The Independent Ear

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

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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A Life in music: from Robert Northern to Brother Ah

To jump start the DC Jazz Festival’s archival efforts, last year we received a modest grant from the DC Oral History Collaborative, a joint project of the DC Public Library, Humanities DC, and the Washington, DC Historical Society. Having been an oral historian for years now, with contributions to the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, Weeksville Heritage Center, and Dillard University in New Orleans, I recognize the value of oral history interviews to any archives project. An oral history interview is by design a soup-to-nuts interview that takes the interview subject from his or her family history, to the cradle, and encompasses an extensive examination of the subject’s life; it is a much more nuanced, detailed and exhaustive interview process than the average media interview.

As the administrator of this project it was important to select an experienced interviewer, who in the case of this first DCJF oral history project phase required an experienced interviewer, a role for which we selected DC jazz radio stalwart Rusty Hassan, veteran of nearly 50 years spinning jazz on DC radio stations, starting when he was a student at Georgetown University, and currently on WPFW 89.3FM, DC’s Pacifica station for “Jazz and Justice,” where we both host weekly programs. In the run-up to our targeted series of interviews, the DC Oral History Collaborative provided a series of oral history classes. For this first phase of our project we selected four DC area residents who have contributed indelibly to the fabric of jazz in the Nation’s Capital.

One of our oral history interview subjects was Brother Ah, another of our fellow WPFW programmers and a deep soul whose career as musician-historian-educator and now radio show host (currently heard Monday evenings 8:00-10:00pm). Born Robert Northern, you may have seen the name Robert or Bob Northern on some truly historic recording sessions, though not necessarily as a soloist but as a major contributor to the overall ensemble sound of large ensemble sessions by Gil Evans, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Haden‘s first Liberation Music Orchestra record, among others. As Brother Ah he has also amassed his own varied discography of dates. Where you may know him best is as a French hornist, but he is truly a multi-instrumentalist.

During our interview Brother Ah detailed some of the travails of operating as a black man playing French horn in the orchestral and chamber music worlds, as well as his subsequent forays into the jazz recording studios, though if he’d had his druthers he might have done so as a bebop trumpeter. Rusty Hassan served as the primary interlocutor, and I operated the recording equipment, interjecting occasional questions and follow-ups throughout this lengthy oral history interview. Here’s part one of our interview with Robert Northern aka Brother Ah, with part two to follow shortly.

Brother Ah (aka Robert Northern) Oral History Interview Pt. One

Rusty Hassan: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

Brother Ah: I was born in Kinston, North Carolina, but I grew up in the South Bronx, New York.

Rusty Hassan: Was there music, and musical influences in the town where you were born?

Brother Ah: No. Not in Kinston.

Rusty Hassan: Tell us about your mother and father, and what kind of work they did, and what were their lives like?

Brother Ah: Well, my father was an artist. He was a vocalist. He’s from Hampton, Virginia. My mother is from Kinston. My father’s whole family, all of his sisters and brothers, had an ensemble, a vocal ensemble. They would tour the east coast, for Hampton University, to do fund raisers for the school.
My uncle composed the music for Hampton, so the entire family is very musical. My father did Broadway shows, Shuffle Along, Hello Paris, Deep Harlem … he did several Broadway shows, and he really influenced me. His family used to have rehearsals in our home in South Bronx, and I was just sitting, and listening to them. It was so very beautiful. Every Sunday, all of the children, my brothers and sisters, all my cousins, would all go to my grandmother’s apartment in Harlem, every Sunday. We’d have to perform for our elders.
We would have to perform, on an instrument, or you did poetry. Whatever you did, we’d have to do it for them. After we finished performing for our relatives, they sat us down, and they performed for us, to show us the standard. That was a regular affair. My father really was a great influence.
He worked in Harlem a lot, at different nightclubs in Harlem. During the depression, he could not find work. For a while, he was a singing waiter, in Greenwich Village. He also did the famous night clubs in Harlem, but during the depression, he had to remove himself from show business for a while. He started to working for Consolidated Edison, a gas company, in New York. He worked there for many years, and performed occasionally on the weekend, with his family.

Rusty Hassan: What about your mom? What did she do?

Brother Ah: My mom wanted to be in show business. She could have been a great dancer, but she went into raising five children, so she really didn’t get too far in show business. She worked as a sales person. First of all, she made custom lampshades. While the children were growing up, she would sew by hand, she made silk lampshades, for a factory, but she did it at home. When the children grew up, she became a salesperson in Woolworth’s store, and Grant’s store, in Harlem, 125th street.

Rusty Hassan: What was the musical influence in your neighborhood? In your home when you were growing up?

Brother Ah: We migrated from Kinston, North Carolina to Harlem. Well, I’m saying migrated. We had to leave. My father had a confrontation with a Ku Klux Klan person. The Ku Klux Klan person kicked my father. My father beat him up, and my father’s friends took him, right from that spot to the railroad, and sent him to Harlem, got him out of there, and we all left.
When I got to Harlem, my father was working at the Cotton Club, and he used to come home and complain that the audience was always white. The only black people who were there were the artists, and the dishwashers, and that’s it. He was not happy there. Anyway, we lived near the Harlem River. Back in those days, the Harlem River was clean, so we used to go swimming in the Harlem River, have picnics on the side of the Harlem River, back in the late 30s and early 40s.
There was a wooden bridge back then that crossed from Harlem to the Bronx. My father decided, because Harlem was getting pretty crowded, to move to the Bronx. We first moved to Dawson Street. That’s where I began my musical career, as a five year old, playing the bugle, on Dawson Street. Then we moved to Prospect Avenue, where all the great musicians lived in that area.

Rusty Hassan: Who were you playing the bugle for, at that young age?

Brother Ah: Birds, insects, animals… I used to sit on my fire escape … I’m talking about the early 40s, there were still horses and wagons all over the place, more than automobiles. The hawkers used to come through the neighborhood, selling watermelons, and vegetables, from horses and wagons, and I would have my bugle, and I would imitate all the calls. “Watermelons”… because they were very beautiful chants that they would do. They were selling blueberries, watermelon, so I began to play with them. I began to imitate the barking of dogs in the street. Anything I heard, the birds … I lived on the fifth floor, and I had a fire escape, you know, those iron steps outside of the building.
I’d sit on that, and I started just playing anything that I can hear, I played on my bugle. I really got into that neighborhood … That’s the same neighborhood that Elmo Hope lived in then, and Monk lived in that neighborhood, on Lyman Place. So many great musicians lived in that neighborhood …
Fats Navarro lived over there, Connie Kay… Back in the day, Connie Kay was a shoe salesman, so my father used to buy shoes from Connie Kay, the drummer. Connie was playing occasionally with Lester Young, but he sold shoes, door to door. I reminded him about that, one day. I was doing a rehearsal with John Lewis, he had a large ensemble and I reminded Connie Kay, who was the drummer, that he used to sell shoes to my father.

Rusty Hassan: Did you have any music education in your early schooling?

Brother Ah: In elementary school, I was playing the bugle, and I used to play for assemblies. In junior high school, I went to the trumpet. At nine years old, I got a trumpet, under the Christmas tree. In school I was playing for all the assemblies. My music teachers there, encouraged me to become a musician.

