David Amram
Composer, Conductor & Multi-Instrumentalist

Brooklyn College, Commencement Address

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Good Afternoon Class of 2015!

I am honored to be here with all of you and want to thank the college administration, the members of the faculty and all of you and your families for the invitation to speak to you on this very special day.

Every one of you in the class of 2015 and every person who has come here today to celebrate your graduation and every other person on the face of earth all share one thing in common.  Each one of us has a heritage, roots, family history and a unique story.

These are precious gifts which are  bestowed upon us and they are given to us for free. Some people might say that since these gifts have no price tag attached to them, they are worthless.

But actually, they are priceless.

And all of you in the class of 2015 can spend the rest of your life studying these special gifts and then share them with other people you meet.

And remember to also share all the  information which you have acquired during your years at Brooklyn College.

Doing this will help you to continue your education every day, because in exchange for your generosity, other people will share how they see things, and give you a fresh way of observing the world around you.

In her classic novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith said - "Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or the last time."

Fortunately for us, because she wrote down much of what she saw a hundred years ago, in 2015, her reflections about the Brooklyn of her childhood remain as contemporary and meaningful for us today as what Shakespeare’s reflections about his life in England hundreds of years ago meant to a young kid born in Brooklyn named Joe Papp.

When I met Joe in 1956, he told me that when he was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, the three languages  he heard at home were Polish, Yiddish and a little English.  He described how he went to a library one day after school and took out a book of Shakespeare’s plays and read them, and how this moment  changed his life forever.

Joe told me that when he finished high school and began to study acting, he had a dream that someday, every New Yorker would also have the same opportunity to experience Shakespeare the same way that he did as a boy, which he said was responsible for him feeling that someday he would be able to move out of his block in Brooklyn and enter into the mainstream of New York and the world.

When people told him that he was crazy to ever think that such an impossible idea of  bringing free Shakespearean productions to all New Yorkers could ever become a reality, it didn’t faze Joe one bit.

He said that in Brooklyn, you learned never to take no for an answer and that if you wanted something, you had to work for it, and that regardless of how hard it might be, you had to keep on working until your dream became a reality. And most important, once you had make your dream become a reality,  never to forget where you came from and honor your  roots and culture and family ties, and those who mentored you along the way, because this would always give you the strength to continue to do what you felt you were put here to do during your time here on Earth.

Like Betty Smith, Joe Papp had an impossible dream and just as Betty Smith had done with her dream, Joe decided he that would pursue his dream until it became a reality.

Fifty eight years ago, in the summer of 1957, no one would have ever imagined that walking through Central Park at night, you would see crowds of people lined up to attend a free production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and that if there were no seats left, you could  stand nearby and hear the words of Shakespeare floating through the summer air.

Today, In 2015, no one could imagine coming to New York and NOT seeing or hearing free Shakespeare in the Park. Over the past fifty eight years,The New York Shakespeare Festival has become a treasure for native New Yorkers and visitors from around the world.

Brooklyn’s own Joe Papp left us all this gift.

All of you from the class of 2015  can find a way to leave a gift of your own, in what ever path you choose to travel on your life’s journey.

The great Southern writer Thomas Wolfe moved from North Carolina to  Brooklyn, where he wrote some of his finest books.  He was so inspired by all things Brooklyn that he wrote a famous novella, describing what he saw and felt and heard during  his long hours of walking all over the borough late at night. He called the novella Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.

Since I am lucky enough to still be very much alive, and be here with all of you in Brooklyn today, I continue to try to know more about Brooklyn.

I have always felt that special spirit from the time of my first trip here with my grandmother back in 1939 to visit the World’s Fair.

Coming here for the first time in 1939 was a real mind-blower! I was brought up on a farm in Feasterville Pennsylvania with a population of 200, so as soon as we drove through the Holland Tunnel and entered Manhattan,  I was astonished to see how big everything was in New York.

