In 2017, I was invited to Robert Northern’s home in Takoma Park to chat about the music collected in Divine Music. With news of his passing today, I’m posting the full interview from this box set. I think often about his story about playing music for the wild animals in the Ngorongoro crater:
As a New Yorker, there’s a disarming aspect to finding yourself out in the suburbs, the bustle and din of the city quieted down enough so as to discern all the sounds of nature. Approaching Robert Northern’s home just outside of Takoma Park one evening, the sound of birdsong is overwhelming. Can the birds always be this loud? Maybe that’s just how it is once you’re away from trash trucks and cop sirens, I thought to myself. But upon being granted entrance to the home of the man known to dedicated free jazz fans as Brother Ah, I realized that it’s no coincidence; the peaceful vibrations that emanate from his home in fact make the birds convene around his abode. As I would learn over the course of our career-spanning interview, Ah is attuned to the cosmic music that surrounds us all, a sound that underlies the three albums that comprise Divine Music.
Brother Ah greets me in his parlor, gently strumming an autoharp so that cascades of sound surround us. It’s a tuning he picked up from Laraaji, he mentions, another New York music veteran whose deeply resonant spiritual music continues to turn on new listeners in the 21st century. That the man whose weekly show on WPFW (89.3 FM) “The Jazz Collectors” has connections to a musician like Laraaji is but the tip of the iceberg. As Robert Northern, he was a respected French horn player in New York’s classical music world and an in-demand session man, meaning he performed as a member of Leopold Stokowski-helmed The Symphony of the Air and with the likes of Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis.
Heading down to his basement den, one wall is lined with intimate, in-studio photographs of some of the greatest names to ever record jazz and Northern recorded with all of them: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Evans, Max Roach, Donald Byrd, Jimmy Owens, Lee Morgan to name a few. In another corner is a collection of hand-carved reed flutes that Brother Ah acquired during his extensive travels in Ghana. As Saint-Saëns and Chopin play softly in the background, Robert Northern tells me about how he transformed into Brother Ah and how this divine music came into being.
Andy Beta: Are you from New York originally?
Brother Ah: I was born in Kinston, North Carolina. Born in my grandmother’s unpainted house across the street from the African-American cemetery. The freight trains used to ride past us on the dirt road and that’s my humble beginnings. Like lots of African-American people, we made our move to New York during the Great Depression. We went to Harlem and lived on 8th Avenue, 138th Street and 8th. My father used to walk across the wooden bridge that went across the Harlem River. So it went from Harlem to the Bronx with this wooden bridge. We used to swim there, we used to have picnics on the side of the Harlem River.
Beta: You started off playing trumpet as a child?
Ah: Well…I really started on bugle. At 5 years old, there was an old lady that lived in the building. Her husband used to be the bugler in the first World War and he got killed like many buglers did. So she brought back his battered bugle. I blew out such a big tone that delighted her so much that she gave me the bugle.
So I used to sit on my fire escape on the 5th floor and I used to imitate all the sounds I heard on the street. Back in the day, in the thirties and early forties there were still a lot of horse and wagons in New York then. The guys would come by selling watermelon, vegetables and fruit. They all had a certain cry or call and I would imitate them and the dogs barking, anything that went past my building. So I started with the bugle and then my parents took me to the Apollo Theater to see Dizzy Gillespie’s band and…well of course I connected the bugle to the trumpet because they look similar. The lights that were gleaning off of the brass instruments, the whole aura of the Apollo Theater and Dizzy’s playing that trumpet was like *clap* I wanted a trumpet!
Beta: Was there a lot of jazz music around you growing up in Bronx?
Ah: All those cats lived right in my neighborhood! We used to play basketball in the neighborhood and they would come and watch us. Monk one time took the piano out of the community center and rolled it next the basketball court and played with us as we played basketball. You know and he has this composition –which he changed the name when he recorded it– but its original name was “Stickball.”
The musician who had the most profound effect on me was Charlie Parker. On all of us. He didn’t live in our neighborhood, but he would visit our neighborhood. When he came on the scene man, everybody’s life changed. Everybody’s life changed, I mean literally. I no longer listened to Louie Jordan, I no longer listened to those swing musicians. I wanted to be a bebop trumpeter.
I was a trumpet player all through my teen years until I went to the conservatory. My aspirations were to be a jazz trumpet player. However, I went to the high school of performing arts and was introduced to the French horn. They went around to all of the brass players and they showed us this French horn and they said “well who would like to try this? We need somebody to play.” So I said I would try it. I took it home and loved the tone, loved the sound and I learned to play what I had to play for graduation ceremonies. A woman on the board of directors at the Manhattan School of Music said that from the strength of that performance we’re going to offer you a full scholarship to Manhattan School of Music. I said “I’m a jazz trumpet player” and she said “well we need French hornists.” There wasn’t any way that my parents were going to be able to afford conservatory and so I went and played for Gunther Schuller, the French horn teacher.
Beta: The French is horn is such a rare instrument in jazz. What was one of the earliest sessions where you got to use the French horn?
