The Independent Ear

Wisdom from a Master

A few years ago when I served as coordinator of the former NEA Jazz Masters on Tour program, which through the National Endowment for the Arts was an Arts Midwest operated fee support program which partially funded presenting organizations to present NEA Jazz Masters, one of the real revelations of the work was conducting several site visits on the subsequent funded projects; and that was in part because it enabled me the opportunity to interact with the Master in question, including conducting interviews. One such trip took me to Ft. Lauderdale, FL to visit a short residency by the great drum master, the now-ancestor Chico Hamilton. Chico had for many years taught at the New School so he was guaranteed to drop some wisdom on students during the masterclass that was a part of his visit to Ft. Lauderdale. If you ever saw Chico perform you remember certain specificities of his set-up, particularly how he set his cymbals lower than most drummers – a set-up he attributed to his desire for economy of motion. We spoke at Chico’s hotel room following his masterclass, where he discussed a drummer’s responsibilities and overall rhythm section concerns. There’s plenty of wisdom here, certainly for drummers!
Chico Hamilton
10/10/06 Fort Lauderdale, FL
NEA Jazz Masters on Tour

How did you begin your masterclass today?
By being smart [laughs]. I generally start off with the most important thing, which #1 is time. Unfortunately you find that most young musicians – particularly the beginners – have no idea of the life of a note; in other words how long a whole note is, how short a quarter note is, or how long a half note or a dotted half note is. Also the most important thing is being able to concentrate, which is not easy for anybody. Teaching them how to count – its amazing the amount of musicians that don’t know how to count time; most young players would say 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4; etc. and don’t know how many bars that is. But if you say 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, etc. amazingly they don’t know how to count that way, so I teach them how to count that way. I also teach them what a whole note sounds and feels like. After teaching them that I show them that everything that goes down has to come up; so if you’re dealing with a downbeat, when you raise your hand to come up that’s on the ‘and’ – 1-and-2-and-3-and-4, and you can use that when you count 8th notes. Where the concentration exercise comes in is I ask them to clap their hands – say like for instance on the 3rd beat of the 13th bar I want you to clap your hands. When we start the count everyone has a silent count to keep time to themselves. And man you’ll find that by bar 10 they’re all off in different places! They lose their concentration. Little things like that; things like that will carry them a long way. We also place emphasis on not being a sloppy player. For instance, when the conductor or the leader comes up with the downbeat you’ve gotta hit, you don’t put the horn up to your mouth, you come up ready; being late you’ll never get work as an ensemble musician, nobody’s going to hire you. Being late like that you become a sloppy player and it’s a hard habit to get out of, very hard. I just try to teach the basics and a foundation, very easy to understand, all you have to do is apply it.

These were middle school and high school students. Do you bring the same knowledge to college students?
Strangely enough they need the same thing. The college students, what that’s all about is money – if you can afford it, you’re in school [laughs]. Unfortunately the school didn’t start off like that, but that’s the way its ending up [the New School]. I’ll tell you something else I was very impressed with: they [Ft. Lauderdale students] were all very mannerly, there were no really smart asses.

Were there many drummers at your Masterclass today?
I guess there were maybe a half-dozen or so. There must have been about 35-40 kids.

What specific things do you teach the drummers at that stage in their development?
Keeping time. In that case there were at least 30 musicians working with one drummer. The drummer has to let them know that he’s keeping the time, he has to take charge, you have to be strong enough to lay down a beat and strong enough for them to listen to you as opposed to them getting carried away. The drummer is the timekeeper.

Where does the bass player figure in that whole equation?
Very interesting question… If the drummer is weak the bass player is going to kick his ass, that’s the bottom line – he’s going to run him over and every thing they do they’re gonna be at war, in every hook-up. The way the instructor had set the band up, was just the opposite of the way I set up. He set up with the bass in the elbow of the piano. I set the bass up on the drummer’s high hat or sock cymbal, therefore they can hook up. As long as they hook up the rhythm section will happen.

So when you set the bass player up the way you like to set them up – alongside the high hat – its easier for them to hook-up rhythmically?
Yep. Its actually the correct way, but unfortunately a lot of bandleaders don’t understand that. Basie knew it… that’s the reason they swung all the time.

Why do you think band directors set them up that way to begin with?
Because most bandleaders don’t understand that the bottom line to what their sound is going to be like is the rhythm section. If they’re a horn player they think it’s the horns; they have no idea that it’s the rhythm section that’s going to make them sound [good], going to make them swing, going to make them play. The average bandleader doesn’t understand that if he’s a horn player.

Who matures more quickly among young students, the horn players or the rhythm section players?
I would say the rhythm section, because they have to listen to all that bullshit that the horns are playing [laughs] – ‘scuse my French. A horn player – his ego is going to play all the notes in the world that don’t mean nothing. The average horn player will play everything he knows in 8 bars… that’s it. As a rhythm player you’ve gotta sit there and keep time for that shit, and it becomes boring as hell. That’s why you have to devise ways of making it interesting. Like I told these kids, if you have any problems keeping the time then hum to yourselves, sing out loud; that way you’ll know that the tempo is there, the time is there. Forget what the soloists are playing because all they’re doing is something they don’t even know; they figure the more notes they play the better it is. They don’t know that the less they play the hipper it is.

You’ve had a lot of good horn players in your bands…
I’ve had quite a few…. I’ve had a lot of good players period in my orchestra; I don’t have a band I have an orchestra.

What have you done to school them when they come into your orchestra?
I start off playing to their weakness. Those horn players didn’t become the horn players they became until they were in my orchestra. By the time they left my orchestra they were ready.

Why do you refer to it as an orchestra rather than a band?
What an orchestra means to me is musical. A band could be a brass band, a cigar band, a rubber band, etc. I’m old fashioned; an orchestra suggests a melodic structure.

I’ve always felt that singers often don’t get the respect they may deserve from instrumentalists because there is a sense on the part of the instrumentalists that learning to sing is not as difficult as learning to play an instrument.
The bottom line – what you’re saying is true – but most singers can’t keep time, they have no idea what keeping time is. So subsequently a horn player doesn’t want to be bothered with them if they can’t come in at the right time. The bottom line to all of this is rhythmic, there’s no such thing as new music, it’s totally impossible to have new music; we’re still dealing in a 12-tone system, 12 notes. Somewhere along the line somebody has played those notes before. The only thing that can possibly be different is the rhythmic articulation that makes the difference. The ones who excel in a melodic structure, these are the players that we like. Miles Davis was a sound, Cannonball, Trane… these people were sounds, they played the whole works. So when the average singer or player says ‘we’ve got some brand new music’; that’s nothing but stone, cold bullshit, but writers go for it.

What is your impression of the NEA Jazz Masters program?
#1 I think it should continue. #2 I think it should continue with the right people, people who know how to teach. There are a lot of good players but they can’t teach.

In an age where so many jazz artists don’t seem to talk to their audience much you are quite communicative with your audiences during your performances. What are your thoughts about the artist’s need to talk to their audience?
The reason I talk to the audience is because I play a lot of original music. Like when I acknowledge the fact that we’re playing something you’ve never heard before and you don’t know whether we’re playing it right or wrong, that’s the humor part of it but it’s a fact. The audience listens for it and says ‘OK, I haven’t heard this before but I like the melody, I like the rhythm… as opposed to just playing and not saying anything. When you go to a session to catch a group and nobody talks, you ask the people who have listened as they come out of the joint wherever it is ‘what did they sound like’? They’ll say ‘I don’t know’ because they didn’t tell me nothing.

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2019 NEA Jazz Masters controversy


It seems from some of the vitriol I’ve read on various FB post threads that there is no small amount of controversy, and in some cases heavy-duty angst, over the announcement of the 2019 class of NEA Jazz Masters. Predictably about 100% of the questions and at times angry responses are relative to Stanley Crouch’s designation as a NEAJM, with nothing but deserved hosannas for Bob Dorough, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Maria Schneider. Do not consider this post in any way a Stanley Crouch apology or defense mechanism of any kind. In Stanley’s case much of the angry response is self-inflicted wounds of the karmic variety relative to some of his – at the very least – editorial pronouncements over the years about various issues and elements of the jazz community, including his often mean-spirited assessments of certain musicians’ artistic output.
However I did want to clarify a bit certain misconceptions in some of the vitriolic responses to Crouch’s NEAJM honorific. Full disclosure: For several years I served as coordinator of the NEA Jazz Masters on Tour performance funding program administered by my friends at Arts Midwest, where I formerly served as director of their Jazz Program. Some FB posters have questioned how in their estimation a “failed drummer” like Stanley Crouch becomes elevated as a NEA Jazz Master. And yes, Crouch WAS a far less than masterful drummer at one point in his career, back in his Tin Palace days.
What I want to clarify is that Stanley Crouch was not named a NEA Jazz Master on the strength of his dubious drum skills, but as 2019 recipient of the A.B. Spellman award for jazz advocacy. That particular award component of the annual NEAJM designees was developed back when Dana Gioia was chairman of the Endowment, as a means of recognizing those who have made significant contributions to the music OFF the bandstand. Whether you agree that Crouch is a worthy recipient of the A.B. Spellman award is immaterial to this post; I simply wanted to clarify that Stanley is not being honored as a musician or otherwise for his musicianship, but as what the NEA’s panel that made those decisions saw as his contributions to the art form as an advocate, in their determination.

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Davey Yarborough enters DB Jazz Education Hall of Fame

Davey Yarborough
Duke Ellington School for the Arts

Davey Yarborough, saxophonist and dedicated jazz educator, was fittingly inducted into the DownBeat Magazine Jazz Education Hall of Fame this year. Davey has made an indelible mark on music education primarily through his exceptional tenure at Washington’s Duke Ellington School for the Arts, but also through his tireless efforts on behalf of the community jazz education program Washington Jazz Arts Institute which he and his vocalist wife Esther Williams have steadfastly established and built. The following is the complete interview I conducted with Davey at Ellington that was published in part in the June, 2018 issue of DownBeat in commemoration of his H.O.F. induction.

Talk about the Ellington School’s unique relationship to the DC Public Schools.
Davey Yarborough: What it’s actually called is a hybrid program, where we have the obligation to ensure that the kids coming here have the full compliment of high school academic education; on top of that we have a full arts development program as well, so we’re called dual curriculum. We have several disciplines: instrumental music, vocal music, literary media, dance, visual arts… we have the only museum studies major in the nation, and we have theater.

How does a student enter Ellington?
We have an audition process, but again we’re a unique school, we’re even a unique arts school because the majority of arts schools application process is highly affected by the academic prowess of the students. This school is purely motivated to the development of artists, so we have the task also of – if they are not academically sound when they come in, that we will remediate them because we are a college prep school.

We have been successful historically, and I’ve been here as a band director since 1986; I came in as an attendance counselor in 1984, but my tenure here has witnessed the consistent graduation rate being in the 90s and up.

What you said initially suggests that if a student is prolific in one of those arts disciplines, but has issues academically, the school is willing to uplift the academic side?
I guess the caveat is where they may not even be proficient in their art field, their interview dictates – in terms of the aptitude and the attitude.

Where and under whom did you study jazz?
[Laughs] You need a book! My first exposure actually came from my family, not as artists but as listeners. My parents had a good record collection (he grew up in DC; parents from North Carolina]. The listening bug hit me hard when we would go away in the summer. I have an aunt who had a record player and records in her room. So when she would leave for school I’d go in her room and listen to her records.

