where the jazz greats all gathered.”
Amram’s other visits included a stint as a guest conductor with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at Connor Prairie, playing the former Hoosier Dome with Willie Nelson and his band for Farm Aid, and most recently, a performance at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for the opening of the Kerouac “On the Road” scroll display in 2008.
“I was close to Kerouac,” he said. “Jack and I used to listen to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading his work. We wore out that LP!” He said they were also inspired by Langston Hughes, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, and Aaron Copland as well as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, and always hoped some day to do something with music,” Amram said. Fast forward many decades. “Yesterday we did my chamber piece, and now I’m on way to Tulsa for another performance. It’s all thrilling and such a joy to do.”
“People like Dan can make you feel that you are capable of telling your story,” Amram continued. “All the people I know, including Dan, realize that part of our obligation—especially if we don’t have to have a day job—is to foster creativity in others. That’s the highest thing you can do.”
For Amram, really good art has that inspiring effect. “Not only do people feel fulfilled when they see it, hear it, or look at it, but they feel they have something to contribute—make them a better cook, gardener, mechanic. Whatever task you have, bring something extra to it because you feel it.”