On his weekly radio show, “The Jazz Collectors,” Robert Northern — known to his listeners as Brother Ah — plays music by some of the most iconic names in jazz. He has stories about working with them, too.
We tried to cram as many tales as possible into our Sunday feature story on the 78-year-old Washington jazz veteran, but we couldn’t fit them all. Read about his encounters with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra and others below. And to hear more stories like these, tune into “The Jazz Collectors” on WPFW (89.3 FM) on Monday nights between 7 and 10 p.m.
On recording John Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass” album:
“It was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey. Just about everyone was there at 2 o’clock, warmed up and ready. And 2 o’clock went. 5 o’clock went. 7 o’clock went. 9 o’clock went. At midnight, here comes Trane and Eric Dolphy and Elvin Jones. Some of the music was literally wet [with ink] – too wet to fold the page. We sat down like, ‘Finally!’ It’s hard to put in words the way you felt… His studio had cathedral ceilings with no windows and we were transported by the music to another dimension. We left that studio and recorded straight through the night… We all had the freedom to interpret… ‘Be free there. Solo there’… He was a very, very, very, creative artist and he surrounded himself with other creative artists who could interpret what he wanted.”
On rehearsing with the Thelonious Monk Orchestra:
“We were struggling with this piece, ‘Little Rootie Tootie.’ So he told the band to take five. Rather than call me out, he just had us take a break. And he went into a corner of this loft and danced my whole part. I watched his feet and when he came back, I played it perfectly… He taught me to play the rhythm by dancing it! He didn’t come over and say, ‘Play it like this.’ He just danced. And I got it… He was an excellent dancer and he knew I was in tune with him. He was very, very involved in his music and he was always listening for dynamics. It had to have shape and form, loud and soft, and all of the shades in between.”
On why it was so rewarding to play with Sun Ra:
“When I got into Sun Ra’s band, I came with my education with me. I had studied at all these conservatories. I’m studying all these rules and laws and all that. Sun Ra turned to me and said, ‘Forgot all of your laws. The only law of my band is the law of nature.’”
On how his fluency in classical music helped him secure the proper piano for McCoy Tyner:
“One year I invited up McCoy Tyner to perform [at Brown University, where he was teaching] and in McCoy Tyner’s contract there was a clause that he must have a Steinway piano. He will not perform with any other piano. I thought, ‘That shouldn’t be a big deal…’ So he got to the space the day of the concert to practice a little bit and saw the piano wasn’t a Steinway. Turns out, the Steinway was locked up. I went to the chairman of the department and said, ‘McCoy Tyner is here and he needs a Steinway.’ The chairman of the department said, “No. Jazz musicians are not going to play on our Steinway. They bang and we’re not going to have our Steinway [damaged]…’ I said, “Wait a minute. If you’ve ever seen or heard Vladimir Horowitz play ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ by Mussorgsky, you would know who bangs.’ He threw his hands up and said, ‘Okay, fine…’ If a Steinway can take Vladimir Horowitz, it can take McCoy Tyner. Fortunately, I knew both cultures.”
On how Max Roach taught him to thrive on the road:
“Max Roach taught me how to act on the road. Don’t lay in the hotel room. Always have a research project to work on. Go to museums. When you have the night off, go to the theater. Send your money home. I always listened to Max.”
On practicing his philosophy of “sound awareness” backstage with Pete Seeger:
“I did a performance somewhere in Pennsylvania with Pete Seeger and during intermission time we’re in the dressing room where there’s a sliding door that goes out to the garden outside. And we stood there and we got involved into sliding this door inch by inch and listening to the sound of the wind coming through the door. We forgot about the audience. We’re into this sliding door, man! Pete Seeger and I are cracking up. The [stage manager] came back, ‘Man, they’re waiting for you guys and you’re listening to the wind!’”