Ah: I got a call from Gil Evans saying he has a recording session and he needed a French hornist, (which) I had never recorded at all, ever. I had never even seen a recording studio. I didn’t know Gil Evans music, I just walked in and there was Steve Lacy, Johnny Coles, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cleveland all these great cats there and here I walk in with my French horn. The first piece we recorded was called “Django” and it was very difficult. French horn was lead: very high, very soft, very delicate part. That’s what I got thrown into.
Beta: What was it like recording the “Africa Brass” sessions with John Coltrane and being conducted by Eric Dolphy?
Ah; John Coltrane called me and I could hardly believe it. I said “who is this?” So we go out to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey at 2 in the afternoon. I mean all these cats in there, I just couldn’t wait to get there. So we were there all warmed up ready to go, no John Coltrane, no Eric Dolphy, no Elvin Jones. Ten o’clock, still nothing. Around midnight they walked in. There were no windows in the studio. We started around midnight, man we didn’t stop until dawn. We were totally transformed to another reality. I said to ‘Trane “What you want me to do ‘Trane?” He said: “Play like an elephant.” I had never seen an elephant outside of the Central Park Zoo so I never heard an elephant. So I was trying to imitate what it was. It was a magical session.
Beta: Would you say it was Coltrane who imparted spirituality into jazz? Or was it more from someone like Sun Ra?
Ah: Well Sun Ra influenced ‘Trane. ‘Trane studied with Sun Ra’s saxophonist John Gilmore. Sun Ra was the seed for a lot sort of avant-garde music and I’m sure he had a profound effect on him. We’d be playing a place called Slugs on the Lower East Side, we’d look up and there would be ‘Trane sitting up at the bar, everybody came to hear the band, so they were all listening and all influenced, I think. I know I was greatly influenced by Sun Ra as well. So I would say the seed in the sixties was Sun Ra.
Beta: Do you remember meeting Sun Ra for the first time?
Ah: One of my friends was Pat Patrick. He was playing with Sun Ra’s Arkestra every Monday night at Slug’s Saloon in East Village and he wanted me to come down there. I was doing four shows a day at Radio City Music Hall and I just wanted to go home. He kept on pestering so I went down with him one night. I walk into Slugs; the music was so overwhelming that I literally stood on the chair and was shouting so loud, I went berserk. When Sun Ra finished the gig I grabbed him by the wrist and said “I have to play with your band!”
Beta: What was Sun Ra’s music like that night?
Ah: I couldn’t speak that night. This was music that somehow was so familiar, it was a symphony, symphonic orchestrated, everything was in one. I loved everything. So one day Sun Ra told me to come down to audition. It was pouring down rain. I had finished a couple of sessions, wearing my suit, walking through the pouring rain and walked to Sun Ra’s place on the Lower East Side. It looked like a one or two room apartment, very small. I walked in and Sun Ra saw me soaking wet and he told me to sit in front of the oven and he told Marshall Allen to turn the oven on.
He left and came back with all these musicians and reams of music. He was giving me trumpet parts, saxophone parts, he was giving me all kinds of stuff and fortunately because of my training I could transpose easily. So I was playing everything without any mistakes. I remember Marshall Allen saying to me, “how did you do it? If I wasn’t here when Sun Ra composed it, I couldn’t play my part. You’re sight reading over all this stuff.” And the next Monday I sat in with the band at Slug’s. And when you join that band, you have to sit next to Sun Ra for your first couple of performances, right next to him.
Beta: And how many people are in the Arkestra at this point?
Ah: God, there must have been twenty. That stage was like we were sitting on top of each other. After John Gilmore played his solo Sun Ra told me to play a solo. So I stood up and I started to play my solo and he cut the band off. He left me out there by myself. I couldn’t keep the horn on my lip, it kept sliding, and I’m thinking to myself, jeez I must be perspiring so much that the sweat is all on my mouth. I look down and I was full of blood. I had cut my lip, not knowing it. He said everybody saw and nobody stopped me and I didn’t stop until I looked down and realized there was blood. And then he brought the band back in. That was my baptism by blood by Sun Ra.
Beta: Did Sun Ra rechristen you as Brother Ah?
Ah: Actually no. It’s a funny story. Don Cherry called me one day and asked me if I would take his classes for a semester at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. While I was there I had large classes of fifty students. It was an all boys’ school then and my presentation was world music. So I brought a lot instruments from Haiti and all over the world. And somehow through the music, OR through my lectures, whenever I walked into the classroom they would all say “AHH! AHH!” Then it got to be “Brother Ahh!” It was a joke, but the student from Egypt told me that Ra is the name of the sun and Ah is the name of the moon. And then the Sufi student said, we swirl around in the desert to the sound ‘Ah’ to strengthen the heart chakra, to develop love in the heart. Everybody came to me with meanings of this sound ‘Ah’ in their culture, so it stuck. And I dropped the extra –h so that it’s numerologically balanced with my given family name Robert Northern.
Beta: You played with all these musicians and arrangers. What led you to finally record your first album, Sound Awareness?