She came back and caught me one day and said she didn’t want me to mess up her records but she saw that I liked them so much. So RCA put out the first stereophonic album, and it was called “Sounds in Space,” and on this record was every genre you could think of, it was a sampler. She gave me that record – which I still have today – and I wore it out and it’s hanging in the inspiration room in my house, along with the other things that inspired me to do what I’m doing. She gave me that record and said ‘you can play my record player anytime you want, and here’s your own record.’ I played that record until it turned white! It had orchestra, Dakota Staton, classical, pop… the various mediums.

At school they used to take us to Constitution Hall on field trips every couple of months to watch the National Symphony rehearse, so I got to hear Benjamin Britten’s listening guide to orchestra and found that very fascinating because I got a chance to really hear them talk about the various instruments. That got my ear. So by the third grade I knew that I wanted to be an artist.

My family wasn’t necessarily gung ho about my pursuing a career as a musician, as with most parents, and I don’t fault them for that because they wanted what they thought was the best for me. But if you stick to your guns you can prove whatever it is you are dreaming to be.

Where did you go to college?
Federal City College, UDC, and Howard.

Did you study with [the late trombonist] Calvin Jones at Federal City College?
Yeah, that’s my man. But before him, Bobby Felder brought what was called the Entertainment Package, the first big band I had ever seen perform. I was seriously fascinated and at the end of the performance he said “if are there any seniors who are interested in going to college, come up and talk.”

I had a pretty good ear, I wore out a lot of records, and I started out on clarinet. But when I got to high school my clarinet sorta disappeared – long story. My father said “well, I bought one instrument, but you’re gonna buy the next one.” So I worked at Arby’s for $1.10 an hour all summer and at the end of the summer I had $400, but the saxophone that I wanted [points to it in his band room] cost $425! So my dad loaned me $25. And I still have that saxophone, an alto; it’s like the baby. Later I was sort of forced to buy a tenor sax. I got into a R&B band called The Delusion, and recorded with a group called The Lovations, a record called “I Can’t Forget About You,” we had a vocal and an instrumental version. So I was big time, I was in high school and I was recording, but I couldn’t read a lick [laughs].”

When I got a scholarship from Federal City College without having to sight read, it was cool. They said “play something for me,” then they said “yeah, we’ll get you in.” So I got in and ran into Dr. Arthur C. Dawkins for my saxophone lessons. He put some pieces of music in front of me and that was the end of it for me [laughs]! But he said, “you’re in, and you’re in on scholarship” because my grades were good. “But you got grades, but you’ve got one semester to prove to me that you’re gonna be able to step up.”

A senior named James Palmore took me under his wing, and when I wasn’t taking lessons from Dawkins I was playing duets with [Palmore], who was very instrumental in helping me learn to read. He was doing John Coltrane transcriptions and all kinda stuff. At the end of that first semester he told me that, “the good news is you can maintain your scholarship and you can keep going, but we don’t have a saxophone major, so you’re now a flute major… go get one!

So I went to the pawn shop and found an Armstrong closed hole flute for $90 and that was my flute for three years. When I got ready to graduate, Dawkins said “you’ve gotta get yourself a real instrument, because if you’re going to play with anyone they’re going to expect you to play on a quality instrument.” He had a William Haynes flute and he was getting ready to unload because he had ordered another flute. I paid way under the value but I paid $3500 for that flute, in payments. He still wants that flute back [laughs], but I still have it, so I went from there.

I got my associates degree from Federal City and then it became UDC and I was convinced by Bobby Felder, because I got my associates degree and I figured I had satisfied my parents, went to college, and I wanted to get out on the road and play, I thought I was done with school. Bobby pulled me into his office and said “you tell me what you can do with an associates degree that you couldn’t already do with a high school diploma. You’re halfway through a Bachelor’s degree and with that all kinds of other doors will open for you. You’re on scholarship, on the dean’s list…” So of course I couldn’t answer the question so I thought ‘two more years.’

Right after that he said “what are you going to major in?” I said Performance, of course. He said “we don’t have a performance major, but we do have an education degree.” When I was in high school, Jessie Adams my band director pulled me aside one day when I was cuttin’ up and said “one of these days you’re going to be sitting here dealing with students just like you” [laughs]. And at that point I said “oh no, I will not teach.” I went from that point on all the way up to that conversation with Bobby I said I don’t want to teach. He said “hold up, just because you got an education degree doesn’t mean that you have to teach, it’s a bachelor’s degree, you can get a bachelor’s in basket weaving if you want.”

The bottom line is that was the standard up to that point. So he said “just get the degree, you love music, you’re playing, just go on and get the degree and you can do anything that you want to do.” Boy, he conned me good! So I took a practicum at Jefferson Junior High under Winston Hall, a piano player and a good band director. I did the practicum – just going in and observing a band director – he gave me a couple of flutes and gave me three or four little flute players and he said “you work with them, and that’s your teaching, and of course you watch how I deal with the band and how I deal with the rest of the kids,” and he would grade me on that.

So I’m working with these kids, and you’ve gotta work with them individually, and I turned my back on one and I heard this loud BAM, and I turned back around and a flute was sorta bent over the chair. I said “what happened?” The student said “I don’t know.” I said “come on man…” He said “I couldn’t do what you were telling me and I just got mad.” About a month later this guy comes in grinning from ear to ear. He had had a breakthrough and seeing that face, hearing that kid go from prune faced to the happiest kid in the world… that got me good! That’s where I decided that it was ok to teach.

What was your first teaching position?
That’s where Calvin Jones comes in. I was in a summer youth employment program under Mayor Barry and my first job was emptying trashcans at the government print office and I still have nightmares about that. Lillian Hough and Yvette Holt had a program over at Bacchus [sp?], an arts program – dance, and Calvin Jones was the band director for that program. When I got there for this summer job they put me with Calvin Jones. He took me on the first day to a couple of the elementary schools to pick up instruments. While we were picking up the instruments he had AM radio on in his car and I’m listening to big band jazz. He started telling me about the artists. He was a trombone, piano, and bass player and all of this was having a serious impact on me. At the time he was teaching at Cardozo High School.

He left Cardozo and came to UDC and that’s when he became the jazz band director. When I was there he had a septet, a sextet, and the big band and I played in all three. I have a history with pawn shops, I used to build stereo systems from components at the pawn shop and sell them to my friends. One day I was in the pawn shop and there was a soprano sax there and it was gorgeous to me, so a stereo I had just built paid $110 for that saxophone.

So I brought it to school and Calvin got excited! He started writing soprano sax parts for the big band; by that time I was playing lead alto. He liked the combination of soprano and trumpet so he started writing for the sextet. Judith Korey is the one that taught me music theory. She gave me a key to her office so that when she left I could go in and use the piano and practice. So I would stay there until it was time to go to the nightclub where I was working. So I would get there at 8:00am, go to class and study theory, then I would go to her office and practice until time to go to the nightclub; back then I played with a lot of different people. There was a place called Moore’s Love and Peace, which was probably my first real steady job. I had met [wife] Esther [Williams] by then. Dawkins sent me on one of his gigs as a sub, we played the gig together, we exchanged numbers afterwards. She said, “yeah, if we need another saxophone player we’ll call.” By then she was touring with her first record.

A couple of weeks later she calls me and she’s playing with Charlie Hampton, doing a gig at the church, and she said, “we need a saxophone player,” so I went there. Then about three or four months later she called and said “Charlie is getting ready to get rid of his saxophone player and I suggested you, he remembered you,” and so I got that gig. We ended up playing at that club for about eleven years!

What was your first teaching position?
Ernest Dyson taught jazz history and business of music courses at Federal City College and he worked at the Washington Community School of Music over in Northeast DC in a church and he offered me a job teaching flute there. So I walked into Dawkins office all proud and said “hey Doc, I got a job teaching music!” He said “you can’t have that job, because what’s gonna happen is you’re going to start earning that steady money and the next thing you know you’ll drop out, you’ll never get your degree, and it’s too early for you to leave [college], you’ve got enough to do just getting through college.” He went to Ernest and said “don’t give him this job.”

When I graduated with my associates degree Ernest called me back and said “do you still want that job?” So that was my first teaching job and I really enjoyed doing that, I was just a private flute teacher. In ’78 when I graduated UDC I was engaged to Esther and after my senior recital I announced that I was engaged. Bobby and Doc they all knew Esther, but they looked at me like “you’re gonna get married now? Before, you were talking about how you wanted to go out on the road, and now you’re going to come straight out of college and get married, don’t you understand what that’s about?” I said, “yeah, I do – and I did.” Once I let the cat out of the bag I don’t think there was a professor in the building that didn’t call me in and say “why are you going to get married as soon as you graduate?” But I did, and my first job after I graduated was at Wilson High School as a Drivers’ Education instructor. I got hired here at Ellington in May of ’78 for September, because I did my student teaching here under Wallace Clark and Mickey Bass.

Wallace and Antoine Roney were here then, but you couldn’t study jazz during the school day, you had to do it after school. Mickey would come down two days a week after school and teach the kids who were interested in jazz. [stopped @ 30 mins in] [Not that it was forbidden, just not yet established.] So I was offered the band director’s job, but that year the government cut teacher’s salaries, so I got fired before I got a chance to work. So I went over to Wilson HS and taught Driver’s Ed because there was a trombone player there who was teaching Driver’s Ed and one of the Driver’s Ed teachers had fallen and was on disability, so it was a temporary job.

The band director at Wilson was elderly and about ready to retire, so they said come on over here for about a year or so and he’ll probably retire so you can slip into his job. He didn’t leave [laughs]. And also the Driver’s Ed program had some financial problems and I ended up getting Rifed from that, so I sold pianos at Jordan Kitts in Columbia, MD for a year. I came back and got a job at Carter G. Woodson Junior High. Robert Sands had retired. On my first day the principle told me about him, said he had a 300-piece marching band, etc., but I wasn’t about marching bands… but it was a job.

So I went by Robert’s house and he said “look, I’m a saxophone player, don’t let this teaching thing stop you from playing.” And I said “right,” not really understanding what he was saying, but then I realized that because you are putting your energy into these young people and there’s only a certain amount of time in a day, I could see how that could happen, but I never gave up playing. Dawkins had got me into playing in theater productions, so I was doing some of the theater jobs, and then I was still doing the nightclub thing. I did Woodson for a year and decided at that point that I didn’t need this. When they handed me my evaluation – outstanding evaluation – I handed them my letter of resignation.

A saxophone position came up at UDC, so I went over there part time. Then I started thinking if you do music round the clock guys burn out. So I took a job as an attendance counselor at the School Without Walls, and I did that for almost two years. I had taught Floretta McKenzie’s daughter driver’s education at Wilson and she started following me; she knew I played and she would show up places where I was playing. One day she walked into the building here at Ellington, walked up to the principle, Maurice Eldridge – who had seen me playing with Joe Williams and Bobby Blue Bland at Fort Dupont, John Malachi was in that band. So Maurice is onstage giving Joe Williams an award, he looks down in the pit and says “what are you doing here?”

So just about a month later, Floretta McKenzie said she wanted me to run the music program at McKinley HS. Maurice said “he’s here [at Ellington] and if he’s going to go back into music education, I want him here because I need another saxophone teacher.’ I had been here for awhile and I knew some of the faculty members and students, so I picked Ellington.

What month and year did you start at Ellington?
March of 1984 as the attendance counselor, and then in September of ’86 I became the band director.