Rusty Hassan: Where did you attend school?

Brother Ah: Well, you know, I did study with Benny Harris. He was my first teacher… My brother knew Benny Harris, my brother who aspired to be a bass player… Benny Harris lived a couple blocks away, he taught me how to hold everything. When I went to junior high school, he encouraged me, too. I was learning his song, man. He had written “Ornithology” for Bird. I was playing Ornithology. He said, “Man, you’re going to be a musician.”
I was in junior high school. I had a Jewish teacher, Mr. Steller, and an Italian woman, two white teachers in a black community, who both supported me. They insisted that I go to a specialized high school, because I wanted to go to Music and Art, because that’s where all the great musicians went. Though I won both auditions, I chose Performing Arts High School, merely because it was close to Birdland. I got in, and back in those days, they wanted to get a … well, not a jazz department. Performing Arts, back in those days, only had classical music. It had three departments, dance, and drama, and music.
Arthur Mitchell, the dancer was there, Diana Sands, who was my neighbor in the Bronx, was studying there, and there were only … They only let six of us in the school. Only six blacks were at that school, and as I was saying, Arthur Mitchell, Diana Sands, myself, John Orr, who’s a bass player now, but he was a saxophone player then. He played alto, in high school. He switched to bass when he got out of high school, and ended up with Monk.
Anyway, it was a very difficult situation, because of the pressure that we had, being black, in an all white school back in those days. I chose that school, not Music and Art, because I liked the location. I went into the High School of the Performing Arts, as a trumpet player. During my junior year, they made an announcement that there’s a rule saying that, one could not play for one’s own graduation. They didn’t realize that they had scheduled the Dvorak New World Symphony, which calls for French horn solos. They only had one horn player, and he was graduating, so he wasn’t able to play.
They came by the jazz band, and asked all the brass players, “Who would like to learn the French Horn, to play the solo in Dvorak New World Symphony?” because the young man could not play. I said, well, I like the sound of it, and I liked how it was shaped. I said, “I’ll try it.” I took it home, and I practiced it very hard, and I played that graduation. I played that solo in Dvorak New World Symphony, on the French Horn.
In the audience, was Mrs. Spofford, who was on the board of directors of the school, and was also on the board of directors for Manhattan School of Music. After the performance, she came to me and said, “Young man, on the strength of that solo you just played, when you graduate from high school, we’re going to offer you a full scholarship for the Manhattan School of Music, because we need horn players.” I said, “What?” There was no way my parents were going to be able to afford sending me to school.
When I graduated, I went over to Manhattan School of Music, and I auditioned for Gunther Schuller, who was the solo hornist at the Met then. Gunther saw my potential, so I got a full scholarship to master in music. That’s how I was able to go to a conservatory, because she gave me a scholarship on the French Horn.
I was still playing trumpet. I was studying trumpet that time, with Frank Venezia, who was a second trumpet player in the NBC Symphony with Toscanini. I was studying seriously, classical music, on the trumpet, and I was studying French Horn with Gunther Schuller.
Both teachers said, “Listen, you’re going to have to make a choice, because of the difference in the mouthpiece, the difference in the horn, difference in pressure. You’re going to have to make a choice.” Since I was at the Manhattan School of Music on a scholarship, of course, I had to stick with French horn. I brought the trumpets, but I didn’t study trumpet.

Rusty Hassan: So you were, in essence, discouraged from doubling?

Brother Ah: Back then, yeah. Both teachers said, because of your embouchure: the trumpet is a cylindrical instrument, the French horn is conical; as a student, I was getting a little bit confused with my embouchure, so I had to make a choice.
I love the trumpet more than the French horn. I wanted to be a bebop jazz trumpet player, you know, and I was being encouraged… I was playing with some very beautiful cats in my neighborhood, who were very good jazz players. There was no jazz on the French horn, back then. Manhattan School of Music made it a point to tell us all, no jazz, no black music, no jazz in this school.
I said, “What?” They said, “No jazz.” That’s, … Back then, Max Roach was in the school, Julius Watkins, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet was in the school then, Joe Wilder, Donald Byrd was in the school… These were all my classmates, and we could not play one note of jazz!

Rusty Hassan: Beyond the musical issue, were there other racial issues?

Brother Ah: No racial issues, at all… everybody was a little upset. Donald Byrd, before even Wynton Marsalis was playing Bach, [Donald] played beautiful Bach on the trumpet. Max Roach was the timpanist. He was very angry, at the time, because they told him he didn’t know how to play. He said, “Man, I played with Bird at Birdland. I don’t know how to play?” “No, you don’t know how to hold the sticks.” This was the percussionist at the New York Philharmonic, his teacher, and he was discouraging Max. Max stayed angry, but Max played timpani.
Joe Wilder played first trumpet in the orchestra, and Donald played second trumpet. Julius Watkins was the horn player in the orchestra. Leonard Goines, Eddie Burt was playing trombone … all classical music. No jazz.

Rusty Hassan: What did you do after you graduated?

Brother Ah: I didn’t graduate … My education was interrupted by military service.

Rusty Hassan: What year was this?

Brother Ah: 1953, I got my draft notice. Everybody in the community got their draft notice.

Rusty Hassan: At that point, what year were you in, at Manhattan School of Music?

Brother Ah: Second year. We all got our draft notices. This is the Korean conflict. In 1953, it was the first time that the military, in the history of the country, was integrated. Before then, it was totally segregated. My brother went in, in ’52, so it was still segregated. He was in the 24th division, an all black division, and he got captured. His whole division got captured, fighting the Koreans, and they took him to North Korea. They called in Chinese acupuncturists, and healed all the brothers. Took him outside, and told him, “You’re going to run back to the 30th parallel,” and they had loud speakers. He said, he’s telling them guys, “When you go back, tell the black man not to come to yellow man, for the white man. We’re letting you go with your life. Tell the black man not to come to fight the yellow man, for the white man.”
So, when my brother got back to the hospital for observation. He wrote me a letter. He said whatever you do don’t come into the army. The time you’d come in, as a drafted person, you’d go directly to Korea. I showed the letter to my buddies. And they said, “What?”
So, nobody wanted to be drafted. We all had our draft notices, so we all decided to volunteer, rather than go into the infantry. Some went to the Navy. I went into the Air Force. Days before I was supposed to be drafted, I went into the Air Force. We all went into the military.
When we got in to the military, it was just as I said. It was the first time they integrated the barracks. Sixty men in the barracks, during training period, open bait. The riots, we had riots. I slept on a bottom bunk. Every time a white guy got in his bunk, he stepped on my face. If it didn’t happen to me, it happened to another.
So, we’re always having battles in the barracks. What was so difficult, they would not give us the first class equipment. They gave brothers defective flare gun equipment, and they were blowing their hands off. They didn’t give us any gloves. Last time, my brother, his whole division got frostbitten. They didn’t give them any gloves. The white soldiers had gloves. They didn’t give me any gloves.
We had to go on marches with full packs, helmet, rifle. We had to go on these runs, these long marches. All of our feet collapsed. That’s what I’m suffering with, today. I’ve been in pain since the ’50s. When I came out, I tried to get compensation from the government. They claim that the medical records got burned up in the fire in Kansas, in the warehouse. That’s what they tell us all.
I’ve applied many times. Nobody would ever give me compensation. My feet collapsed. You cannot go in the military with flat feet, so we all had flat feet. I’m suffering, now … anyway … I went in the military, and had a rough time, during the ’50s.
That interrupted my education at the Manhattan School of Music. When I got out I went back to the Manhattan School of Music. Yeah. I went in the military in 1953, but came out 1957. I went back to Manhattan School of Music. However, even with the GI Bill of Rights, I couldn’t afford the tuition.