Ah: I was working at the 46th street Theater and every night I did the same thing, taking the bus up Madison to my home. I came home and as I walked across Madison the strangest feeling came over me. This very strange feeling came over me. I wasn’t tired or anything like that coming straight from the theater. Didn’t stop for a drink or anything, but that moment was strange. I sat on the edge of the bed. I have two sons. My kids were asleep, my wife at that time in my life was asleep and I heard this entire composition in my head. And I heard it so vividly that, and the only thing that stopped me from listening was the sun at dawn hitting my eyes.
Beta: So you have this sort of divine moment with Sound Awareness. Was it the same for Move Ever Onward?
Ah: Move Ever Onward was an album that I recorded with my students at Brown University. I taught four courses there and one of the courses was called Sound Awareness because I had developed my philosophy by then. I continued to develop my compositional philosophies. And that is, being a part of nature. When I took my first trip to Africa in 1972, I got very much into listening to the birds and the insects and the animals.
Beta: Where did you go in Africa?
Ah: Ghana. I went deep into the forest and lived in a mud hut, no running water, no electricity, just the fires and the moon at night and I lived with the traditional people in the bush and I got to understand music at a cosmic level and I truly understood the language of different animals and I began to play with animals. Particularly when I went to East Africa, hung out with the Masai tribesmen in a place called Ngoro in Tanzania. It’s an inactive crater 110 miles west of Arusha. In that crater there are monkeys, baboons, elephants, giraffes, hippopotamus, lions, leopards, cheetahs, flamingo birds, everything you can imagine – I lived down there.
Beta: What instruments did you bring with you?
AH: A bag with several bamboo flutes. The first night it was so dark that I literally could not see my hands in front of my face. I’m looking out at these lions. So I am fighting my fear and I go into my bag and I pull out one of flutes just to play for myself to calm myself down. So I started to play with my eyes closed and I felt this presence around me. I open up one eye and there’s about thirty monkeys had come out of this tree, all these monkeys are sitting in front of me. They’re gray with black faces and the palms of their hands are orange. So I’m there like Jesus and I play for them. And I got to communicate with them. After listening to my flute, they stole my lunch of fruit and ran up the tree!
But I got into the monkeys, I got into the animals, I got into nature, I got into the wind. So Sound Awareness is becoming aware of all these sounds and connecting with nature is really where my philosophy came together and I played for them so much and I learned how to communicate with them. I can hear with my eyes and I can kind of see with my ears. I guess you could put it that way.
Beta: Did this experience carry over to these unreleased albums? The Sea sounds like a continuation of Keys to Nowhere.
Ah: No, The Sea is a much earlier. I recorded it way before Key to Nowhere. It was inspired by the sea in Jamaica, the Caribbean. I was there with my wife and the sound of the sea captured me that I stayed up all night sitting by the sea. I mean, I just couldn’t go to bed in the hotel. I spent the whole night by the sea and the melody just came to me out of the sea. I composed the whole thing sitting all night by the sea. The viola sound came right out of the ocean. The viola sound that opens the album came right out of the ocean. I can’t tell you how, but suddenly I was sitting there and all the melody, all of the rhythms, were given to me by the ocean.
Beta: What about Searching?
Ah: I composed Searching in 1985. And it was really somewhat, sort of a visual kind of experience that I was having at that time. I imagine it was basically influenced by Sun Ra, I mean I didn’t copy anything from Sun Ra, but the whole idea was searching for another planet. It begins with a muted trumpet solo. And it was searching, going at sunrise and traveling from planet to planet. It’s really a space, understanding that I was searching for a more peaceful planet than Earth. And it was all through my imagination. I was searching for a more peaceful planet or more peaceful star system, searching for a more peaceful place on earth, maybe. But it was definitely searching for peace. While I was performing, it was like I had left my body and I was playing in another sphere.
Beta: For as much as it seems about going to another planet, it also seems like it’s very much about the interior, with titles like “know thyself” and hearing your inner voice.
Ah: You’re right, it’s about searching the unseen. It’s really about searching the unseen world of the inner world. You got that right, I know there’s an outer space, but it’s inner space as well. And it’s going into oneself and dissolving one physical being and going into the spiritual world and searching for peace.
Beta: When did Meditation come?
Ah: Oh, that’s around the same period. All the unreleased things, I was going through a musical experience. All of that came out at around the same time and Meditation was really the music I heard during meditation. I meditate everyday, and during my meditation, I heard this music. There’s only about three musicians that came together for Meditation and we recorded it right here in my home. It was spontaneous, it wasn’t composed, I didn’t sit down and compose any of that music of that period. They’re all meditators, almost all of my groups have been with meditators, everybody in all my group. So, we had meditated before we recorded. And when we came out of that meditation, we started playing. And that’s the music that came out of us.
All of these pieces are based on spirituality. In other words, all of those pieces came out of the unseen world. Recording these albums, I totally left this plane of existence and I began to see these images of outer space or inner space. It definitely was not the physical images that I was seeing around me when I opened my eyes. When I had my eyes closed, I began to feel and see all of these different images into space. I’m just playing what I saw in my spiritual mind.