When you started teaching at Ellington, what did you teach?
Saxophone, and they allowed me to start the big band. They put me in a small room – one third the size of this current band room – and it had steps and some chairs in there, and a couple of music stands. But where’s the equipment? And I was also told by a faculty member that if you teach some classes make sure you them before 3:00 because these students aren’t going to stay until 5:00, even though they’re supposed to. Another teacher said “well, the equipment was here, but it sorta walked out.” So there was no band equipment there. So come my first class, I had my drummers play air drums… I said you set up and act like this is your snare drum, your floor tom… and I got some music and I had a little keyboard that was there, and the horn players had their horns, so we just did what we did to get started. Lo and behold one day the door opens and a CNN camera walked in the room and they’re filming this and asking “where’s the drumset?” I said, “we don’t have any,” and just as I was explaining this to them, Maurice Elders the principle walked in and they turned the cameras around to him, and a little while later I had a couple of drumsets. I don’t even know if he knew whether the equipment was there or not, but after that I got some equipment.

Then Joe Williams, Wynton Marsalis donated, they were the first contributors, and I went around Georgetown asking for whatever types of donations I could get for the equipment that I really needed, and that was the first waive of equipment. Wynton gave me $5,000 and Joe gave the same amount and that got us off the ground. From then I learned how to write grants, because I was writing letters to airlines… anybody that I thought would donate. I got enough to do what I needed from that point on.

What sense of Duke Ellington’s music have you given your students here?
First it was imparted to me. I was working with Keter Betts, because of Dawkins, I worked with Bill Harris’ band, Rick Henderson’s band, all these things were Dawkins and Bobby Felder connecting me. I ended up with Bill Harris at Wolftrap and that’s where he introduced me to Sarah Vaughan, Keter Betts… Bill took me to the concert and there were other musicians that he introduced me to. Keter asked me to come play with his band and I played with that band for about five years. I met Roland Hanna playing with Keter. When I got the Ellington job, Keter called and wanted me to come by his house. So I went over, sat in the kitchen, and he started asking me about Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and I was already shocked that I got the job because a whole lot of veteran band directors wanted that job, and he could see that there was a little bit of tension behind that.

So Keter said “what do you know about Duke?” I told him the little I knew – and it was a little – and he said “well that’s not enough because your job now is to enlighten those kids at that school, especially the ones that are playing.” So he went down to his basement and he pulled out a book called “Ellingtonia” and he started showing me all of the songs, the writing, the photography… everything – to the point of overload. I said to myself ‘how am I going to deal with this?’ That’s when Keter volunteered to come to Ellington before school. We had a program called Paying Your Dues that I ended up getting a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts to do. I brought in Steve Novosel… whatever artists that I could find I would give them a little stipend to come at 7am and teach the kids who wanted to learn jazz. John Malachi would come in; as a matter of fact the week he passed he came and did a rehearsal and a workshop.

The program Paying Your Dues allowed me to take the kids to the East Coast Jazz Festival (Ronnie Wells’ predecessor to Paul & Karmen Carr’s current Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival), and we’d do fundraising that enabled us to get to France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and some of the other tours we did; grantwriting and fundraising enabled us to take the band out.

What’s been your ensemble focus here at Ellington?
Everything that I can! Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell came here, which demonstrated to the students the duo form, that you don’t have to play big band music all the time… jazz is jazz, I don’t care what instrument it’s played on. One of the things I had to do with the student body here is say, come out of that tunnel people have you in; if you hear [jazz] and you like it, you can do anything.

Currently I have my 7:15-8:15am class for kids who come in who don’t get into the jazz orchestra, or don’t get into my in-curricular combo. And I’m still teaching saxophone as well. Right now I’ve got about 8 of those students, and then 6th period Monday-Tuesday-Thursday I have a 5-piece combo and we work on anything from Go Bop – to ease them into bebop I would take bebop tunes and I brought John Buchannan here once and he was one of the founders of go-go an we went to Federal City College together. So I wanted them to get the true Washington art form of go-go, which they had been listening to, but I wanted them to see the evolution of that and make sure they had the genuine stuff.

We would take tunes like “Yardbird Suite” or “All Blues,” which we took out of three and put it in four, and put it into the go-go beat. They even have what they call “Take the Metro”, which uses “Take the A Train.” They have a medley where they come out of “Nica’s Dream” and go into a go-go groove and do “Take the A Train.” So we have that, but we also visit the Herbie Hancocks, who whenever the genres change he adapts, just like Miles did. The idea is we want to produce artists. So I teach just as much of the European classical repertoire for my saxophonists. As the saxophone teacher I want them to understand that Charlie Parker liked Brahms. There are a whole bunch of artists that take from the other genres to put into jazz. The beauty of jazz is that you are allowed to do that, so that’s what I do with the kids. I try to make sure they’re exposed to everything. I took them to a concert once where Snarky Puppy partnered with the National Symphony to let them see that whatever is out there, you can do.

What awards has your ensemble won?
[Laughs and points out several shelves chock full of trophies.] We were the first high school jazz orchestra at Montreux [‘90], the year they reenacted the Miles Davis/Gil Evans works with Miles, and Wallace spelled Miles –when Miles would stop playing, Wallace would get up and start playing. We’ve been to North Sea Jazz Festival, been down to the Bahamas for their festival three times… so I’ve taken them wherever I could take them.

How have those experiences enriched your students’ experience with music?
It’s always good for them to see and interact with the top talent. But I think the greatest experiences… I took the kids to Marciac Jazz Festival and their high school level in France is called college, but we took the kids over to one of the colleges and despite language barriers they all got together like they had been buddies for all their lives, and watched them interact and exchange, and see what their peers are doing in another area… I always felt that was their greatest inspiration; that combination of dealing with their peers and then also going to see Wynton, Roy Hargrove, Toots Thielemanns… Taking young people and having them interact with their peers, as well as the giants, I think is the best inspiration you’re gonna get. When they came back from those trips they’d be ready to play, ready to compete, and they excelled. They’d learned what practice was all about, their ears were tuned to what… my favorite statement generally comes in the 11th grade when a kid comes to me and says “Mr. Yarborough, it seems like the more I practice, the worse I sound.” And I say “yeah, your ear just caught up to your abilities [laughs].”

Who have been some of your more prominent students to graduate from your Ellington program?
Wallace Roney and Antoine Roney were already here before me, but I taught Antoine, but I was in Wallace’s band, he was already playing professionally. Mickey Bass really straightened them out; even when they went to Berklee they called him and said “they’re not showing us anything here.” Eric Allen and Clarence Seay were here at the same time. Since I’ve been here are Chuck Royal, Marc Cary – he was already doing it when I got here, he was just waiting to be discovered – and then the barrage of artistry – the Ben Williams, Eric Wheeler, Corcoran Holt, Ameen Saleem, Daniel Moore (the music director for Showtime at the Apollo), Clifton Williams (who won a competition while he was at Berklee to write the theme for Showtime at the Apollo), Brian Settles, Jessica Settles, Amy Bormet (founder of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival), Elijah Easton

How did you get so much bass talent, further emphasizing the great DC bass tradition?
Some of those kids had been exposed – Ameen had never played jazz and I put him in D minor to work out a walk and that was how he started. In the 11th grade his father came in here with him and said “my son says he’s memorized this book” – it was the Real Book – and I said “yeah, he has.” I took the book, opened it up, closed it and had him play whatever was on a particular page. It definitely wasn’t just me because I’d have Keter come here, or whatever artistry I had been in contact with in DC.

Right now my focus is to develop a directory of artistry I’ve [interacted with here], including Butch Warren, Quinton Warren… anybody I knew that was playing I invited here to play for the kids, or took the kids to go see them. I didn’t have a budget until I started getting grants… A lot of these guys just came here because I asked them to come – Stanley Cowell… I realize now how long I’ve been here.

This award comes at a precipitous time for you as you prepare to retire. What are going to be your primary pursuits post-retirement?
My retirement is going to be from DCPS (after 40 years). When this school officially became the hybrid that it is, the principle back then told me he knew I’d retire someday, and that if I did they would just hire me back through the non-profit side. I do have so much of this place wrapped up in me; this was a dream… So I will probably come back here part-time, but I’m actually using the retirement to continue building my next project – which is the Washington Jazz Arts Institute, which will celebrate 20 years this year. We have operated for 20 years without a full-time employee and its been fairly successful; we average anywhere from 35-50 kids during the summer when we have a 4-week program, six hours a day, four days a week at People’s Congregational United Church of Christ, the church my wife and I attend gave us space to operate. We’re looking for a permanent space and we have some ideas. But that’s where I’m needed. We’re also about teaching life skills, rounding out individuals with a focus on music development utilizing the jazz genre. We haven’t been able to expand to the rank beginner because I don’t have the staff, but we work with kids anywhere from eleven to age 24.

The mission is to provide a support system for any Washingtonian or DMV resident the opportunity to be supported from the time that they know they want to be an artist, through retirement. The concept is that once you are given these lessons then you are obliged to give back, in terms of the artistic and life skills development you’ve gotten. That’s why say through retirement because eventually I would like to have my middle school kids actually coaching the elementary school level, high school mentoring middle school, 11th and 12th graders mentoring 9th and 10th graders, college kids mentoring 11th and 12th graders, professionals mentoring college students.

Sonny Stitt, Frank Wess, Art Dawkins, Calvin Jones… those were my mentors and that’s where the whole concept came from. Eventually that program that I was in with Calvin Jones really is what gave us that concept; I just want to make it formal, and I also want to have it in all four quadrants of the city, I don’t to have just one location. I want a repertory band, a senior citizens group… I’ve run into lot of seniors who say “yeah, I played before I had a family to take care of, and I’d like to get back.” The knowledge they an impart… that’s straight from the horse’s mouth to the next generation!

Here’s Davey Yarborough and Esther Williams from their recent DC JazzFest performance on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage:

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Geri Allen

On Thursday, June 14 the DC Jazz Festival will present Feed the Fire: Celebrating Geri Alllen’s Genius, Grace and Fire, an evening music directed by the great drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, with a band comprised of Orrin Evans on piano, Tia Fuller on saxophones, 2018 DC JazzFest artist-in-residence Ben Williams on bass, and vocalist Charenee Wade. The concert will be at Sixth & I on June 14th at 7:30pm (complete details:www.dcjazzfest.org).

Among Geri Allen’s many achievements in her rich career was a wonderful relationship with NEA Jazz Master vocalist Betty Carter. Geri joined Betty’s fellow NEA Jazz Masters, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, to record Betty’s landmark album Feed The Fire. Additionally Geri served as one of the first mentors Betty engaged for her young artist education colony Jazz Ahead, which continues to be presented annually at the Kennedy Center. Additionally they shared manager Ora Harris. Back in ’99 I interviewed Geri Allen in advance of one of the early iterations of Jazz Ahead; we talked about how she came up in the music, meeting and interacting with Betty Carter, the importance of mentoring younger artists, and various aspects of Geri’s Detroit upbringing. With our June 14th Geri Allen Celebration fast approaching I thought it might be a good time to reprise that interview.

Willard Jenkins: Where did you begin your study of this music?

Geri Allen: From listening; my dad’s record collection was a source of information for me as a kid, he was a big fan. So I would say hearing that music around me all the time was the organic beginnings of it. I had started playing the piano at around 7, I think from having the music in me that way, although I was playing classical piano and taking lessons in that, I still would always go off on my own and try to figure out things, exercise my ear muscles, without even really knowing what I was doing. I think it was in me.

WJ: What kind of records did your parents have at the house?