Rusty Hassan: What happened to your original scholarship?

Brother Ah: Oh, that changed up. My original scholarship, the lady who gave me that, I can’t remember her name, she had passed, or whatever. I mean everything was different. I had to pay the tuition, and I really couldn’t do it. I talked to Gunther [Schuller], who was still my teacher. I said, “Gunther, I want to go study in New York, man.”
I wanted to study in London, with Dennis Brain, that fantastic hornist. Dennis Brain, the guru of conservatory music in London. I applied. Before I even went over, he got killed in a car accident, trying to get to the next town before the orchestra. He got in a crash. I said, “Gunther, who am I going to study with?” He said, “Go to Vienna.” Professor Gottfried von Freiberg was the solo hornist at the Vienna Philharmonic, also the solo hornist in the Vienna Opera.
I wrote to them. They said, “Well, you have to audition. You want to take that chance?” I said, “Yeah.” I bought a one-way ticket to Vienna, and I went to the conservatory with my horn. There, in the room, was the first chairman of the orchestra, first clarinet, first bassoon, all the first chair men, all around the room, and of course, my teacher, Professor Gottfried von Freiberg. He’s ambushing me. I stood there, with my horn, and I played a transcribed Bach cello sonata, on the horn. They approved me, right away.
That’s how I got into it. I only had a one way ticket. That’s where I met Joe Zawinul. I met all these cats.
I loved the school, but I didn’t finish in Vienna. I got a job. I had a job in Germany. I was a horn player, in the Vienna Philharmonic, in the Weisbaden Symphony, in Weisbaden, Germany. I was playing second horn. I was doing a lot of work, as a freelance horn player in Austria, and I toured around, as a blues singer, to make money. As a student, I had to make some money, so I started singing the blues.
They liked me, so I was going around different parts of Austria, singing the blues. I wasn’t even playing, I was just singing the blues, to make some money. I’ve stayed in Vienna, I loved Austria, I loved Vienna. However, it was interrupted. My father had a heart attack. In the end, he died. He had three heart attacks, and three strokes. My mother said, “You got to come home, Robert.”

Rusty Hassan: What year was this?

Brother Ah: This was in ’58 or ’59, something around there. My mother needed me very badly to help support, and all that, so it was interrupted. So I came back.

Rusty Hassan: At that point, ’58 we’re talking about, had you determined that you were going to be a professional musician?

Brother Ah: Oh, I had already determined that when I was a student. That was my calling. Actually, since I was nine years old, I knew that I wanted to be a musician.

Rusty Hassan: When you got back, to tend to your parents in ’58, did you immediately go to work as a professional musician?

Brother Ah: No. I went to work for Grove Press. I didn’t have any connections. I went to work for Grove Press, and that’s where I met LeRoi Jones – Amiri Baraka- it was his publisher. I had a job there, in the office. That’s my first day job, and I eventually got a call from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. They said they wanted me to join the Met.
I didn’t have to audition. Gunther Schuller, who was the solo hornist, must have recommended me. They needed a horn player for stage bands, to play on the stage, for a Town Hall concert, and, of course, I studied with Gottfried von Freiberg, who was a solo hornist at the Vienna State Opera, and I studied with Gunther, who was the solo hornist at the Met, so I knew repertoire.
They hired me to play French horn and the Wagner tuba. Did you ever hear of that instrument, the Wagner tuba? It’s an instrument that Wagner, himself, invented, for this particular opera. It’s an upright French horn. It looked like a small tuba, with the same mouthpiece. I could play it.
They hired me without any audition, and I played on the stage, at the Metropolitan, the first black, first of all, to play in the orchestra. Here, you go to the Met, you look up there, there’s a little black man, in 1958, playing on the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera.
So, I play at the Met, and I had a rough time with the white guys. That’s a long opera. I would sit in the back, resting, and a guy would come by and kick me, kick me in my ankles, and kicking me, all over my legs, and I didn’t want to get violent, even if I’m from the South Bronx. I just took it, right? I stay at the Met, and took that crazy …Georg Solti, was the conductor. I played with some wonderful musicians, however, it was very, very difficult to go to work.
Eventually … they had an opening for the orchestra, itself. I was on the stage there. There was an opening in the orchestra, and I said I’ll audition. I knew I wasn’t going to get it. I left the Met, and again, was unemployed. Several of us, who can play jazz and classical music, we couldn’t even find out where the auditions were.
I’m talking about Richard Davis, a whole bunch of us… Arthur Davis. A bunch of us who could play both… The Urban League called a meeting. We had a group called the Society of Black Composers, and we had a little orchestra. The cats in that orchestra, we played both classical and jazz.
They said to us, “Don’t worry, we’re going to find out where the auditions are. Don’t worry. Just be ready to go, because you might not have much time, except to grab your horn, and get down to the audition.”
One day, I got a call. “Man, there are auditions for a position at Radio City Music Hall.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah.” I did exactly what he anticipated. I grabbed my horn, jumped in a taxi, shot down to Radio City Music Hall, and there were about 15 horn players for that job. Everybody was surprised to hear this little young man, a black French horn player… They didn’t know about Julius [Watkins]. I wasn’t the first black horn player. Julius was around.
I got on the end of the line, and they didn’t know who I was. They kept them all a couple of minutes…finally … I got in. They kept going into the library, pulling up the most difficult pieces of music they could pull up. I played each one of them. They didn’t know that I’d studied with Professor von Freiberg, and I was studying with Gunther Schuller. They didn’t know I knew the repertoire. Everything they threw, I played. They had to give me the job.
They gave me the job, so I became part of the orchestra. I can’t remember the year. It was early 60s, when nobody in that building was black. No black ticket takers, no black ushers, no black Rockettes, no blacks in the ballet… no black stagehands. The only blacks in the building were two or three people who worked in the cafeteria, and I was the only other black man, and I was in the orchestra.
It was very rough. I had to go to work, and say I did four shows a day, and during the holidays, five shows a day, and hardly anybody would talk to me. On opening mornings, opening days, rehearsals started at seven a.m. We’d all go to the cafeteria. Everything is included in that building. In the cafeteria, everybody would be there for breakfast, the Rockettes, the ballet, the orchestra, everybody, and it was so crowded. I got my coffee, and sat down. Do you know, I had an empty table… nobody would sit with me.
They would stand up, balancing their coffee. I’d have three other chairs, totally empty. Even the guys in the orchestra, man, nobody would sit with me. For three and a half years, I went … I had to go through this pressure. I’d go … Well finally, they had one other black in the orchestra, he was a violin player on the other side of the pit, Winston Collymore. He played the violin. They hired him, so we had one black on one side of the pit. I was on this side of the pit. They finally hired two singers in the choir, in the chorus. One male, one female. That’s it.
None in the Rockettes, none in the ballet. Only two in the orchestra. No stagehands, no ticket takers, no ushers. For three years, I was having pressure. Finally, after three years, they said, we got into film, the Christmas show, which we do every year.
There was a recording studio above Radio City Music Hall. They said that we’re going to let you know the date. I think they gave us the approximate month, but not the date. We got closer to that month, and I said to the contractor, I said, “Listen, man. When is it? … I don’t want to miss this.” He looked me in my eye, and says, “You’re not going to play.” I said, “What?”
So they hired an outside white guy who I was freelancing with this guy. I knew all the horn players, Buffington…. This guy was named Ray. They hired him, and I say, “Ray…” He couldn’t care less. He came and I went home sick. Literally. I went home. My pressure went up. I was in the bed, sick.
They said they wanted to record the music first, before they filmed it. After they filmed this recording, they called me, and they said, “Okay, you can come in, now. We’re going to start filming the show. We want to do a close up of you, to show that Radio City Music Hall’s integrated.”