After an hour in Manhattan, my neck was sore because I kept  twisting my head back so that I could look up as far as possible to try to see the tops of the enormous skyscrapers of Manhattan. And I noticed how fast everyone was walking and saw that nobody seemed to notice anybody else. So it was a relief when my grandmother had us drive over the bridge to Brooklyn to get two of her favorite famous New York  delicacies, an egg cream and a knish.

I felt comfortable for the first time during our trip because as soon as we walked into a little corner sandwich shop in Brooklyn, I suddenly felt at home. Everyone in the shop was eating and talking to one another, and I noticed  how friendly everyone was.They even talked to us.

My grandmother told me that in Brooklyn, you called that shmoozing.  And she told me that all the people eating and even sharing what they were eating and offering a bite to others as they shmoozed with one another was called noshing.

When we left the little sandwich shop, I noticed how the streets were like a huge playground, with kids playing stickball while the stoops in front of the buildings were were filled with families all talking and yelling and enjoying a Sunday Afternoon.  I saw that here on this block in Brooklyn, there was a whole lot of shmoozing and noshing going on.  And I heard people speaking in different languages which I had never heard before.

I realized that this block had a real neighborhood feeling. I had never been in a real neighborhood in any big city before and I have never forgotten that day.

When we returned home to our farm in Feasterville, whenever we had a day off on the weekends and  there was no farm work,  I would go  to the movies on Saturday afternoons when kids could go to see double features for half price. In addition to the Westerns, there were often films about New York.

Because 1939 was at the tail end of the Great Depression, most of the films about New York were created to make people forget about the hard times. These old movies took you to  a glamorous world full  of wealthy people, having  great parties in huge penthouses with men in formal top hats and tails and women in evening gowns, often speaking in fake British accents.  But that trip with my grandmother to Brooklyn made me aware that I knew that there was another New York, and I liked the one that I saw in real life much more than I liked the one that I saw on the screen at the movie theater and hoped that someday I could go back to visit Brooklyn again. I often thought about all those people I had seen that afternoon in Brooklyn.

Sometimes when I was up late at night at the farm and heard the sound of that lonely whistle of the silver express train that was called the Crusader, which zoomed by a few miles from our farm in Feasterville as it barreled by on its way from Philadelphia to New York. I dreamed that if I kept practicing music, maybe some day when I was grown up, I could come to New York and play music with somebody there and go  back to that place called Brooklyn and return to that sandwich shop for more shmoozing and noshing. And maybe even go to  see the Brooklyn Dodgers play a ball game and meet some of the artists from Brooklyn who I was finding out about in school and from the radio shows which I listened to.

When I finally moved to New York City in 1955. I was  lucky enough to have all  this happen. In the Fall of 1955 when I played with Charles Mingus in Greenwich Village, I also met and played with some of the jazz masters who resided in Brooklyn.

Randy Weston, Sahib Shihab, Kenny Dorham, Sonny Rollins and Max Roach invited me to the jam sessions at places like the Kingston Lounge, on the corner of Kingston & Bergen in Brooklyn.  And I was introduced to a whole community of other musicians who had that same neighborhood and family sensibility that I felt so strongly on my very first visit to Brooklyn as a kid.  These musical artists made me a better classical composer as well as conductor and improviser because they were true teachers and scholars of all forms of sincere music built to last.

In the last 60 years, I have continued to receive an education as well as inspiration with artists of all genres from Brooklyn.

Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill, Eubie Blake, Mel Brooks, Betty Carter, Harry and Tom Chapin, Aaron Copland, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arlo and Woody Guthrie, Richie Havens, Frank McCourt, Arthur Miller, Rosie Perez, Jerry Stiller, Earl McIntyre, Renee Manning, the Brooklyn College Conservatory's Chico and Arturo O’Farrill and so many other gifted Brooklynites have set a standard for us all.

In spite of their success, all these artists shared one thing in common.

They always remained for real.

