My friend Doug Yeager, a music manager and longtime folky said, “You gotta see him to believe him.” So there I sat in the dark, a candle the only atmospheric light, waiting for a guy I’d met briefly years ago, had heard about for years, but had never seen work. He was known as a musician supreme, but that doesn’t come close to describing him. He’s a composer of serious music,composes film scores and dramatic theater, such as the music for Arthur Miller’s After The Fall; turns out symphonies too, he really is into world music for all occasions. Patience isn’t one of my virtues. I was becoming nudgy when, with a burst of fierce energy, the dynamo roared in. The chatter, the clinking of glasses stopped abruptly. The was a stillness in the room and the diminutive bundle of enthusiasm, David Amram smiled, “Welcome to The Cornelia Street Stadium.”
That’s the way the night began. There he was, the man himself, shedding his coat, whistles and reeds spilling from his pockets, paper sticking out of his trousers, a real live Beat from way back, who to this day still travels the world’s music. He plays it all with an assortment of instruments that he has picked up on his journeys and after our exhausting night, me never him, I can tell you that he plays it all wonderfully. He’s always got side men who just seem to arrive, summoned by hidden forces, happy to play with him. Tonight’s guests included a bass, piano, drums, and a special young man on the bongos. David, when the spirit moves him, will get up and lead the acoustic clapping, engaging one and all in his symphony. He’s really the pied piper of Greenwich Village, the mad hatter without a hat, a leprechaun, and Ol’ Man Mose rolled into one. He is a star burst all by himself and makes the Greenwich Village night richer and deeper.
During David’s played Duke and Charley Parker, ditties from Egypt on his penny whistle, thumbed on an African drum, and fantasized his own musical impressions. Between numbers, sometimes during, a rush of spontaneous inspiration, a torrent of words spread forth like lava pouring from a volcano. At 83, he has a fertile quicksilver memory and the stories just keep coming. Something is bound to twig Jack Kerouac, Monk, Dylan Thomas, Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. He’s not name-dropping. Those were the guys in the stories. He also walks you back to the old Village haunts like Hell’s Bells, The Red Lion, The Kettle of Fish, and the San Remo.
The special young man playing the bongos behind him Amram was his youngest son. All of a sudden a guy walks out of the audience with a strange looking instrument. Turned out to be a glockenspiel. Jazz on a glockenspiel? He was terrific, playingtwo numbers with David; he then picked up and disappeared into the darkness. It was that kind of night. A little later, a visitor from D.C., David Coles, a producer of the PBS News Hour, got up and read a piece he had done about David in the ‘60s. He had been a bartender at Hell’s Bell’s when he first ran into Mr. Amram and describes him as a hipster, bar hopper, a night invader of the first water, a prowler musician, prodigious storyteller, much as he is today. His riff on David Amram, like the Jazz that had been streaming all night,was met with glad hands.
David Coles took his bow as the next guest nodded to the “pixie maestro,” and stepped into the limited light. Marley Kaman smiled confidently to the audience. “She has to leave early,” said David,introduced her, then proceeded to scat a fare-thee-well to Marley,improvising verse after verse of praise and good will towards her, bidding her to sing well …sleep well and God knows what else …all in good spirit and full of surprise. You could feel the mutual affection between them. She versed right back at him. Finally, Marley sang and it was worth the wait. She’s a uniquely soulful and affecting lyrical Jazz singer. She did two numbers. Sang one, scat the other then tiptoed off to a rousing send off by the small but enthusiastic audience. David promised that she’d be back on a future First Monday. It would be worth a return trip for me.
David Amram he is a fixture at the Cornelia Street Café, where you can catch him every First Monday of the month. He does not disappoint. He’s the past, the present and the future. He’s a blast. Go see for yourself.
The Cornelia Street Café
“Small is all. It really is all you need,” said Robin Hirsch, echoing David Amram’s exaggeration, “Welcome to the Cornelia Street Stadium.” Mr. Hirsch, the founder of the café and now with two partners, the man still responsible for it’s continued success, beamed with a parent’s pride. “We opened in 1977 with a smile and a promiseand watched it become a magnet for artistic accomplishment as well as a good place to eat well…We started with a toaster oven and a cappuccino machine. Now we have two full kitchens, state of the art, and are listed among New York’s award winning eating places.”
The popular gem of a restaurant/entertainment palace, is at 29 Cornelia Street, off the corner of Bleecker,between 6thand 7th Avenue, in the heart of Greenwich Village. It’s long been the place to go to for tourists and locals alike and has been designated a cultural landmark. It’swhere songs are sung, poetry read, plays tested and cabaret blossoms and is open seven days a week with brunch on weekends. “We have 700 shows a year…It’s the genuine article. It is what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Down and dirty … Greenwich Village once and forever.”