Rusty Hassan: After they started filming?

Brother Ah: They wanted to shoot the film, and they wanted to have a closeup of me in the film.

Rusty Hassan: Wait, now. You said initially, they didn’t want you in the film.

Brother Ah: They didn’t want me at the recording.

Rusty Hassan: In the recording?

Brother Ah: Yeah. They didn’t want me on the recording. When they started the film, they wanted me in the film, to show that Music Hall is integrated, even though it was only two. So, of course, that’s when I resigned. I quit right then. Right in his face. That’s how I left the Music Hall.

Willard Jenkins: What year was this?

Brother Ah: It must have been ’63.

Rusty Hassan: What were some of your other early professional music affiliations?

Brother Ah: Well, at that time, I was blessed. In 1959, again, my real goal in life was to be a jazz trumpet player, not a symphonic horn player, even though I was getting more work, as a symphony player. I was in symphony, yeah, when Toscanini passed away. Stokowski took over the orchestra.

Rusty Hassan: Toscanini was in Town Hall.

Brother Ah: Yeah. Stokowski took it to Carnegie Hall, and it was called A Symphony of the Air, I think. Anyway, I got a call to join the orchestra, under Stokowski. I walked into the 9:00 rehearsal, in Carnegie Hall, and as I walked with my horn, half the string players walked off the stage. They wouldn’t play with me.
Stokowski, he just stood there… I watched him walk off. I mean, I had been through it. A previous example I’ve experienced like this, when I was just back actually, when I was just back from Europe, I got a call from a contractor, who was a musician in the New York Philharmonic. He says, “Your name Bob Northern?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “I hear you’re a good horn player. We have a summer symphony in Ocean City, New Jersey. It’s a summer orchestra, and only one horn player, and you were recommended to play in that orchestra.” The whole summer. They said, “You’ll have your own apartment.”
I said, “What?” I was unemployed. I said, “What? Wonderful.” He said, “Bob we’re cutting out. The bus schedule is such, that when you arrive, we would have already started rehearsing, so you’re going to be a little late for the rehearsal, but we’ll wait for you, anyway. We’re going to have a trumpet player meet you at the bus station.”
I took the bus to Ocean City, got off, man, happy. I got a job for the summer. It was my first summer. This was the summer of ’58. This was my first summer time, from Europe. I played all over Europe. Germany, France, I mean, I played all over Europe, no problems, everywhere I went.
I got off … The guy met me, and I saw a funny look on his face, but I didn’t … so I was telling him I’m late, so I got my horn, I’m opening up my case, to get my horn out, and I got a tap on the shoulder. He says, “The manager of the orchestra wants to see you, upstairs.” I said, “What? Why? Okay.” I figured it was something … Okay. I went upstairs, I said, “Hello, my name is Bob Northern.” He says, “You’re not going to play.” I said, “What?” Sorry. You’re not going to play.”
I said, “You’ll only have one horn player. They’re waiting on me. I’m not going to play?” He said, “No. You’re not going to play.” I still couldn’t get it … I said, “Well you know, I didn’t audition, but I can play the horn. Do you want me to play it for you?” He said, “No. You’re not going to play, period.” I didn’t have any money to get back to New York.
I was actually … I was going to ask him for some money to sustain me, until I get my first paycheck, and I was broke. I had enough money to get there. I had to go to all the guys in the orchestra, to ask for some money. They didn’t know me. I said, “Man, can I have my money, man? I got to get back to New York.” They didn’t know me, and here, I’m begging the cats to give me money just to take the bus back to Manhattan.
Finally, the guys chipped in. It hit me, then I thought I wasn’t hired because I was black. They chipped in, so I was able to take a bus back to Manhattan. Back then, thank God Gunther had an in with Nat Hentoff, who was writing for the Post.

Willard Jenkins: This was before Nat was at the Village Voice?

Brother Ah: Yeah. He was working for the Post. Gunther told them, “Tell that story to Nat Hentoff.” I told … Hentoff wrote a whole article in the Post. He said, “You got to go to the union at this point.” So, I went to the union. I was in 802. They said, “Man, we can’t help you. This took place in Jersey. You got to go to the Jersey union.”
So I went to the Jersey Union. They said, “No. We can’t help you.” They gave me this runaround. Nat wrote the whole thing up in the paper. It didn’t do any good, but he wrote it up. He was such a beautiful person. He said, “I’m going to give you a job, man,” because I was broke. He says, “You come to my house, my apartment, every week, and help me keep my studio neat.”
He writes, he’s got record interviews, he’s got records all over the floor, his books are all over the place. He said, “You just come every morning, and put my stuff back, in alphabetical order, on the shelf, and I’m going to pay you.” That was my first job, my very first job coming from Europe. Nat Hentoff hired me to come every day, just to help me. That was my first job, outside of the music.

Rusty Hassan: You just mentioned the unions. When you were working with the Metropolitan Opera, and Radio City Music Hall, and then this supposed opportunity came up in New Jersey, were you being compensated at a union rate, or were you being compensated, the same, as the other non black musicians, in those orchestras?

Brother Ah: Well, let’s put it … My first job offer was Jersey, then my second job was with Nat Hentoff. From then, my non-music job, was at Grove Press. Okay. All of the other jobs I did, as a musician, I was paid union scale. Of course back then you had to audition. I had to go in there, all the great players, all the great French horn players, in New York symphonies, and I had to audition to prove you’re a professional. I passed the union audition, and from that point on, all of my jobs were union jobs.
I worked with a lot of great people, and they never paid me on the scale. They always paid me above it. For the first couple years, I played jobs at the union scale. After that… I’m talking about Tony Bennett… I’m talking about Lena HornePeggy Lee. All the great artists that I worked for, always paid me more than the scale.

Rusty Hassan: At that time, what was the union scale?

