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

  1. Pingback: R.I.P. Robert Northern, Jazz Artist AKA Brother Ah Dead at 86 – Ten15AM

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