Feb 27, 2012 - Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration

            In a recent newspaper story, Metro San Jose (California) writer Scott MacClelland called octogenarian David Amram an “American musical polymath.”

            It’s as good a tag as any for this composer, conductor, writer, and multi-instrumentalist whose list of collaborators runs from Willie Nelson to Thelonious Monk, Jack Kerouac to Tito Puente.  Last year, the Pennsylvania native traveled to Tulsa to receive the Jay McShann Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, but he was already familiar with the state, having been a popular guest and performer at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah for years.

            He’s back in town on Thursday, March 8, for another Guthrie event. This time, he’ll be conducting his Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, the centerpiece of a 7:30 p.m. concert Thursday, March 8, at the University of Tulsa’s Lorton Hall.

            Writing in the San Francisco Classical Voice in 2007, David Bratman called Amram’s composition “a tone poem in six movements, each depicting a scene from American life that Guthrie knew. It starts with Cherokees and a church service in his native Oklahoma, then goes through a Celtic-influenced Texas barn dance, a scene depicting Mexican immigrant workers, and a `Dust Bowl Dirge’ serving as a quiet slow movement. The conclusion is a succession of lively street scenes from New York City, where Guthrie spent his later years.”

            All the movements are tied to Guthrie’s classic song, “This Land is Your Land.” On Thursday, the piece will be performed by the University of Tulsa Orchestra, in addition to several musicians from the metro area, which David Amram has christened  labeled the "Jazz and Roots Music Symphony Orchestra".

            “This is a group of wonderful musicians from the University of Tulsa,” says Amram, “along with some freelance musicians from the town, and they’re hoping that this can be the first step toward forming an orchestra. The fact that it’s got `roots music’ in the name means that they can also play Tchaikovsky and Mozart, because a lot of their music was based on roots music as well. [The orchestra] isn’t trying to exclude everything but jazz. Jazz – and Woody Guthrie, for that matter – has always had an open door toward all things of beauty.”

            As Amran recalls in his program notes for Symphonic Variations, he was first introduced to Guthrie “on a cloudy afternoon in 1956 on the Lower East Side of New York” through a mutual friend in the music community. They sat for hours, he wrote, “swapping tales and drinking coffee at the tiny kitchen table.”

            “[W]e sat transfixed,” he added, “as he took us on his journeys with him through his stories. Woody didn’t need a guitar to put you under his spell, and you could tell that when he was talking to us, it wasn't an act or a routine. Like his songs and books and artwork, everything came from the heart.”

            A half-century after that meeting, Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, asked Amram to write what became Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.

            The piece has been performed before, beginning with a 2007 premiere by Symphony Silicon Valley in San Jose, Calif.  “But you know,” he says, “the beautiful thing this time is that it’s celebrating Woody in his home state, and it’s mostly folks from Oklahoma who are doing it. “

            In addition to Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, the evening is scheduled to include a welcome from Nora Guthrie and other musical performers, including jazz artists selected by Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame CEO Jason McIntosh. They’ll join the symphony for “C Jam Blues,” written by one of Guthrie’s favorite musical figures, Duke Ellington. Also slated to perform are the Red Dirt Rangers, a band that helped create and define the Oklahoma-based music known as Red Dirt, which looks to Woody Guthrie (and his fellow Oklahoman Bob Wills) as a major influence.

            “The Rangers are so great,” enthuses Amram. “I played with them at Kerrville like 20 years ago, and they were doing some stuff that was just so beautiful. And then when I started coming to Woodyfest, they were there, and they were really something.” 

            “I think this is a beautiful thing for the whole country,” Amram says, “because when you can honor somebody in the place they’re from, that means that everybody in every community in the country can find people of distinction – not just musicians, but people who made a contribution, who lifted other people up – and honor them. And then, the people living in those communities will say, `Hey, maybe this is a nice place to be after all.’ It’s all very healthy.”

            The Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration is presented by the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and the University of Tulsa Music Department.