Brother Ah: Well, it depended upon the venue. Union scale was different. If you played in the symphony, it was more money than you pay for jazz. If you played in a place like Birdland, it paid more than the small joint up in Harlem, even though Harlem had its own union. There were two unions, back then. The black union in Harlem, and … I was in the union downtown. The scale changed if you were playing for dances … when you were playing for a nightclub, so the scale changed. There was no steady scale for all jobs. Every job had a different scale.

Rusty Hassan: You just mentioned some studio affiliations. When, and how, did you become a studio musician, playing the French horn?

Brother Ah: Well, in 1959 I was called by Gil Evans. Now I had not ever recorded, before ’59. Never ever recorded. Gil Evans called me, and said that he needed a French horn player for a session … Yeah it was ’59, and when I had come to the studio, and I had never recorded. Of course, I never turn anything down. I said, “Yeah. I’ll be there.”
I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even know … I knew [Evans’] name, but I really didn’t know his music. I walked into the studio, and I forgot the name of the studio …it was Jimmy Cleveland, Johnny Coles, Steve Lacy, all these wonderful cats, man. I walked in, and introduced myself to Gil. That was my very first recording session.
That was my very, very, very first recording session. The album was called “Django”. I think that’s the name of the album. The song I was featured on, as the horn player, was Django, a very delicate piece. Very high horn register. Very soft, very delicate. I was able to do it. Gil said he wanted me to be in his first band. He had not ever had a band, since he left Canada. He was in the Claude Thornhill band.
He’d come to New York, he had been composing for Bird, and for Miles, but he never had his own band. He wanted to get his own band together, for the first time. He asked me to be in his band. That was my first job, first recording session… and first steady job … I’m thinking back, because … My first steady job, in a band. I’m thinking back, because I cannot forget Sal Salvador. Sal Salvador was really the first cat that I went on the road with, when I got back to New York.
I don’t know whether you know how we’ve lived in New York, but we all went to each other’s rehearsals. We’d go to each other’s recording sessions. This is all over the place, man. Back in the ’50s, ’60s was unbelievable. I used to go to rehearsals. Sal Salvador … I don’t know how I met Sal. I think I went to one of his rehearsals, just to listen to the rehearsal. He wanted a French horn player, and I said, “I play the horn.” He says, “Yeah? Bring the horn to rehearsal.” He liked my playing, so I joined Sal Salvador’s band. I forgot about Sal Salvador. That was the first band I joined, jazz band.

Rusty Hassan: What was the instrumentation?

Brother Ah: Trombones, trumpets, saxophones, just a regular band, but he wanted that French horn sound. It was a large band. Big band. We went on the road … I hung around … I would go to rehearsals, to recording studios, just hanging around. Musicians were just hanging out, to make yourself seen. You don’t sit home. You go out, with your horn, and you go everywhere, until somebody recognizes you. That’s how guys got started. Gil Evans wanted me to join his band, which was with Steve Lacy, and I don’t know these guys.

Rusty Hassan: Let’s go back a second. That first session you did with Gil. You say you made a recording called Django. Is that still in circulation?

Brother Ah: I don’t know. I have it. Of course, I have it in my collection. I guess it is. I don’t know.

Rusty Hassan: This was a full-length album?

Brother Ah: Yeah. I have it on vinyl. I don’t know whether it’s on CD, but I’ve got the vinyl [Gil Evans, “Great Jazz Standards”]. This is the same copy he gave me, back when we recorded it. That was a wonderful experience. Thank God for Johnny Coles, who sat behind me, because I was scared. When I walked in, and I saw that French horn part… If you have never heard it, you’ll hear that delicate French horn part. Johnny Coles sat behind me. He kept saying, “Breathe, Bob, breathe.” He would keep me breathing and relaxing. Johnny Coles talked me through the session. Thank God for Johnny Coles. We became buddies. So I got in the band.

Rusty Hassan: Gil’s band?

Brother Ah: Gil Evans’ band. After we did the recording session, he called me and said, “We want you down there to open up in Birdland.” I said, “Yeah. Birdland? Yeah, man.” My heart filled, because when I was a teenager, I used to go to Birdland to listen to Charlie Parker, … Diz … all those cats. We used to know … My buddies used to come down from the Bronx, and they had a section … I don’t know whether you’ve been to Birdland … You been to Birdland, back in the day. They had a … called a bleacher section. Birdland’s like tables and chairs, where they can feed people, and it’s a whole section with just chairs, where you didn’t have to buy food or drink. You can just come and listen to the performance, and just sit. Nobody would bug you. I used to sit there, as a teenager, and look at Charlie Parker, and dream, fantasize, myself playing with Bird up there. When I got to play in Birdland, with Gil Evans, I’m sitting on the stage, and I’m looking at where I used to sit, as a teenager. Oh man, it blew my mind.
We were playing opposite John Coltrane, and Miles, and all those cats. I was there. It was a wonderful thing. When we got up, Trane and Miles was up there, so I got a chance to hear them every single night, and meet them, and talk to them, and listen to them, and have conversation with them, in Birdland, the mecca.
I’m looking at where I used to sit, and I’m blowing, man. I said, “My God, talking about dreams and visions coming true.” I would never have thought. Then, I sat in that same thing with Duke Ellington’s band.

Rusty Hassan: How many pieces were in Gil’s band at the time?

Brother Ah: Let me see. Chuck Wayne, guitar, Steve Lacy on saxophone, soprano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, Uh-oh, I shouldn’t mention that, because he got fired. I think there was Jimmy Cleveland, Buell Neidlinger, on bass, myself on French horn, Johnny Coles and, two drummers… Yeah. Ten or 11 pieces, a small band, not a big band.

Willard Jenkins: Did you do sessions with Gil and Miles?

Brother Ah: Yes. That’s one right there [points to “Miles Davis All-Stars and Gil Evans.”] That’s a Gil and Miles session right there.

Willard Jenkins: What was the interaction like, with Gil, Miles, and the other musicians in these ensembles?

Brother Ah: Well, I first met Miles at a rehearsal, with Gil Evans. Nat Hentoff was there, I guess observing, and going to write an article about it. Nat came to me, and said, “Hey Bob, have you ever met Miles?” I said, “No, man. I’ve been listening to him since I was a kid. I saw him play in Birdland with Charlie Parker, but I never met him.” He says, “Well, do you want to meet Miles?” I said, “Yeah, man.”
So he called Miles over, and Miles, that day, was playing a horn that was colored blue. It was blue. It wasn’t the brass color that … It was a blue instrument. Miles came … I didn’t know what to say … Miles came. Nat said, “Come on, Miles, I want you to meet Bob Northern.” He says, “Yeah, man.”
I said, “Man, that’s a beautiful blue horn.” He said to me, “I had a curse on this… He said, “I’m blue.” I said, “What?” He said, “I’m a blue motherfucker.” I said … Took my hand, he looked at my hand, like it was poison. I said, “Can I have it back?” I said, “My God, that’s Miles.” That’s how I first met Miles. However, when we were playing in Birdland, I was at this table, with Gil Evans; opposite us was Miles’ band, with Trane, and all them beautiful cats, man.
One evening Miles came in, and his valves in his horn were sticking. He needed oil. He went to the brass players in Gil’s band. Nobody had oil. He finally had to come to me. He didn’t want to come to me. He finally says, “Bob, do you got any oil, man?” I said, “What?” He said, “Bob.” I said, “What?” “You got any oil, man?” I said, “Go in my case, get my oil, and don’t forget to put it back.” I walked away. From that time on, Miles and I got along. We really got along, after that.