This is a hallmark of Brooklyn and a quality that also distinguishes Brooklyn College. I found this special Brooklyn spirit on campus when I first came to Brooklyn College in 1958, during the same time that I was the composer for Joe Papp’s productions of Shakespeare in the Park. But instead of composing classical  music to accompany the words of Shakespeare, I was improvising music to accompany the poetry of Jack Kerouac, with whom I collaborated for the first public jazz/poetry concerts ever done in New York a year earlier.

After the concert at Brooklyn College, Jack and I stayed up until dawn, talking to students and faculty from Brooklyn College at a nearby bistro. During the course of this night-into-day encounter, we met  students from Brooklyn as well as many from all over the USA and  overseas.

In addition to being smart, they all seemed to like shmoozing and noshing as much as Jack and I did. This was the last public jazz/poetry reading    Jack and I ever did together in New York. We knew that night in Brooklyn could never be equaled.

In all the years since then, it is always a treat to learn about all the outstanding people who live in Brooklyn and who have attended  Brooklyn College, and see how they  continue to influence and inspire. These people, like Bette Smith and Joe Papp also dared to dream and to have the strength and the moxie to pursue those dreams until they became a reality. The achievements of artists, poets, novelists, doctors, lawyers, politicians and world class athletes from Brooklyn continues to enrich our society.

And I know that all of you in the class of 2015 will continue that tradition.

During my 29 years at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I had the chance to travel throughout Brooklyn as the conductor/narrator and Music Director  for the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s  Free Schooltime concerts, Community Concerts and programs in Prospect Park for Celebrate Brooklyn. We pioneered the inclusion of soloists  and composers from the worlds of Jazz, Latin, Folk, Blues, Caribbean, Middle Eastern  and Native American music, in addition to always including the European classics.

My own three kids used to always come with me to all these concerts and like myself, all fell  in love with Brooklyn.  They liked it so much that when they finished school, they all moved to Brooklyn and every time I come to visit them today, they show me what is happening in the Brooklyn of 2015.

My grandson, Oliver Wild Amram-Muller - now one and a half years old and a strapping two feet nine - was born here.  My daughter and Oliver's mom Adira and his dad and my son-in-law Bram, along with my sister Marianna are all here today, as well as my friends Dr. Audrey Sprenger and Doug Yeager.  All of us want to congratulate all of you and your families,  who must be proud of you as they see you graduating today.  My family wants to  join all of you in honoring Brooklyn College and all the distinguished faculty who devote their lives to teaching us how to open up new doors and provide us with a gateway for our further education.

Tonight when all of you go home and you put your diplomas up on the wall, and when I go home and put my Honorary Doctorate of Arts up on the wall, all of us must remember that this special day is the beginning of our education, and that we must strive to know more about everything and share that knowledge which we acquire with others.

And we have to remember that we always have to do better than is expected, and if those for whom we work don’t appreciate it, this should never stop us from always doing better than is expected anyway.

On this beautiful day of your graduation, please remember  all the joy and energy of this moment and bring all the tools you have acquired at Brooklyn College  with you every day, wherever you go,  and utilize them for everything that you to do for the rest of your lives.

Everyone of you has something special and unique to offer. And I know that each of you will find a way to use your skills in order to make a contribution while you are here.
Way back in 1945, Brooklyn’s great musical pioneer Max Roach played drums with Charlie Parker on the classic recording of Parker’s composition "Now’s the Time."

Today - May 27 of 2015 - seventy years later, we are counting on all of you, because now is your time!

Let’s all celebrate this special day by bringing the beauty of this moment with us every day for the rest of our lives.

If we can do this,  wherever our life's journeys leads us, that special spirit that we bring will make everyone whose lives we touch know for a fact that, as we say today - "Brooklyn is in the house!"

© David Amram 2015

For his forthcoming book - David Amram, The Next 80 Years

As the author, you have my permission to use this address to post online for students and faculty to access, as well as for press or any use that might be beneficial to Brooklyn College.