The tobacco smoke was gone, but the library's main area served as a replacement for the fabled coffee houses of the period as one of the icons of the “generation,” musician and composer David Amram, entertained an audience of about 50 people with music, readings and reminiscences about his friend, novelist Jack Kerouac, who helped launch the so-called beatnik era with the publication of his book “On the Road” in 1957.
“Beat generation and beatniks were labels put on us after 'On the Road' was published,” Amram recalled. “Before that, we were just a bunch of guys hanging out and supporting each other's dreams.”
Amram and Kerouac came to the forefront of the counter-culture scene that emerged at the time with a series of appearances in which Kerouac or one of his contemporaries read aloud selections of their work to “scat” jazz compositions played by Amram and other musicians who embraced the field.
The attention Amram received allowed him to expand to scoring such films as “Splendor in the Grass” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” compose music for Arthur Miller's play “After the Fall” and perform his music all over the world.
At 76, Amram shows no signs of slowing down and came to Rio Grande for the third time in his career to help celebrate National Library Week, promote literacy and entertain with his varied musical skills. During his nearly three-hour performance, Amram interspersed such traditional jazz instruments as the piano and French horn with flutes, whistles, and taps on a cow bell and a drum to lend an international flavor to his work.
“Every time I pick up a musical instrument, it's a special thrill,” he said.
Rio Grande faculty and members of the honors program read aloud selections from “On the Road,” Kerouac's prose poem recollection of his travels across the U.S. during the late 1940s that spoke to a post-World War II audience. It took Kerouac several years to get the book published, and he followed it with other examinations of the beat scene (“The Dharma Bums,” “The Subterraneans”) and other works before his death in 1969.
Amram and Kerouac met in New York in the years prior to the publication of “On the Road,” when both were looking to, as Kerouac put it, “overwhelm the masses with our spontaneous madness.”
“We found we shared a mutual interest in sports, music and fractured French, much to the annoyment of the patrons of the greasy spoon where we hung out,” Amram said.
Amram remained in Rio Grande for the weekend, offering a program on “Remembering Kerouac” at the Davis Library on Saturday to discuss the cultural significance of the era and set the background for a “Teaching Kerouac” workshop for teachers and college credit.