Rusty Hassan: Describe your first Gil Evans arranged session, that you made with Miles Davis.

Brother Ah: Like I said, when I walked in the door, I saw seasoned musicians. This was my first recording session. I was actually very nervous. I only knew Gil Evans’ music from years ago, when I heard the music he did for Miles, back in the day, “Budo,” and you know, all those tunes.

Rusty Hassan: The Birth of the Cool, yeah.

Brother Ah: Birth of the Cool. I knew that … so, I knew his name, and I knew what he did, back then. The French horn player he used back then was …Gunther Schuller, my teacher, played on a couple of tracks, so I knew about him. I had no idea that I would some day play with him. I was nervous, all the way around.
As I said, I was only relaxed by Johnny Coles showing me how to breathe, and how to take the challenge, because it was a challenge, that music, for a horn player. Particularly, that particular track called “Django,” which was composed by John Lewis, and arranged for Gil’s band. I got through it, and I got through the whole session, as I said, and didn’t know that I was being appreciated that much, but I was.
The guys in the band complemented me, Johnny Coles, and Jimmy Cleveland, and all the cats came to me, and said, “Man, you sure played the horn … I don’t know why they didn’t call Julius Watkins. I didn’t know, because Julius was the man. I mean, he was my mentor, man. God have mercy. Julius was the jazz French horn player. I was a French horn player, but I was a jazz trumpet player. I really wasn’t getting into the … I wasn’t called a lot to play a lot of solos. Julius was. Whenever I did a session with Julius, Julius took all the solos. I never got the solo, except when I was with Quincy’s band … Actually, I substituted for Julius, in Quincy’s band. I played solos, of course, because it was there for Julius to play.
I played solo with other cats, but Julius was the greatest jazz French horn player, and I still don’t know, to today, why didn’t they call Julius. Julius played through that stuff. Somehow, my name came up, and they wanted me. It was a wonderful experience. It was my first experience. From then, I was able to do lots of different recording with everybody, because I was able to interpret his music.
I was a good interpreter of everybody’s music. They knew me, because whatever you wanted, man, I would study, I would study, and I would be able to interpret this type, because of my training. When I played Mozart … I could interpret Mozart, you don’t play Wagner the same way you’d play Mozart. You don’t play contemporary music of Debussy, the same as you would play a Beethoven, a German composer.
Since I had lived in Europe, I can play German composers very well. I lived and worked in Europe, as a French horn player. I could play Brahms. I know Brahms. I could play Debussy. You really can’t play European music, unless you’ve been to Europe. You can’t play French music, unless you’ve been to Paris. I really couldn’t deal with playing La Mer, and the music of Debussy, until I went to Paris, or once I understood French music. I understood jazz, and I understood all these different composers, man.
They knew I could interpret their music, because I was into interpreting their musics. It’s your music, not mine. I’m going to play your music, man. Same, when I first got a call from Wayne Shorter. I did Wayne Shorter’s very first session, as an arranger for Freddie Hubbard. Wayne called me. I said, “Man, come on, man. This is my very first time I’m going to compose, Wayne’s music, and I’m using the French horn,” he knew nothing about that instrument. I worked with him. I work with all these different composers, some of them didn’t know. They’d call me… that’s the guy.I helped a lot of cats, that I worked with, that I recorded with, because they didn’t know how to write for horn.

Rusty Hassan: How did you get the call for the Thelonious Monk Town Hall concert?

Brother Ah: Again, again, it’s a mystery, how I got the call. As I said, man, there’s Julius. I figured he should do all of it. I just love Julius. He was my roommate on the road. We went on the road a lot, different bands. I love that brother, man. He was a fantastic horn player. I think, and I’m just saying think, maybe it’s because of my sound. I had a different sound on my horn than Julius. I had a … I don’t know how to call it. Playing the symphony orchestras, playing Mozart, playing different style of horn, I had created a different tone.
It must have been my tone, that I got the call. I got the call from Hall Overton. “Bob, we need you to play a concert with Monk.” Now, I knew Monk’s music. Monk was in the neighborhood. When I used to play basketball, in the playground, Monk used to come out. All those musicians watched us play basketball; all the cats. Fats Navarro used to be out there watching. Everybody liked to see the … Monk would roll his piano out to the playground … out of the community center. P.S. 99 was the playground … an elementary school in the Bronx, on Seventh Avenue. Monk would go in, and roll the piano out there, and play, while we were playing basketball.
When we played stick ball, he watched us play stick ball. I got to know Monk’s music. I knew his music. I think they liked my sound. I think, really, that’s what it is, because again, I don’t know why they didn’t call Julius. That’s the rehearsal, right there, with Monk. Rehearsals started at three o’clock in the morning.

Rusty Hassan: Three o’clock in the morning?

Brother Ah: Yeah. That’s when we started.

Rusty Hassan: And where did you rehearse?

Brother Ah: It was in a loft, on 39th street. Somewhere down in the 30s. It was in a loft. The guy was a photographer, that owned a loft.

Rusty Hassan: Herman Leonard?

Brother Ah: No. Not Herman. I know Herman. No. It’ll come to me. It was in a loft. It was just cats, man. As I said, they said that, because everybody was working, at the night club, nobody got off of work until two o’clock in the morning. It’s no sense trying to have it earlier. After everybody finished work, we’d end up at Monk’s rehearsal. We didn’t get out until seven o’clock in the morning. We’d be there all morning, rehearsing. When we left, it was daylight.

Rusty Hassan: Talk about the interaction between Miles Davis and the musicians at the sessions with Gil Evans.

Brother Ah: Miles didn’t have much interaction with anybody in the orchestra. Except when Trane was in the session. He would talk to Trane and the guys in his small group, but in a large ensemble he didn’t have much interaction with us. He didn’t speak much. You know I sat next to him, right there, so we had some interaction because I’m sitting right next to him, you know he sat there, he didn’t move around much, he didn’t talk much.

Willard Jenkins: A little bit later came the Africa/Brass session with John Coltrane, tell us how that worked out.

Brother Ah: Well, Trane called me himself. I truly didn’t believe it was Trane. I said, “What you talkin’ about man?” So I knew him you know, because of working with Miles and he was always around and we did Birdland, I saw him every night and I’d have a conversation with him between shows. But I didn’t know, you know, he was going to call me. So he called me, and not only asked me to play but afterwards asked can I help him organize this brass section for the gig and gave me that responsibility. I said, “Dang, he don’t know me that well,” but he did. So I told him, “Yeah man I’d love to do that. Wonderful.” And, uh, I know I would see him on different occasions. Like I used to play in the symphony orchestra at the YMHA, every Sunday morning some of us would go who’d love to play jazz. Like Eric Dolphy would always go to those rehearsals anytime there was a composition that we were going to perform for bass clarinet, Eric would be there because Eric wanted to learn all the repertoire for bass clarinet. And I would always look out and there Trane was sitting out there, listening to rehearsals. He never played with the band, he and his wife would sit there on Saturday mornings. So I knew him, and he knew me by sight and I said, “Yes my brother I will definitely do that.” So that’s how I got the personal call from Trane.