GA: Charlie Parker was the main staple in the collection. In my classical lessons I was fortunate to have a teacher that wasn’t intimidated by jazz, so when she saw my interest she supported it, she didn’t try to purge it like a lot of [classical] teachers. I’ve heard stories from friends of mine that [teachers] would tell them things like they were gonna lose their technique if they tried to play jazz, they discouraged it and told them it would interfere – I hate this term – with their legitimate technique. My teacher wasn’t like that at all, she was very open, and even though she knew nothing about [jazz] she supported the creative process I was going through.

WJ: At what point did you come into direct contact with professional jazz musicians?
Geri & me
GA: In high school; I started as a freshman at Cass Tech in 9th grade. Right away the premier ensemble to be associated with was the jazz ensemble, and there were a lot of really good ensembles. I had already made a decision that I wanted to be a professional musician, and jazz was my vehicle. Even though I was studying a lot of different things I was trying to learn to be a professional, which meant that I would have to cross over genres – at least that was what Marcus Belgrave was telling me. Donald Byrd was another person who was around Cass, his alma mater. He came back and did things with us students; we did “Cristo Redentor” with him live, and he helped us raise money to travel to Australia. And I performed in the madrigal group, in the orchestra, the harp and vocal group (which Dorothy Ashby came out of) and just a really rich environment. But the jazz ensemble was one of the most competitive.

WJ: What other professional musicians, besides Marcus Belgrave and Donald Byrd, had an impact on you in those years?

GA: I would say Harold McKinney, Kenny Cox, Roy Brooks… I played in a group called Endangered Species with George Goldsmith and it was a great time for a young person because all of them were available and they were especially supportive of that. If you were there for the music, they were there for you.

WJ: Endangered Species was one of your earliest bands outside of school?

GA: I played in Roy Brooks’ band Artistic Truth. Marcus [Belgrave] is the one that I really spent the most time with.

WJ: So he had the most impact on your training?

GA: Yeah.

WJ: Obviously it was a rich environment for you to learn, in Detroit.

GA: Things like [independent Detroit jazz record label] Strata was going, and the musicians were really self-empowered, and the community was really strong and loved the music. There were places outside of the mainstream circle where music was happening all the time. We used to have a jam session at Northwestern High School, with Ernie Rogers, and we used to be there until 4 and 5 in the morning. All of us aspiring players would be there every Saturday; that was real important to be there. There were a lot of different things that kept you going.

WJ: Those organized jam sessions were obviously very important to your development, but those kinds of situations are not available now as much as they were then. Many of the jazz musicians that are arriving now come solely from the conservatory. What do you think is missing from their training if they aren’t able to be involved in that kind of jam session, nurturing environment?

GA: I don’t think it’s unfortunate just for the new generation of players, I think its unfortunate for us as a [jazz] community. I think we all need it, and I think the listeners that are involved in coming out to hear those jams gained a lot from that too. I think the tilt on it generally is that it’s the young players coming out that miss out, and that’s true. Something like Betty created [Jazz Ahead] os a [positive alternative, although we really still need those kinds of environments in our community. I think Jazz Ahead is an opportunity for them to rub elbows with the musicians, the great musicians, in the same way we grew up being able to do it. We could do it more often, on a day to day or weekly basis, which is what I think people need to be able to do to perfect their craft, but at least they get a taste of what it is; which will hopefully inspire them to go out and maybe even find ways amongst like minds – even though they’re young too, but we found ways to rehearse at each other’s house and play each other’s music and work things out. Maybe that’ll inspire them to maybe search out the people that are there. In every town there are great musicians and these people really get a lot of energy being able to share that knowledge.

WJ: At what point did you come in contact with Betty Carter?

GA: I first met her at Howard University, around ’75-’76, and she had a great band with Kenny Washington, Curtis Lundy, and Khalid Moss. It was really exciting to watch her perform, she inspired a lot of us. We were all there, everybody came away with a real big excitement – she brought that. I remember not really talking to her, but just the impact of that.

Then I met her maybe three or four years later in Pittsburgh. Nathan [Davis] had told her that I was a musician who admired her work. She was sitting on a panel and I don’t think she knew me from Adam, but she invited me to join her on the panel, and I thought that was really generous since I didn’t really feel like she knew my work. But I think she was trying to encourage me. We had an opportunity to talk, we had lunch, and we started developing a rapport. I remember her piano player was late for the sound check for the performance, so she invited me up to sit in, and that was the first time I played with her.

WJ: How did your relationship develop and evolve through the years?

GA: She was always really supportive and positive. Once I got to New York it took me some time to get on my feet. I started doing some things as a leader in ’82, which is when I got out of Pittsburgh; ’83-’84 I started being able to take my own trio out. I would see her at different places and she was always real positive. Her music was always a source of inspiration for me.

It wasn’t until the late 80s that I actually hooked up with her; she managed me for three years under BetCar. So Ora Harris and Betty took care of me and that was a major turning point in my career, in terms of legitimizing me. I did lots of things with her: we did duos, lots of performances just us. We performed in Europe. We did a duo on ”Droppin’ Things” and people started calling she and I to do duo concerts and we did a number of things. I think from that experience, when the idea came up to do the quartet with Jack [DeJohnette] and Dave [Holland] she put me in there. That was a great opportunity for me to be out there with this strong situation, to be on the road with Betty. We did all of the summer festivals [1994].

WJ: Even though you were working with Betty with very experienced musicians, there was still a lot of mentoring?

GA: With [Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland] too. They both worked with Betty when they were up and coming players. They both respected her greatly and so they looked up to her in the same way I did. On the bandstand every night there was something unusual that would occur. I came away from that environment with the tools to be a much better player. There were real specific things that she would help me to make it to the next step as a player; that environment was key.

WJ: So I guess you were learning from Jack and Dave as well.

GA: Definitely; to play with Jack and Dave, they have that quality that makes you have to rise. I had played with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian in a great trio environment; and I got to play with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, which was a great trio environment. Playing with Jack and Dave prepared me for that environment. I look forward to that opportunity to play with the again because I came away a better player.

WJ: Considering those and your earlier experiences what’s your sense of younger musicians learning from older jazz musicians?

GA: There’s no other way [laughs]. It’s like what is your sense of breathing air…. you have to breath, there’s no other choice. I think that’s why [Jazz Ahead] is important. Most of the cultivating is going on in the universities, so I highly recommend that students today go to those places where great players are [teaching], because that’s gonna be their opportunity to kind of get a feeling of what that experience was of learning on the streets, and of coming up that way. I have always hoped that the scene will kind of turn around and there will be more such environments city to city so that the music can be thriving in the communities again. I know that there’s a demand for it because whenever you play for people that come around and they are really energized by the music, and you hear a lot of wishing that there was more available. With these young people coming up, their excitement has to help fuel that. There’s a great love for the music out there, and its missed, I hear it from people all the time.

WJ: Are there other mentors out there like Betty Carter that young musicians can learn about?

GA: I think they are out there, and the more that they seek these people out, the more possibilities there will be for them. But there is a certain amount of homework involved in being put in a position like that. I speak from the standpoint of coming up in a place like Detroit, you were afforded the opportunity if you were serious and if you were really out there trying to get better. The discipline aspect of the arts and music is a necessity, it cultivates more than just your ability to play, it cultivates your personality, it helps you get a sense of what life is.

I know for certain that the public schools created that opportunity for me. I took private lessons, my parents made that possible for me so I’m very grateful for it. But I also had the opportunity to experience music daily in a very disciplined, organized, and inspired environment. I think that’s very fundamental, that every young person through their school system have that opportunity. I just hope there is more support of that, because that’ll make a big difference. Through the public schools you should be able to access the great musicians in the city that are just looking for the opportunity to share the music with young people. Somehow it has to be gotten across that this is a viable thing to do. I think that is a big way the music can thrive again, through the public schools, through searching out these musicians whether they have degrees or not, to come in there and share their knowledge and their years of experience.

WJ: How will you and Jack work with the Jazz Ahead student musicians for the June program, what kind of environment are you going to develop for them?

GA: Creativity! It’ll be about making the music, it’s a hands on thing. You get in there and… just the process of polishing things and trying to get them to the performance level is the whole approach to how I learned. I’m going to work through this with great respect for Jack, of course. The ideas that he’ll bring in will be such a great opportunity for those kids. The idea is to use this as a workshop with a performance opportunity. Basically jazz is workshop, you’re in workshop for your whole life, honing your craft so you can get better.

WJ: What is the greatest legacy that Betty Carter left here for us?

GA: Self-determination is a big one. She was always a person who was connected with her body, there was like a continuous… Betty was able to always be busy, always working, whether she had a major label behind her or not.


One of Geri Allen’s last great collaborations, the cooperative trio with Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding

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A Life in music: from Robert Northern to Brother Ah Part 2

In Part 2 of our oral history interview with the multi-instrumentalist musician born Robert Northern, now known widely as Brother Ah, we learn about his days with the Sun Ra Arkestra, his career as an educator at Dartmouth and Brown Universities, his sojourns to Africa, the development of his Sound Awareness ensemble, and his tenure as weekly show host at WPFW in DC.


Willard Jenkins: What were some of the most memorable recording sessions you made as part of the brass section?

Brother Ah: Well, the Gil Evans was one of them… To tell you the truth man, I mean, in terms of wonderful excitement it was with Sun Ra. I joined at a time when he had a brass section, I think [trombonist] Dick Griffin was in it then, there was a trumpet, a couple trumpets, that was a fantastic brass section, he had trumpet players… I can’t remember the guy’s name man…

Willard Jenkins: How did you connect with Sun Ra?

Brother Ah: Well you know, I was at Radio City Music Hall. You know, we had four shows a day, we had breaks between shows, and I was visited by cats, you know, Eric Dolphy used to come by on my breaks and we used to talk about orchestration. He always had a book with Koussevitzky stuff. And Pat Patrick used to come by on my breaks. We used to work together, we did a lot with Odetta and different pop singers, I was doing a lot of work in recording studios with Pat Patrick. And he kept talking about this musician called Sun Ra. And I didn’t know who Sun Ra was. He would say, “Come on man every Monday night we play at a place called Slugs.” I said, “Man, after four shows, five shows, I’m going home on Monday night I’m going to bed man I can’t do that.” He kept bugging me so I said, “OK. I’ll go with you.” So we got in a cab one Monday night and went down to Slugs.

Willard Jenkins: What year are we talking about?

Brother Ah: 1964. I said, “OK man I’ll go down with you.” We walked in this place called Slugs, I heard this band man, and I literally stood on the chair and was shouting I mean I went crazy. When I walked in there, I heard this music… it was like I heard it in my mind without ever hearing it live. You know, I’ve played so much music, I’ve played music of Stockhausen and I’ve played music of Bird, you know I’ve played music of Varèse, you know different contemporary European composers. I’ve played this music, I’ve played all kinds… and I heard this, it was like an orchestra. It wasn’t like a jazz band, this was like an orchestra. And I went wild. And they take no breaks, six hours, no breaks. If you gotta go to the bathroom, you don’t go to the bathroom and come back. After six hours, Sun Ra walked past me and I grabbed him by the wrist and I said, “I got to play this, I’ve got to play with this band.”

