Review: Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 115 in 2008.

Review of David Amram, Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat
( Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008 ).

by Jim Feast

David Amram’s innovative and unpredictable new memoir, Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat, while it differs from works of literary postmodernism in its use of a lucid and straightforward writing style, it joins them in being a book filled with puzzles and mysterious questions, though, it also has plenty of answers, ones found in out-of-the-way corners of the narrative.
In this way, they are like the off-the-beaten track ribs joint Amram discovers when visiting Nashville. He pictures his first entry like this:

We parked in front of what looked like an abandoned
shack, entered through a tiny doorway, and walked down
a flight of stairs into a grotto full of smoke and the
intoxicating smell of meat being barbecued,
accompanied by the crackling sounds of succulent
sauces simmering over coals in metal pots.

Which is to say, for Amram, the truth seeks its own harbor, away from the glare of over-hyped public relations and media circuses. It is down home.
So what are these questions whose answers are found in crannies? The most important one concerns joie de vivre.
I can approach it by quoting another author. In his The Culture of Make Believe, environmental activist Derrick Jensen, who had recently seen decades of work trying to save the salmons in Washington’s rivers turned back by legislation of Bush’s anti-Nature cabal, makes a powerful statement.

One of the curses of being even remotely aware of the
effects and trajectory of our civilization is that
it’s increasingly difficult ... to feel unalloyed
happiness, even in the presence of intense beauty.

Amram signs up and does indeed orchestrate a series of window concerts.

Our series of concerts at the 57th Street Horn and
Hardart ... were even more fun than listening to Jack
Tafoya rant and rave. Musicians strolling by from
every genre came into the genre to join us.

Also very evident in the book, the second part of his formula, is Amram’s wide open ear for the sounds of genuine music from any culture. As conductor and programming director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic from 1970 to 1999 (“when the funds ran out”), he was--I was about to say pioneering, but how do you label someone who comes before the pioneers? Amram was multicultural before that term was used. Each of his concerts mixed the works of classical composers with compositions (folk songs or formal works) from Latin America, East and West Europe, Africa and Africa-America and any other area in which vibrant music is found. Moreover, not infrequently, after the Philharmonic’s scheduled event was over, Amram would sit at the piano and, fielding topics from the audience, engage in a spontaneous rap, eventually enlisting the audience to join him by singing riff choruses.
(The book includes a delightful chapter describing some occasions when Amram performed his off-the-cuff, scat-raps, along with some examples of them that were made into lyrics. He also dips into his thoughts on the value of making couplets on the fly, which may in cases be throwaway lines but are always ones that rise within the occasion and make a concrete addition to good times.)
Amram’s embrace of diverse musical traditions is not seen only in his work at the Brooklyn Philharmonic (or as music director of Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park), but in his own creative life. In writing orchestral or smaller pieces, he is usually inspired to draw (humbly and reverently) on different world musics. One chapter, for example, pivots on his writing of Kokopelli, a work paying homage to a Native American, seed-sowing god.
(By the way, this autobiography (of sorts) is not a straightforward, year-by-year, journey through the author’s life but rather, like his raps, is made up of associational patterns grafted onto each chapter’s unifying theme, whether it be Hispanic culture, a trip to Kenya or memorials to passed friends.)
Amram doesn’t learn about other musical traditions by haunting music libraries and concert halls (although this is part of it), but largely by “hanging out.” Here’s an example. When he was asked to gather local players for a concert in Kenya, he wandered into a nightclub where a funky band was holding the fort. Soon enough, Amram joined them for an on-stage jam session, learning new grooves in the process. And he had his first recruits.
Even more tellingly, when Dizzy Gillipsie, Earl Hines, Amram and some other musicians disembarked to the pier in Havana in 1977 where they had sailed for a State Department-sponsored goodwill concert, they immediately refused the offer of a tour of touristy the sights. The artists said, thought not so impolitely, something like this, “Screw that. Guys, let’s chow down and get down,” that is, find some Cuban musicians to sit in with.
So, in sum, aside from giving some insight into the life story of one of America’s most valuable musicians, Upbeat shows how, in our battered republic, even for people of good conscience, perky happiness is still obtainable. And anyone willing to make a voyage as daring as life-embracing as Amram’s can have it.