Rusty Hassan: And what was it that contrasted the rehearsal sessions that he had with maybe Gil Evans or with Monk in terms of how he approached the music?

Brother Ah: There were no rehearsals with Trane. No rehearsals. We had no idea what we were going to play. We didn’t know anything, we just got the date and the time and we did it at Rudy Van Gelder’s [studio] out in Jersey. So we didn’t know anything. Because Trane essentially just wanted to use just instrumentation and we got – jeez who was it? I think Freddie Hubbard was on there. I can’t remember all those cats that were on there. I think it was Freddie. Anyway, it was a wonderful group and didn’t know what we were going to do.

Willard Jenkins: There’s a certain point, in Africa where it’s obvious that the horns… the brass section is playing in the manner of elephants.

Brother Ah: That’s what I asked him. I asked him I said, “Trane, what you want me to do?” “Be an elephant man.” And I told him, at that particular time the only elephants I’d ever seen had been in the zoo. I had no idea, you know. So he told me to sound like an elephant. So that’s what I would do. I was doing all these different sounds at his request to get that part of the ensemble sounding like Africa. That’s how I played.

Rusty Hassan: What was Coltrane like as a leader for a session like that?

Brother Ah: He’s a gentle spirit man. Very, very, very, very gentle spirit. He didn’t run the session, the session was directed by Eric Dolphy, and Cal Massey. But it was mainly Eric Dolphy that was in charge of the session and we got… the session was called at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We were there, most of us were there with bells on man, can’t wait. 2 o’clock. 5 o’clock. 7 o’clock. 9 o’clock…

Trane didn’t walk in until midnight. We had all been sitting around since 2 o’clock, you know. Trane walked in with Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones… yeah I guess the three of them came in together. And literally the music, the written music was almost wet. And we were all sitting around, Cal Massey went to sleep. You know, he stretched out, went to sleep. So we were just waiting for Trane and he walked in and we all got ready to roll man and that’s how it started – it essentially started at midnight. And Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio had no windows – at all. So we didn’t know, we didn’t realize the sun had come out, we took a break around 7 o’clock and looked outside and the sun was — Oh my God, we had no idea. We got lost, totally lost in this music man. Nobody asked for a break. Nobody complained, we all were just in another world. And it wasn’t until we went out for a break at about 7 o’clock did we realize we had been there all night. It was a wonderful experience.

Willard Jenkins: Eric Dolphy was, in essence, the conductor?

Brother Ah: Yeah, he conducted most of the tracks. In fact, he conducted all of them except one. Cal Massey conducted one of his compositions, “The Damned Don’t Cry.” Otherwise, Eric conducted the whole session.

Rusty Hassan: In addition to doing these tremendous recording sessions, you had other work with popular jazz singers, and you mentioned George Shearing. Who were some of the more mainstream pop artists that you worked with over the years?

Brother Ah: Oh many. I mean I worked with many great – well I don’t know if you’d call Ella Fitzgerald a pop artist, but I worked and performed with Ella and it was wonderful to go to work every night with Ella Fitzgerald. We worked at a place called… The Americana Hotel on 6th Avenue and I did recording sessions, that was one of my greatest moments too when I got a call from Benny Carter. Yeah it was something one day man, Benny Carter asked can I come down to the Americana right away, I don’t know if the French horn player they had had gotten sick or what but Snooky Young, a trumpet player, was in their band and Snooky still needed a horn player immediately. Snooky Young, who I worked with a lot, told Benny Carter to call me. So I’m sitting home, Benny Carter said “Right away man, please, we need a horn player. It’s a session with Ella Fitzgerald, all strings and one horn, you. Only one French horn, and only strings.” I said, “What!?” I got down there walked in and there I was, I’m the only horn player there. Ella and the great Benny Carter, who used to know I was a trumpet player, I used to be a trumpet player when I was coming up. So that was a great pop singer. I worked with Johnny Mathis. You know, on and off for five years with Peggy Lee. I was her favorite. French horn was her favorite instrument. So I was with Peggy Lee for about five years, Tony Bennett on and off for about four years. Matt Monroe, I think he was a Canadian singer. Lena Horne. I mean so many man, I can’t remember all of them – a lot of pop singers. Mostly in nightclubs and concerts.


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Allan Harris mines the Eddie Jefferson legacy

Pittsburgh’s own soulful baritone, Allan Harris, has led a rich and varied career. No stranger to accepting vocal challenges, Allan has embarked on all manner of projects through the throughly productive artistic partnership he has established with his wife and manager Pat Harris – ranging from numerous iterations of the Great American Songbook (including putting a jazz flavor on the R&B chapters in that endless book), to his deep exploration of the still little-known history of the Black Cowboy in America through his Cross That River project, which has morphed from a recording to a stage production. For his latest challenge Allan has just released a tribute to the late, great jazz vocalese pioneer Eddie Jefferson. On Tuesday, June 12th he will play that project at the DC JazzFest on an evening at the Hamilton in downtown DC (for complete DC JazzFest information visit: Clearly some questions were in order for the intrepid Allan Harris.

Given your many projects, notably including your black cowboy saga “Cross That River,” which has morphed from recording project to stage play, what led to your deciding to fete the legacy of Eddie Jefferson?

Having studied and performed the music of a myriad of America’s well known crooners and stylists from Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine,Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra even Brooke Benton and Arthur Prysock, I felt that I had more than mined the American Songbook. Plus, now that I am entering a more seasoned stage of my career as a story teller, I felt like my growth and vocal prowess was reaching a plateau bordering on stagnation. In other words to use the old adage, ‘been there done that!’ Delving into the Eddie Jefferson Songbook added an exciting new dimension to my lyrical and melodic knowledge as a performing vocalist, especially in the arena of Jazz Vocalese.

Eddie Jefferson recording studio scene: l to r Ralph Moore, Allan & Pat Harris, Richie Cole, producer Brian Bacchus, Eric Reed

What is your sense of the art of vocalese, and is there some sense that Eddie Jefferson has never really gotten his due for that genre?

To pair one’s prose and poetry to those who have put their stamp on some of the greatest solo’s in the jazz cannon takes a lyricist who not only understands and feels what the soloist is saying, but also knows how to marry their words to the story without losing the composer’s vision of the tune. Eddie Jefferson, as I now have come to understand, was a genius in staying true to the vision of these giants of Jazz. Unfortunately I allowed my prejudice of his not-so-smooth sounding vocals over-shadow his unbelievably hip and precise stories. Eddie Jefferson was an unsung man of letters.

Just curious, but the song that really put Eddie Jefferson on the map was “Moody’s Mood For Love,” his vocalization of James Moody’s instrumental approach to the standard “I’m in the Mood for Love,” a tune that for a time was incorrectly credited to King Pleasure, who actually stole the piece from Eddie. Given that touchstone in Eddie’s career, what made you determine not to address “Moody’s Mood” on this record?