So Pat Patrick introduced me to him and he told Pat to tell me to come to the next rehearsal. I didn’t know there was going to be an audition. So, in a few days, I remember that day it was pouring down rain and I was doing a recording session in Midtown Manhattan and back in the day, you went to recording sessions dressed. I mean I was in shirt and tie, I mean everybody was kind of… dressed like you were doing a performance. So I’m dressed in my shirt and tie, suit, pouring rain, I got down to his place, which is on the Lower East Side, soaking wet. Went to his apartment, he had a small, two or three bedroom apartment… three or four rooms not bedrooms, it was three or four rooms on the Lower East Side. I knocked on the door, he opened the door, and he saw me soaking wet and I introduced myself and he said, “Come on in. Sit there.” He told Marshall Allen, “turn the oven on, let him dry off.” He sat me in front of the oven, and he left the apartment. He came back later with all the cats with him, I don’t know where they came from, and the whole band set up and… he never wrote for the French horn before. So he was giving me trumpet parts, any parts: trumpet, saxophone parts, he was giving me all these parts, all these tunes, and because I was a very well trained classical player, I was into transposition. You know, in symphony players, Beethoven didn’t always write it in the key that you played and you had to transpose it at sight, you look at one note and you play it, you know, anyway…

I was able to transpose it all. So I was playing trumpet parts, I was playing everything. In the middle of this session he had a – there was a contraption that he made. This contraption was made of copper wires and it rotated. And everybody was playing and it stopped. It stopped. So Sun Ra told us to go outside, there was a spaceship outside. I said, “what?” He said, “Yeah. You guys stop. Go outside.” We all bust outside and man we looked up there was a light pulsating in the sky, man. That’s when I began to believe Sun Ra. Up to that time I said, “Space, yeah, space, yeah.” And when we sat back down, it started to rotate again.

So after that audition… He was auditioning me and a trumpet player… I can’t remember his name now… very fine trumpet player… So, after the rehearsal and after the audition, he told John Gilmore to tell me to come to the next session at Slug’s. He ain’t tell me to my face, he tell Gilmore. So Gilmore said, “Come down to Slug’s next Monday night.” And when you join Sun Ra’s band, you sit next to him, you know, every new player has to sit next to him. So I’m sitting next to him, and we’re playing. Between that rehearsal and the performance, he had written all these parts up. I can show you… I got my whole French horn book, his handwriting here, I have the whole book. He wrote me this so fast man, [mimics fast writing]. I show you the parts man I got them all. He wrote all my French horn parts just like that. He didn’t ask me to play he didn’t ask me what the register, he wrote a whole book by the time… between that rehearsal and the actual performance he had written a French horn book.

So, I’m playing it with them, and he tells me to take a solo and I never played a solo with Sun Ra. I’m looking for chord changes and I’m saying, “I don’t see no chord changes.” So, next solo, he cut the whole band off and left me out there by myself and I didn’t know what the changes were… so I started to play what was coming through me. I had no idea, I said there was no chord structure there was no form there was no… you know I’m used to ABAB form, nothing. So, I started to play. And I kept on playing what was coming through me until I couldn’t keep the horn on my lip anymore. And I figured I was perspiring so much. So I looked down man and there was blood. My whole shirt was full of blood, I cut my lip. And only when he realized that I realized that I was bleeding, then he put the band in. That was my initiation to Sun Ra.

Willard Jenkins: So how long did you work with Sun Ra.

Brother Ah: Ten years, ten consecutive years. Now I didn’t do all of the years with him ‘cause I was still under contract with Radio City Music Hall so I couldn’t go on extended tours. I would go as far as Boston or he did D.C. several times, you know, but in terms of going to the airport… I can’t go two or three weeks. So I played with him for ten consecutive years in his band. ’64-’74.

Willard Jenkins: When and what were the circumstances behind your going into education?

Brother Ah: I started when I came back from the military again in the late 50’s. My union, 802, asked brass players to work in the public school systems to teach brass instruments. They didn’t ask teachers with degrees in education but they wanted professional musicians. So they called me, I don’t know why again, to ask me. So I said, “Sure.” So they sent me to a school in my own backyard… south Bronx, where I grew up, to teach brass instruments. So I taught trumpet, trombone… all the brass instruments to elementary… to 4th, 5th, and 6th, graders.

That’s how I really began to start teaching. And I had a few private students. But, I was successful now, and getting work, I was doing a Broadway show, I’d done many Broadway shows but this one’s called 1776. It was a hit Broadway show and I had been doing it for two and a half years, six nights a week and matinees and all that stuff. Finally Don Cherry called me. Don and I had been working with Charlie Haden and Don and I did a lot of stuff together. In fact he’s the one who turned me on to playing bamboo flutes. Anyway, Don said, “Listen man I’m teaching at Dartmouth College and I’m going to Stockholm, Sweden to open up a school for children for one semester and the faculty chairman said I could go for a semester if I got a substitute, so would you substitute for me for one semester at Dartmouth?” I said, “I’m doing a Broadway show man. I gotta find a substitute for a semester.”

So I did, I was able to find a French hornist who played my show for a semester. And I spent a week with Don in Dartmouth, first of all, observing him as a teacher. So I said, “Don I think I can continue your work.” And I was really continuing his work. He was doing music that was different. So I said, “I can do your work” ‘cause I had been playing with Sun Ra. So I accepted his position for one semester.

At the end of the semester he called me from Sweden: “Man, I’m gonna be out here for three years.” I said, “What!? I got a hit Broadway show!” “Can you please take my place man…?” So the chairman calls me and says, “We would like to offer you a three year contract to teach here at Dartmouth.” I was kind of sick of that show anyway, I mean, I’d been doing it for two and a half years, I said, “Well, I’ll just take a break from New York you know.” Even though I was extremely busy. But I said, “What I’ll do is bring the cats up here,” I said to the chairman, “If you give me a grant, you know to bring the musicians from New York here so I could continue my career.” He said, “Yeah!” So I brought up Max Roach, I brought up M’Boom, I brought up Kenny Burrell I brought up a whole bunch of cats because I wanted to play, I brought up Leon Thomas. So I kept my roots in it, but after three and a half years… But anyway that was my first real teaching position, at Dartmouth College.

Willard Jenkins: Were you married with a family at the time?

Brother Ah: I was married… I was divorced.

Willard Jenkins: Did you have children?

Brother Ah: I had two kids. Two sons.

Willard Jenkins: From your first marriage?

Brother Ah: Yeah.

Willard Jenkins: Are either of them musicians?

Brother Ah: No, the oldest boy, who is now in his fifties, he wanted to be a drummer and I got him a drum set and for some reason he wanted to go to Paris and sold his drum set to go to Paris and he never got back on drums. My youngest boy was a wonderful guitarist who was studying music in Los Angeles and he gave up being a musician so… My daughter is the one that’s really now and up and coming. She’s a vocalist, a composer, and an arranger. She has wonderful music out now, she’s going strong now, and so she’s the only one in my family to take on the music legacy, my daughter.

Willard Jenkins: So how did you evolve as an educator from Dartmouth to Brown University?

Brother Ah: Well, again, at the end of three years, I was anxious to get back to New York. To pick up my career, to get back with all those cats I worked with. And at one of my performances, there was a gentleman named George Bass who was very connected with Langston Hughes, he was teaching at Brown University in something called Rights and Reasons. Rights and Reasons was a project that he and the chairman of the African Studies Department, who was a historian, put together, to turn research into performance. So he came to one of my performances. I didn’t know he was out there.

After the performance, he came backstage and said he’d like me to consider doing my work at Brown University. I said, “Man, I’m going back to New York man, I mean I’ve had three and a half years of Ivy League,” and that was difficult at Dartmouth. It was very racist… It was an all-boys school when I took the job. When I first hit that campus man, there was a big Confederate flag across the Main Street, a huge Confederate flag. I said, “What!?” So I had a hard time dealing with racism at Dartmouth, very hard time. And it’s an Ivy League school again, Brown University, I said, and in Rhode Island, I said, “Well man, I’m going back to New York.” So he kept bugging me, so I figured the only way I can turn this cat down was to give him such a price, such a salary, that they would say, “No we can’t do that.” So I gave him this huge figure, and they said, “Ok.” I said, “What!?” [Laughs] I didn’t know I was making more than the chairman. I said, “What!?” Oh man, so that’s how I ended up there… So I went to Brown and stayed there nine years.

Rusty Hassan: Was it at Dartmouth or Brown, where you acquired the name “Brother Ah”?

Brother Ah: At Dartmouth. I used to come into this classroom and they would say, “Ahhhhhhhh. Ahhhhh. Brother Ahhhhh.” And I didn’t know, you know, it was a nickname. I didn’t know if I started every sentence with “ah” or what, you know? So it was an international setting, it’s an all-boys school and they had students from all over the world. It was very international.

So everyone from different parts of the world came to me and say, “’Ah’ has a meaning in my culture.” One guy, he was from Mauritania, he said, “We twirl in the desert and we chant ‘ahhhh’ for our culture.” And then the guy from Egypt, he said, “You know ‘Ah’ is the name of the god of the moon.” Ra is the name of the Sun god, Ah is the moon god. Everybody kept telling me, so it stuck. It was a nickname, it just stuck. So when I got to Brown, the Brother Ah name followed me to Brown.

Willard Jenkins: So you stayed at Brown for nine years?

Brother Ah: Yeah, man.

Willard Jenkins: How did you determine to study in Africa and where did you begin those studies?

Brother Ah: I just determined it… well that’s a long story. In 1971 or 2 I went to, uh, Dinizulu. There was an African American who became a priest of the African Ghanaian Religion that had a temple somewhere in Queens, I can’t remember. I went, and I can’t remember why, I went to one of his ritualistic sessions there and I can’t remember who recommended me going there and why I went there. But anyway, I went there, and he announced there that he takes his family to Ghana to the temples every summer. He had a big family, many wives, many children, and he chartered a plane and had extra seats and he said, “For $300 round trip, you can join us to take up these extra seats.” He was talking to other visitors. I said, “What? $300 round trip?”

I was already teaching at Dartmouth. Anyway, I would want to go with Dinzulu. I would want to go to Africa. So it was my very first chance to go to a place where I had dreamt about all my life, was to go to Africa. So in 1972, I was at Dartmouth teaching, and I was teaching music, I was teaching international… I was doing Don Cherry’s work really. And I had brought instruments myself from Haiti, I brought all these instruments. I brought a Haitian trumpet just for the kids, even though I hadn’t ever been to Haiti. But I got all these instruments into the international thing. But I had never been to Africa, Don had everything. So I said, “This could be a chance to get some instruments…”

So I asked if I could go and he said “Yes”. So 1972, the summer of ’72, while I was at Dartmouth, I took my first trip to Ghana. We got off the plane, I fell on my knees when I got off that plane. I had no idea… and I wept. And I almost went unconscious. Some of the baggage handlers were drummers, they grabbed their djembes and they surrounded me. I’m landing on the ground and they played to me ‘til I came to my senses. And they said to me, “Welcome home my brother. Welcome home my brother.”

So from there I went up to La Te which is a head place to go for temples, that was the destination for Dinizulu and his family. And from there I left and went to a place called Kumasi and I was led into the forest by a little man who saw me playing my flute looking at the flowers and took me into the village.

So I started my real understanding of African culture and rhythms deep in the forest in a village behind Kumasi, a village called Gyenyasi. There I had a mud hut, no running water, no electricity, only the fires and the moon at night and that’s where I lived in that hut. And I studied with those drummers—I have my first drum, I got my first drum right at that time in ’72, it’s in my living room— they gave me my drum, and they started me off understanding the language, the drumming, and all of that.

The next time I went to Ghana was two years later, every year for seven consecutive summers I spent in Africa – Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, and whenever I went back, I studied. I studied at Legon at the University of Ghana, at the Legon Institute where this drum comes from. I got that drum at Legon in the 70’s. And I studied at the University, I lived on the campus, I studied… You been there to the University of Ghana?

