In a program that tied jazz of the 1950s with Beat writer Jack Kerouac, the multi-instrumentalist David Amram took a enveloping approach to the music that influenced his work as a composer and music that was dear to the jazz musicians — chiefly Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker — who influenced the Beat Generation.
Amram filled his 90 minutes with anecdotes and music that ran from Egypt to Greenwich Village to Cuba to the plains inhabited by American Indians, supplying an uncommonly broad look at the accession of non-Western music as an influence on 1950s artists.
For Amram, 69, it was a rare Los Angeles visit and he often referred to the L.A. he saw in the 1950s before moving to New York where he scored the films “Splendor in the Grass” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” even retitling the evening’s opener to “Take the Los Gatos A Train to Franklin Avenue.”
Dressed in white dinner jacket and tuxedo pants with a swarm of bells and natural artifacts around his neck, Amram retains a renegade aura; his resume may be seen as mainstream now, but this is the rare person who worked with Gillespie, Kerouac, Leonard Bernstein and Frank Sinatra — and of them by the time he was 36.
Amram is the sort who is left out of jazz encyclopedias and histories, one guesses, because he refuses to distill his influences into obvious bebop settings. His last album, “Southern Stories,” relied, for example, on his orchestrations and use of folk melodies.
At the half-full outdoor amphitheater, he used penny whistles, the French horn and assorted percussion and woodwind instruments to present his worldly giftbag, using the piano the fulfill the Jazz Pilgrimage subtitle, “Hipster, Jazz & the Beat Generation.”
He sang “Pull My Daisy,” a ditty he wrote with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady for a silent film in 1957, and turned it into a rambling ode to the evening, the talent assembled and his own thoughts on arts and education.
Actors Stella Stevens and Elliot Gould read from Kerouac’s work while Amram and his quartet noodled and jammed; Gould’s reading of a piece about the pianist George Shearing was perfectly married to Amram’s piano vamps and solos. (Amram and Kerouac did the first jazz-poetry reading in New York in 1959). Jerry Stiller, another of Amram’s ’50s associates, did a goofy reading of Mary Lou Williams’ “The Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” that was far too amateurish.
Show isn’t that far a stretch from the types of presentation Amram made 25 years ago at venues such as Gotham’s Village Gate. The difference now is there’s humor and a sense of graciousness in the performance, a notion that the performer feels blessed to have had extraordinary experiences in life rather than expecting the audience to grasp every last concept being expressed onstage.
Evening closed with a band led by trumpeter Jack Sheldon performing music composed for the film “The Subterraneans” based on the Kerouac novel — and even more anecdotes from Sheldon. Despite not being the headliner, his act hewed much closer to the theme of the evening, which makes one wonder if the Jazz Goes to the Movies hasn’t run its course.