Having performed his landmark tune Moody’s Mood For Love often enough to deliver it while standing on my head, I felt I had no need to revisit it again since I had included it on my last recording, Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better. I wanted to stretch my creative membrane and continue to grow as an artist which is why I ventured into the camp of Eddie Jefferson.

Allan Harris and Brian Bacchus in the studio with Eric Reed and Willie Jones 111

How did you and producer Brian Bacchus go about selecting the material for “The Genius of Eddie Jefferson”?

I had such an advantage in choosing the songs for this project. First off my producer Brian Bacchus is a huge Eddie Jefferson fan and choosing pianist Eric Reed to arrange and play on the session was a no-brainer because we had performed a concert of Jefferson’s music years ago in the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Brian, Eric and I had several long and passionate discussions on Skype about choosing the songs…everyone had their favorites. The songs that ended up on the recording were all songs that we felt strongly about doing. The last one, Waltz For A Rainy Bebop Evening was one that Brian really wanted me to do. This tune was composed by Eddie Jefferson’s long standing sax player and friend Richie Cole. It was added during the last moments of the session, and Eric Reed brilliantly put an impromptu arrangement on it and it has now become one of my favorites on the project. I have worked with Brian on my last two projects, Black Bar Jukebox and Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better, so we have a groove in the studio which helped me ease my way into the swinging yet intricate book of Eddie Jefferson.

Talk about the musicians you worked with to realize this Eddie Jefferson project and why you felt they were apropos for this record.

I knew that the only pianist I wanted to do this project with was Eric Reed. We recorded Love Came, the Songs of Strayhorn together years ago and we’ve been long-time friends, so I knew he had a passion for Eddie Jefferson’s music. I asked him to choose the rhythm section that he wanted to work with and he brought in Willie Jones, III who I have long wanted to sing with and a bassist I didn’t know named George DeLancey who’s groove reminded me of Ray Brown, who I recorded with on my first album, It’s A Wonderful World. Eric also did the arrangements and we all agreed we needed Richie Cole on alto and Ralph Moore on tenor. Ralph has recorded with everyone from Oscar Peterson to Freddie Hubbard and he brought his own flavor to some of the tunes.

What can folks expect when you bring the project to the Hamilton Live in June for your first DC JazzFest appearance?

When I come to the Hamilton as part of the DC Jazz Festival this June, I intend to come in swinging hard with the help of pianist Orrin Evans, drummer Shirazette Tinnin, and bassist Nimrod Speaks. Of course I will not be straying too far from those landmark sounds and grooves that fans of Eddie Jefferson have come to know and love. But bear in mind even though the tunes will stay true to the flavor that Eddie has wonderfully put his stamp on, I will always let my audience see that there still is Allan Harris under this wonderful blanket of creative swing that the genius, Eddie Jefferson, laid down for us to listen, groove and swing to!

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JJA announces 2018 Jazz Hero recipients

The Jazz Journalists Association, in advance of its annual June awards program has announced the recipients of its 20th annual Jazz Heroes award. The significance of this award must not be overlooked on the overall canvas of the JJA’s awards to jazz practitioners, producers and writers. JJA Jazz Heroes are often the catalysts of a particular movement or community entity, or an actual jazz practitioner who has given selflessly of him or herself to the uplift of jazz in their community, or in some cases they are the outright non-performing backbones of their given home jazz communities. With that in mind, in addition to introducing you to this year’s Jazz Heroes we asked JJA president and driving force Howard Mandel to speak to the absolute necessity of these Jazz Hero citations. But first, here’s a look at this year’s Jazz Heroes recipients.

1. Atlanta: Dr. Dwight Andrews
2. Baltimore: Lea Gilmore
3. Chicago: Margaret Murphy-Webb
4. Detroit: Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn
5. Denver: Charleszine “Terry” Nelson
6. Hartford: Maurice Robertson
7. Miami: Robert D. Bielecki
8. Minneapolis-St.Paul: Larry Englund
9. New Orleans: Ellis Marsalis Jr.
10. New York City: Bruce Lee Gallanter
11. Philadelphia: Rhenda Fearrington
12. Tucson: Pete Swan
13. Pittsburgh: Roger Humphries
14. Portland OR: Marcia K. Hocker
15. San Diego: Daniel Atkinson
16. Seattle: Karen Caropepe
17. SF Bay Area: Angela Wellman
18. St. Louis: Jim Widner
19. Tallahassee FL: Therese & Christopher Seepersaud
20. Washington D.C.: Larry Appelbaum

When we first initiated Awards for “activists, advocates, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz” the JJA’s idea was that there were a lot of under-appreciated people who support jazz in ways that are neither necessarily music-making nor journalism. At that time the Jazz Foundation had recently been organized and it seemed clear that Dr. Billy Taylor and Herb Stouffer had done something significant and selfless in order to try to provide some health care and other safety net benefits to musicians who needed them. The establishment by Dr. Frank Forte (also a guitarist) of the Dizzy Gillespie Cancer Center was really the impetus — the JJA felt that Center should be acknowledged, and attention of the public directed to the health care issues affecting even well-known jazz stars.

The other underlying goal of the Jazz Heroes initiative has been to provide local communities with a news peg in order to gain local coverage by mainstream publications and media platforms during Jazz Appreciation Month. The Smithsonian’s JAM program did not have activities extending to communities across the US beyond offering an online registry of April jazz activities to whoever wanted to post them. International Jazz Day also did not provide actions for local jazz communities to take. The JJA (it was our web administrator’s idea) set up JazzApril, trying to connect JAM and IJD to US localities with a broad range of inexpensive, DIY media-activation strategies. These strategies are still posted for anyone to see and use at although the JJA has suspended promoting JazzApril, since the nomenclature seemed to confuse groups trying to celebrate JAM and IJD, and neither the Smithsonian nor the Monk Institute reciprocated the JJA’s efforts.

We still think local jazz community activists can get local newspaper, radio and sometimes tv coverage highlighting the “human interest stories” of community members (neighbors) who devote themselves to jazz. The longterm goal of the JJA as well as all other jazz-connected entities is to grow the jazz audience. We can only do that if we put “jazz” in front of people who aren’t already IN that audience. Human interest stories — profiles of local individuals – may attract interest where “jazz” may not. The JJA is eager to help local jazz fans learn how to create situations OTHER THAN MUSIC PERFORMANCES that might gain coverage, and to learn how to connect with mainstream journalists or use media themselves to promote their programs.

Nominations for Jazz Heroes are requested from JJA members and a few unaffiliated collaborators every January and February, and are mulled over by the JJA board and various committee members. Nominators must be able and willing to follow through on what it takes to make these Awards happen: providing bios that speak to the nominee’s “heroism,” photos, contact numbers and organizing presentations, if possible at free events, if possible getting official proclamations honoring the Heroes from local politicians. Nominees who are named “Heroes” in a given year are kept on file for later consideration. With rare exceptions, we don’t give posthumous Awards or give Awards to organizations. We look for people who our presenters are excited about, and we are intent on showing that Jazz Heroes represent all demographic categories of Americans. I’m very proud of the Heroes we’ve recognized and celebrated since 2001.

For more on the Jazz Journalists Association and its Jazz Heroes awards, please visit here:

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