Willard Jenkins: Yeah I have.

Brother Ah: You know those steps… the Legon Institute was down those steps… that’s where I studied every day. All my rhythms and all those concepts came from Legon.

Willard Jenkins: And the other countries that you visited during your summers in Africa, what were your experiences like?

Brother Ah: Well, I’ll tell ya, the most profound experience was when I went to… Kenya. I went to Kenya and I spent time in Kenya and I went to Nakuru, which is where Jomo Kenyatta… I went to a big festival and I saw Jomo Kenyatta. And that was an experience.

I was going to visit my cousin, Babatunde Folalyemi, and sister, brother, my cousin, had moved his family to Dar es Salaam. So I spent time in Kenya but I said, “Really I got to get to Dar es Salaam to visit my cousin.” So I took a bus from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam, to Tanzania and on the way there we stopped at a place where there was the Ngorongoro Crater. I don’t know if you have heard of that. Where the Massai lived. This was a bus breakdown halfway to Tanzania.

I got off the bus to take a break and a brother came towards me, he had all kinds of shields and sticks and stuff but he was wearing blue jeans. And he came to me and said, “Hey my brother! My name is Brother! Brother Massai!” I said, “Yeah?” He said “Yeah you know my brother, you are from America. You are Afro American you are my brother! They call me Afro Massai.” I said, “Yeah?” He said, “Yeah, you are my brother. Would you come to my village and stay awhile with me?” I said, “Well I’m on my way to Dar es Salaam, my brother. I’m not gonna stay here.” He said, “Oh you must you must visit us.” So I said, “Ok ok I’ll take a couple of days.” I said, “Where you living?” [Massai said,] “In the village.” “Where’s the village?” “In the crater!” I said, “What crater?”
There’s an inactive crater that spans I think 110 miles in all directions, he lived down in this crater. Down in this crater there’s every animal you can imagine: leopards, lions, giraffes, hippopotamus, monkeys, you name it, gazelle, they all live in this crater, I went down to this crater and man I said, “What!?” I’m looking at lions. I’m looking at giraffes. I said, “What in the what?” He said, “Yeah, yeah. You sit here under this, I’ll be back. Sit here under this tree I’m coming back.” I said, “Sit under this tree?” I said, “What!?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be back.”

When I traveled Africa all I traveled with was what I was wearing and a coconut bag which had several flutes, bamboo flutes, and my kit, and a change of underwear. That’s all I had. So I sat under the tree, I pulled out my flute, and I’ll have to show you the flute, I have all of the—I have the exact flute. I pull out my flute, just to soothe myself, because I’m looking at lions man, and I was playing my flute for my own self and I felt this presence around me. I open up one eye and these monkeys are—about 30 monkeys come out of this tree and all sitting out there in front of me and I’m playing the flute, they’re grey, black faces, orange, the palms of their hands were orange, and they’re all looking at me.

So I played, I played, and I played and after I’d finished playing, they all ran up the tree. They took my—I had a little lunch, they took all my fruit, went up the tree—that was my first experience at looking at a live animal outside of a zoo. So I was able to study there. He gave me a hut, said, “You stay here tonight.” No light, not even a kerosene lamp nothing, no bed, a mat, asleep on the floor, and a hut. He says, “I’ll be back in the morning.” I said, “Man, you gonna leave me man? I thought you were going to take me to your village?” He said, “Nah you stay here I’m going back—I’ll be back.”

So, in the morning I’m waking up and it was so dark in that hut, I literally could not see my hand. So I woke up in the morning and I heard barking all around me. I said, “Oh my God,” I thought they were wild dogs. So I had to get my nerve up, I peeked out of the hut, and man, they were zebras barking. I didn’t know zebras barked like dogs. Heck all these zebras are barking I said, “My God.” And they were doing some great rhythms. So finally he came back and I said, “You know my brother, I really want to learn from you the rhythms of the Massai because I’m studying, I’m a student. I teach but I have to bring back information for my students, how do you learn these rhythms?”

He told me to lie down on the ground. I said, “What you mean?” “Lay down boy!” So I lay down he put his foot on my head said, “Put your ear to the ground.” And he took a stone and he threw it at all the animals and they all began to run, the wildebeests, he said “You hear that? That’s where we learn our rhythms.” Multiple rhythms, I was hearing it, he said “That’s where we learn. We play those rhythms. As children we play those rhythms.”

That’s the way I began to understand multiple rhythms, the Massai learned by listening to the hoof beats of animals. That was a great lesson for me. So while I was there I studied; I got a little drum, and I studied the rhythms of animals. And it took me back to, believe or not, to Sun Ra, because his band played the same type of rhythms. When I got in his band man — oh my drum’s upstairs. The drum I have upstairs, the conga drum, is the drum I played with Sun Ra. I studied conga drums with a brother, I forget his name—anyway, the rhythms I was hearing those animals and the rhythms of the Massai, those were the same rhythms Sun Ra’s band played. And those are the rhythms I used in one of my recordings on my album. I used those same concepts of rhythms on one of my albums that I recorded back in the 60’s. So my greatest lessons in terms of learning rhythms were from animals, with the Massai.

Willard Jenkins: What were the circumstances behind your relocation to Washington D.C. and what year was that?

Brother Ah: To tell you the truth the reason I relocated to D.C. was… Well first of all I love D.C. When I used to go on the road, and back in the day in the 60’s we went on the road by bus, I remember, that’s the way we went. And on the road man, those cats were, “Man we can’t wait to get to D.C.!” I said, “Man what’s up? “Man you don’t know man. This city is bad.”

Well I had never been to D.C. before. We got to D.C. man and—I loved it. We performed at the Howard Theatre in the 60’s. D.C. was such a wonderful, spiritual, cultural place to be. Of course they were talking a lot about the ribs, the best ribs you can get in the country was here in D.C. the place right next to the Howard Theatre everybody used to run to get the ribs back then—I eat ribs still.

I always wanted to live in D.C., it was Chocolate City And that was for real, it was a 100% black city, so cultured, the Lincoln Theater, I mean Bird was playing, it was just a wonderful place to be. So one day I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna live here.’ But really what took me here was a woman. My wife.

I met my wife in Africa, in Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, she was born in America but she had moved there to try to find a job in Dar es Salaam. And I met her in Dar es Salaam and when I came back, I had to come back after summer of course because I was teaching at Brown, she came back to get her PhD at AU. She’s a psychologist, and she was living here and we became friends, and our courtship began really when I left Brown University. I told her I wanted to live here because I wanted to be with my future wife so she was really the one who brought me here.

I’d always wanted to live in D.C. since the days I used to come here on the road, and my father always used to talk about D.C. My father was a showman he used to work in the Howard Theatre too. In the 20’s he used to work in the Howard Theatre. He used to ask me every time, “Robert when are you gonna look at the Howard Theatre, let’s go look at the Howard Theatre.” I said, “Dad I don’t know.” When I worked at the Howard Theatre he was delighted that I finally worked in the Howard Theatre where he used to work. So, I’ve always been attracted to Washington D.C.

Rusty Hassan: What year was it that you moved to Washington, DC?

Brother Ah: I moved here in about 1986.

Rusty Hassan: And what did you find here, how was the music scene when you first moved here? How did that work out for you?

Brother Ah: Well when I first moved here—the first place I played was a club that was on E Street, down on E street, what was the name of that club? It was a nightclub down there… I can’t remember…. Anyway, there was a musician his name was Nasar Abadey and N’Digo.

Rusty Hassan: N’Digo Zaba?

Brother Ah: N’Digo Zaba and Yaya. Anyway I walked in there and played with those cats. It wasn’t the first time I’d played with… and I was just blown away, man. Just the sound, we got South African sound, Yaya and those wonderful rhythms, Nasar Abadey was playing, I was hooked right there. I gotta remember that club. Anyway that was the first time in Washington D.C.

Rusty Hassan: What did you play, the French horn?

Brother Ah: The French horn.

Rusty Hassan: So that was the first time. Did you immediately become part of the scene where you’d be playing at various places?

Brother Ah: Yeah, …God there’s so many things I can’t remember. There was a theater company called… uh, it was a black theater company… do you remember what was going on back in the day with the theater companies? Back then… what was the name of the theater company? Dyson was part of—Lynn Dyson was part of it… Repertoire Theater… Black Repertory—

Rusty Hassan: Was Robert Hooks part of that…?

Brother Ah: No Robert Hooks was in New York. Anyway, it was called Black Repertory Theater. I became their music director. I can’t remember the details how I ended up being the music director, but being there I was able to bring in musicians to play with me and I began to get known around town as a musician by composing and performing at the Black Repertory Theater which was located on Georgia Avenue. But that’s when I began my really regular performances with the theater company. And sessions, you know, giggin’ around.

Rusty Hassan: When we first met you had your album out, Sound Awareness, where did you first record that and how did that come about?

Brother Ah: I recorded Sound Awareness at the insistence of Max Roach. I recorded Sound Awareness… it wasn’t a recording session, I had no intention of recording at all. That music came to me in a vision. Total vision… I was performing…. I was doing Broadway shows back then, as you know, and every night—I lived on Madison Avenue and 94th Street on the corner. I was the only black—well I was on that corner, Sammy Davis Jr. was on 93rd Street, Eartha Kitt was on 92nd Street, we were the only three blacks in the neighborhood. Vladimir Horowitz, who I used to listen to practice, it was a really wonderful neighborhood to be in.

I used to take the bus home every night up Madison Avenue to my apartment, I lived right on the corner. The bus stopped right across the street from my apartment. On my way to my apartment I felt awfully strange. I hadn’t had any drugs, any alcohol, I came from work; I have to tell this story, it’s strange. Maybe I shouldn’t even tell it I don’t know.

Rusty Hassan: Sure, tell it. This is part of your history.

Brother Ah: Ok. So I’m walking across the street, I’m walking up the steps to my apartment, and I looked up, and all of a sudden I find myself on 85th Street and York Avenue. Do you hear me? Do you know where Madison Avenue… I’m walking—with my French horn, I’m walking around… “Where am I?” And I’m asking people, where am I? “You’re on 86th Street.” I was over there, Lexington Ave., I walked up York Avenue, and I’m lost with my horn. And I’m going, “How did I get here?” And I’m walking around and finally I looked up and I’m back in front of my apartment building about a half hour later. Just like that. So, I went upstairs, I lived on the fifth floor, I sat on the edge of my bed, and I heard this music coming to me. Just came to me out of the blue sky. It’s called the Midnight Confession because… “Beyond Yourself,” is the title of the Midnight Confession. I’m hearin’ all this music, in my head.

At dawn, the light came through the window, the sun, and woke me up. So the final piece in this composition is called “Dawn.” I ran to my piano, I played as much as I could remember, melody wise, rhythm wise, and I heard a voice in my head while I was listening to it. So the only singer I knew that could do this would be the sister that was in this musical, and they had two blacks, a woman and a man. Barbara Grant was in there,

I called Barbara it was like dawn right, she’s asleep in bed with her husband. I said “Barbara, you gotta come to my house right away.” She said, “What’s the matter with you, man?” “I heard some music, I hear your voice, you gotta come Barbara.”
She believed in me so much, she got out of bed with her husband, got in the cab, she lived on Western Avenue, drove all the way to my house and said, “What is it? What is it?” I played it. I said, “What do you hear Barbara?” She said, “Well, I hear a string instrument. I hear the cello” in her head. So I said, “I don’t know any cellists.” She said, “I know one.” Her name was Pat Dixon, she’s called Akua now, she was a student… I think she was a student then. So I call Pat up. Said, “What do you hear Pat?” She said, “I hear percussion.” So I said, “Well who?” “Oh Barbara Burton.”

Anyway, I wrote it all out. I scored it. As much as I could, I can’t score, I scored as much as I could. And that’s it, and they heard it… we never rehearsed it, I just scored it I said, “Thanks, thank you, thank you so much.” So, that’s it. They heard it, I scored it. I said, “I’d like to put this on tape.” I said, “but I can’t, what am I gonna do, I don’t have a recording session to myself.” So I had a buddy, who was a French horn player, a white cat who played the horn who lived across the street from me, he taught at Hunter College. I said, “Man, could I record this at Hunter?” He said, “Well you know what I could do, man, you can record it in my classroom. But we’d have to do it… you can’t be discovered.”

So one Sunday, a rainy Sunday, we went down to Hunter College, all of us. Meet him at his class, he said because he can’t be discovered by security he had to do this in candlelight. So, he put candles up, and we started to record this. And it got so strange, that the performers they kind of freaked out, they wanted to take a break, they were not in with it, they were gonna come back or not, but they came back and we finished it.

So that’s it, we recorded it, and put it away. …I’m trying to remember things, there was a sister, who was a director of a theater company again, who wanted me to be their music director, so I put this group together called Sound Awareness. This was my first band, a quartet, three women and myself, these three sisters, Akua—Pat then, Pat Dixon– Barbara Grant, Barbara Burton… that was my first group.

We started performing as a group for a theater company. And I got flak from the men, “Man, you got all these women man, you supposed to be a man with brothers” I said, “They all women, I’m the only brother, so what?” I got flak, we started recording. So I didn’t do anything with that music.

One day, you know I used to hang out, go up to Max Roach’s house, he used to live on Central Park West. I said, “Max, I want you to listen to this Max.” So he’s, “Yeah, yeah” because he used to call me to listen to his stuff he recorded before it was released. So I said, “Listen to this man.” He said, “You got to release this man.” I said, “What? Who goin’—who—who’s gonna…” He said, “You got to release this brother.”

He said, “Well I’m gonna tell you how to do it. The trumpet player and the piano player in my band have a recording company – Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell – called Strata-East. He said, “The only people who recorded out of there are the two of them, nobody else record on there, why don’t you be the third person that records on Strata-East?” I said, “Man I appreciate all this…” He said, “It’s already recorded. It’s no expense, just give them the master.” I said, “You sure Max?” He said, “Yeah man.” So I went down and gave them my master and you’ve seen the album.

Rusty Hassan: I have it with me, we’ve played it.

Brother Ah: Max wrote the liner notes. So he said, “Man, go ahead.” I said, “But Max…” He said, “I’ll do—At some point I’ll do side B.” I said, “Yeah man I don’t know nobody, I’m just a French horn player man, how are we gonna make any sales man?” And they didn’t sell any, really. So I said, “Ok Max I’ll do it.”

So we recorded it. That’s how it was recorded. It was not a planned recording session, it was just music that I thought I had to get out of me and record. When Max came up to Dartmouth… I called Max and said, “Max, you have been rehearsing with M’Boom, an ensemble, for over a year, you’ve never played a gig, why don’t you do your first gig at Dartmouth. I’ll bring you all up, I’ll pay you all.”

So I got a budget together, and brought Max and M’Boom, the first gig they had outside a rehearsal, to Dartmouth. Put them up in the best hotel in town, and we did this piece called—well, I didn’t know, he sprung a surprise on me. We just gonna do half of the concert, all of it was recorded live, was going to be my group of 95, I had 95 students, and then M’Boom.

Max came to me at breakfast the day of the performance, we had a dress rehearsal at noon; at breakfast we were sitting there he said, “Brother I want to do this piece, I know I should have mentioned this to you yesterday in rehearsal, but this is the piece I wanted called “Love Piece” would you do it?” He was surprised I said “Yeah. You got a score?” “I ain’t got no score, I got a script.” So we did this piece called “Love Piece” which you said you didn’t know Max sang that poem, just like that. Had no script, I talked with the guys, my 95 students, so he said, “That should be side B of the piece.” So that’s how it came about. It wasn’t really a planned recording session at all. I would never consider myself a composer, I don’t think I should have been called a composer, you know, it just came to me, I mean you know, in school I didn’t study composition, I wasn’t no composition major.

Rusty Hassan: But since then you’ve done more pieces that are composed; what’s your principle now as you compose pieces?

Brother Ah: Well it just depends. The piece that I call “The Sea” which is one of the latest things we’ve released, that came about the same way the first piece came about. I just heard it sittin’ by the ocean in Jamaica, and all the melodies and rhythms and concepts, the waves all created this in my mind and I wrote it down and composed it that way. Some of them I’m inspired by something in life, everything I’ve done has a meaning. Nobody has inspired me to do it for money. Nobody has hired me to do a recording session, I’ve never had that experience yet. Everything I record comes straight from myself wanting to release something.

Rusty Hassan: In your life in D.C., you’ve also been involved in teaching. Many years ago you taught at the studio school that Marcia MacDonald had, tell us about that experience, because there were some significant students that have since gone on from there.

Brother Ah: Well my first teaching position when I came to DC was at the Levine School of Music. I taught there for six years. They wanted to start a project, an outreach project, about world music. There was a very innovative director of the school then, she’s no longer there, Joanne Hoover was her name. So I went there and I taught voice and I taught some flute and she wanted me to… well let me see let me go back. Before I taught at the Levine School of Music, I put a group together called the World Music Ensemble. When I was at Brown University, this is long, do you want to hear all this stuff?

Rusty Hassan: Yeah, sure.

Brother Ah: When I was at Brown University, I put a student group together with an international concept. The young black girl who played the Japanese instrument called a koto, she made that koto. She’s on one of my recordings at Brown, and I used one of the brothers to play tabla and I played the sitar, back then I studied sitar with an Indian teacher in Boston so I was playing sitar, I had all these instruments.

When I got back, when I got to D.C., I said, “I want to keep that concept going.” Particularly since the Levine School of Music had inspired me to do some international stuff. I put a group together called the World Music Ensemble. I had musicians from Spain, musicians from Japan, I mean these are people who are indigenous to that country, who have studied and learned and who are quite popular in that country. I went to the embassies, I said, “How am I gonna find all these international musicians?” I went to the Japanese Embassy, I said, “I want to find a musician from Japan living in D.C.” I went to the Indian Embassy, I wanted to find an Indian, I went to all these embassies, I had musicians from all over, I even had a Hopi Indian. And finally, I called my first rehearsal. And, it worked.

I had koto, tabla, flamenco guitar… I had all these instruments. And it was Joanne Hoover at the Levine School of Music that wanted me to give my first performance of this ensemble at her school. And I went to the embassies and got a flag of each person in the ensemble, I put their flag up behind us, and I gave my first performance of the World Music Ensemble at the Levine School of Music. And I did an outreach program that the ensemble became my faculty to go to public school systems to teach their particular instruments, tabla, guitar, everybody taught their instruments.

Nana Freepont taught African drums, and I taught my stuff. And that was my first experience at teaching in the public school systems was with the Levine School of Music outreach program. Then I was contacted by… I don’t know who contacted me I guess somebody contacted me to start working with Marcia. I worked at her school with the flutes and the woodwinds, and all the independent black schools called me to work with them so I worked with different independent black schools. African Learning Center was my first school, with Abena Walker.

Rusty Hassan: And you still continue to teach right?

Brother Ah: Yeah I teach mostly children. I teach here privately, trumpet players. My private students here, all trumpet players. Kids, some in elementary school, some in high school.

Willard Jenkins: What do you find are the rewards of teaching children?

Brother Ah: Keeping me young. I mean I learn so many concepts from children. I’m talking about… I’m teaching nursery school children, toddlers as well. Different musical concepts I’ve learned from children, I’ve learned they’ve shared rhythms. At some point in all my classes I asked them to create their own rhythms. I’ve heard some unbelievable… I have on my phone something that you want to hear, you’ll think it was Sun Ra. I shouldn’t have said anything, I should have asked who this was and you would say Sun Ra.

Anyway they shared so many philosophies with me, this one little girl said to me, “Brother Ah, you cannot touch music, but music can touch you.” This is a 5-year-old coming to me. She said, “I’m so touched Brother Ah. You can’t touch music, but music can touch you.” One girl at MacDonald’s school said, “You know, I should take the little children on Florida Avenue.” We used to walk on Florida Avenue. I said, “What?” She said, “I’m walking my class up on Florida Avenue and when they come back to the classroom they have to write down or tell me all the sounds that they heard.” And not only did they say the buses and the horns, they heard birds, they heard all these different natural sounds. They heard insects, I mean they were opening up my ears.

So I learned so much from being around children because I started my career at 5 years old on the bugle. And I’ll show you that bugle. I was a bugle player and I learned the rhythms of animals, as I said earlier, the hoof beats of the horses coming down my street, Dorset Avenue, pulling wagons, lots of animals back in my day on the street.

So I know that children like… I was connected with sounds at five. Why aren’t they—they are! These little children are connected. And I have had the experience of guiding them, putting a form and structure to what they’re doing and making full compositions. Let me show you something. (Gets up and walks around then returns.) Look at these kids. These are my little ones. What a conductor he’s going to be. Look at the expressions. Look how serious.

I mean this is an ensemble. We performed. I perform with children man, I do platform performances with those little ones. So I gain a lot of inspiration from being around children. And to see them progress is unbelievable. And to hear how their parents thank me for sharing the understanding of music with their little ones, because they go home beating on drums and everything man, it’s unbelievable.

Rusty Hassan: You recently got some recordings put together for release, how did that come about to get that material out?

Brother Ah: Let’s see. (Gets up and walks away then returns.) This is just unbelievable man. Look how wonderful they have done this. This is LPs. And these are CDs. How it came about was, again you know, a phone call. I got a call from this company called Manufactured Group, who called me and asked is that open? Is that CD open? Let me get you one that’s open. You know I had released my old albums, Move Ever Onward, Beyond Yourself, Key to Nowhere, you never heard of those? Anyway those are the albums that had been released by… under my own label.

Brother Ah: I have a label called Divine Records. And they made a splash, for a while and a gentleman who’s the head of the company in New York called Manufactured Records Group who liked those records, who loved those records, had called me and asked me if he could release those. So when he called me he said, “Do you have any records, anything you’ve never released before?” I said, “Well let me look in my file cabinet man.” I looked in my file cabinet and I had all these recordings, master recordings, which were never released. He said, “Well can you send us copies of those so we can hear them?” And I sent them those copies and man they loved them. “What!? Can we release these on our label?” I said, “Yeah.” They asked me, “What should we call it?” I said, “Call it Divine Music.” That’s my logo, Divine Music, that’s the logo of my recording company. So, they just called me and asked me to send them, and they loved them, and they released them. I mean I didn’t solicit this. That’s how it came about.

So I contacted my attorney, my attorney happens to be one of my students at Brown University who is now my music legal attorney, he’s handled Count Basie’s band, you know, he’s very good—he made contact with the company in Brooklyn, and they’ve been releasing my works that had never been released before. I recorded them 40 years ago when I had a band, the Sound of Awareness, and just put them in my file cabinet. But God is good man, I mean this is the time. Now it’s making this whole big splash all over the world.

Now they want me to start going on tour again, you know what… I’m going to. I gotta go to my first stop in Philadelphia, New York, New Hampshire, those are the three so far they have got. They want me to put this band together so, I called that same band, we’re all gonna get together and start going on the road in the spring. But this came about by phone call, man, somebody loved my music from the past, wanted to know if I had anything that I’d never released, I said, “Yeah, but it was 40 years ago.” Boom.

Rusty Hassan: For decades now you’ve been a broadcaster on WPFW with the Collectors show. How did that begin?

Brother Ah: That started in New York. I was a broadcaster on WBAI in the 60’s. I had my own show, it was called Dimensions in Black Sounds. Don’t ask me again how they called me, I don’t know.

First of all, they called me, they wanted me to direct a live Saturday afternoon performance. And I can’t remember the name that they gave it… it was a church on 60th Street. They said, “Organize it. It’s free.” So I would organize it every Saturday I would have all the cats come in that I knew. This is a live performance, 2-hour performance on WBAI. Then they asked me to do my own show. So I said, “Ok.” So I had my own show, it was a 1-hour show, it started in the late 60’s or early 70’s.

My first guest was Sun Ra. And I did like I’m doing now, I played their music, and I interviewed them. My second guest was Beaver Harris, a drummer, and then I had Ron Carter, he brought his bass up in the studio. Richard Davis was my guest, I brought all these cats in, who brought their instruments into the studio and we talked about the music and the movement.

Back then the Black Arts Movement was going on, so we talked about the struggles we were going through, the so-called “avant-garde.” So I had all these cats coming through. For 3 and a half years I was on WBAI. That’s really where I started as a broadcaster.

Well I came down here before WBAI was on the air. Ed Love. He had a show on BAI. Well, before WBAI went on the air, we used to have meetings at Love’s place on Ripnow Street. He was then married to Lorne Love…

Rusty Hassan: Before WPFW was on the air?

Brother Ah: Yeah before WPFW was on the air. Before WPFW we had meetings at Ed Love’s house discussing it. Marita Rivera… a whole bunch of people discussing…

Rusty Hassan: About ’76?

Brother Ah: Yeah, I was still at Brown University. I would come down on the weekends for these meetings. So, I used to come down to Aklyn Lynch’s house. Aklyn Lynch used to have meetings, create sessions with Max Roach, all these musicians used to come down to Aklyn Lynch’s house. I used to come down to Aklyn Lynchs’s house and we used to talk about jazz and all that.

Willard Jenkins: So you were hanging here in DC, coming here before you even moved here?

Brother Ah: Yeah, oh yeah. I used to come here for meetings at Aklyn Lynch’s house and WPFW’s meetings. So finally I got this place on Florida Avenue right on the corner there, 18th and Florida Avenue, it was a little store.

Rusty Hassan: A hardware store right?

Brother Ah: Right, that’s where we started. But I wasn’t a broadcaster, I was a supporter. Then finally when they moved down to Chinatown, Tom Porter… I don’t know whether he called me or I called Tom Porter, but anyway Tom Porter and I had a meeting. And I guess he must have known about my broadcasts on WBAI maybe, anyway he asked me to do a show, to write up 10 shows in advance. So I wrote up 10 shows, he liked what I had written about each… So Tom, after I had written up my 10 shows, he liked them, and he said that he’d like me to start a… 1-hour show down in Chinatown there. And I did that, but it was a different format then. I had four guys, because I was teaching… at that time I was teaching at the Smithsonian, I taught at the Smithsonian for several years, jazz courses every Friday night. And 90 people used to come down on Friday to hear my lectures on jazz. And I had live performances there, I had “Don’t Forget the Blues” what’s his name there…

Rusty Hassan: Nap Turner.

Brother Ah: Nap Turner came to the show and I had theater people, I had filmmakers, I had jazz musicians, I had dancers. So for about 3, 4, or 5 years I taught at the Smithsonian.

Willard Jenkins: The Collectors?

Brother Ah: Oh my show, yeah. So at the end of my tenure there, I resigned because of something that really hurt me. I just told them, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” And I’ll tell you something about that, but I stopped teaching there. But before I left, everybody said, “Man you can’t stop this Brother Ah. We come from Arlington, we come from Baltimore, you can’t—“ I said, “What I’ll do I’ll put out a yellow pad, anybody who would like to continue this, write their name down and I’ll try to get another spot but I’m not going to do it here anymore.” So, 90 people ended up signing up so I went to UDC. And I said, “Can I get a space here to do a workshop?” I don’t know what I called it back then, “And I’ll call it the Collectors and I’d like to do it on Friday night.” So they said, “Yes.” So I had the cards printed up and everything that said Friday night, and I forget how I said it, “Friday Night Jazz Collectors” something. So I gave my lectures for over a year at UDC. Got very tight with what’s her name, she moved to Atlanta… Gwen Redding, I got tight with her and another brother up there. So while I was there, when I was offered to do WPFW, I took some of my—I like to call them students but they knew a lot—I asked them to join me on the air: Alex Leek who was also a jazz scholar, Maurice, who was my boyhood friend from the Bronx. I call him “ “, Maurice Ash, and Mike Peay. They were all my “students” or so called. I said, “Can you all join me on the air man? Let’s have the same discussion we’re having here on Friday night on the air?” So I invited them. So four people, called the Jazz Collectors. That’s how I started at WPFW.

Rusty Hassan: So you continued to do… a lot of phone interviews or discussions, you opened it up to the community. How has that worked out for you in terms of broadcasting for WPFW?

Brother Ah: Well the community began to get in touch with me because they knew me because I worked…and I don’t mean by name, because I performed for all kinds of occasions, most of the time for no money, you know, I did everything you name it: weddings and funerals and parties I mean, they would call me because they liked my music so my ensemble would always be available so I became very, very much a part of the community. So many of the community people began to ask me whether or not they can come on my show, and I said, “Definitely. This is a community based radio station, supported by the community, you are the community– how can I deny you coming in? Certainly, this is about community.” So many of the community people still call me and ask can they can share something going on in the community…

Willard Jenkins: As you’ve continued at WPFW, what are some of the primary messages you’ve tried to convey to your listeners?

Brother Ah: Live music. I try to tell people that you must support live music. I say it all the time. You can get a lot from going home and listening always to tapes and records, but you must experience live music—see it and hear it coming out of the musician’s instruments right in front of you. Absorb it. That’s my main message. Live music’s very important.

Rusty Hassan: Separate from the music, about, oh, early to mid-2000’s, we did an interview about a fire you had in your home. What were those circumstances and how was that to recuperate the things that were damaged or whatever because I see you have a wonderful collection of photographs and everything else.

Brother Ah: Well, this house burned down. Every floor, every ceiling, every wire, every pipe, everything in this house had to be… What happened is that the fire was an electrical fire. And I was on my way to pick up my daughter, who at that time was in elementary school, 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I got a phone call from a brother who has a conservatory of music, Holland Jones on Kennedy Street, he called and said, “Man I hate to tell you this but your house is on fire man.” So I was on my way, I turned and made a U-turn and came back here and man there were… this house was ablaze. Fire on the roof, firemen bustin’ up my whole house, I did rescue my dog. I was staying across the street, right across the street looking at my house in flames.

Standing next to me there was a fireman who was in charge of this whole thing. And I said to that little firefighter, he was a short guy, I said man, “I have so much respect. You are a fireman,” because my son used to be a fireman. He was in the fire station right there, the 9th fire house down on Florida Avenue, my son used to be a fireman there. I said, “I have so much respect. You’re so brave.” He said, “What was your son’s name?” I gave him my son’s name, he said, “What? That used to be my roommate. Your son…” he said, “Firemen! Get off the roof! This man’s a musician! Every musical instrument you see in this house, get his instruments!”

They left the roof, they went through my entire house, they took every instrument I had, and laid them on the sidewalk outside and went up and finished fighting the fire. And all my buddies, particularly Holland Jones, they came and took my instruments off the sidewalk and took them away for me, that’s how I didn’t lose one instrument. Some of them needed to be repaired — I’ll show you that drum—my first drum that I played with Sun Ra so far was damaged, he repaired, anything that was repaired… I didn’t lose one instrument. Just by mentioning to the fireman that my son was a firefighter—he was my son’s roommate, dang man they went through my whole house and they took every little instrument I had, nothing got destroyed. We were out two and a half years to get back. And across the street was [drummer] Nasar [Abadey] and his wife.

The Red Cross wanted to find us a place to live, they gave us—we only had what was on us… my wife, my daughter were sitting there crying, all we had was what we were wearing. So the Red Cross gave us vouchers to go to stores to get some clothes, but they said they couldn’t find us a place to live because— or a hotel to go to because we have a dog. So where we gonna stay? Nasar’s wife, went into my neighbor’s house, got on the phone, and found a hotel that would take a dog, up in Bethesda.

After it was all over, we packed up and went to this hotel and signed in. The miracle of it… we had nothing, you understand me? In the morning, we got a call from the lobby, says, “Mr. Northern?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “You got to come out to the lobby and do something man.” I said, “What you talkin’ about man?” He said, “Will you please come down to the lobby right now? We got a problem.” I said, “Ok.” I went down to the lobby, man the community, there was so much stuff in that lobby man. I could not believe it. We had clothes, people left shoes, they left cash money—the Italian people brought Italian food, the German people brought German food, the sisters brought collard greens and black-eyed peas, I could not believe what was in the lobby. From the community! I have a list of people, every single person that left something, every single person that donated to us, I have a list and I’ll never forget it and I contacted each one of them. Brother Bey put on a whole performance for me at Howard University. People, everybody just kind of came to me and supported us.

Willard Jenkins: What, for you, is the overall importance of your radio efforts?

Brother Ah: Well, my brother, I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t know how it happened but—I’d say it’s my ministry. It’s God’s will. I mean, this is not something—even though I took it very seriously, I have a degree in radio, television, and film, from Howard University. Bill Barlow was my teacher. I carry his picture in my brief case, he’s always with me. Right now if I go to WPFW—he’s right there in my bag. He was my teacher, I got a degree, so I took it seriously and I take it seriously. I don’t write scripts anymore, I mean I did script writing and all that stuff, I’d write it down spontaneously, but I went formally through it. It’s my ministry. It’s God’s will, I mean, you know, as a youngster, as a youth, I did not intend to be a broadcaster, that wasn’t in my life, I was going to be a bebop trumpet player.

When WBAI called me and I got into the media, I’m wondering, “What is this… What am I doing? What am I doing here man? I mean why?” So I’ve always been in touch with my spiritual side, I’ve been meditating and praying since I was a teenager, and when things happen in life I always connect it with the spiritual journey that I’m on, which I’m still on, so it’s my ministry, it’s a part of my journey not only as a performing musician or a composer or all of that, but as a broadcaster. That’s God’s mission. I’m just doing God’s will. When I’m in my show when I’m with my music, I don’t know what I’m going to do ‘til it comes to me.

I’ll show you where I sit, that’s where I sit, my shows come to me I’m sitting in that chair meditating, not on what I’m going to do, just meditating, all of a sudden ideas come, the phone calls, somebody calls me, and all of a sudden I say, “Oh man, that’s the show I’m supposed to do.” I don’t know what I’m going to do on Monday. I have no idea what show… ain’t nothing in my brain. Oh I do have a guest, who is gonna come on and talk. But in terms of the playlist, that sometimes comes to me the night before or… it’s a spiritual thing man.

Sometimes Max Roach’s wife might call me, you know I’m very close to his widow, and she’ll start talking about Max and all of a sudden I think, “You know I should do a show on Max.” You know, actually I don’t know, it’s different ways. But it’s God’s will.

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