His weekly show on WPFW (89.3 FM) spans the vast musical dialect he helped shape as one of the most desirable French horn players of the ’50s and ’60s, recording with the likes of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra.
On the air, he recounts a musical life steered by the forces of war, migration, segregation, globalization, nature and spirituality. He’s performed Brahms in Viennese concert halls and studied birdcalls in the African bush. He’s taught New England Ivy Leaguers and D.C. preschoolers. He’s composed music for childbirths and deathbeds. He calls his philosophy “sound awareness” — the ability to hear music coursing through life in its entirety.
“We are blessed to have a lots of folks on the air who study the music, who write about the music, but Brother Ah actually lives the music,” says Katea Stitt, WPFW’s music and cultural affairs coordinator. “He’s steeped in that truly African tradition of passing knowledge on, as a griot would do . . . and he’s garnering a younger audience that is really hungry to know the history.”
Since launching in the late ’90s, Northern’s show, “The Jazz Collectors,” has been one of WPFW’s longest running and most beloved programs, but its tiny audience — roughly a few thousand, according to an analysis of Arbitron’s audience data — is woefully emblematic of the problems that continue to dog the listener-supported community radio station. Later this year, WPFW’s dilapidated Adams Morgan studios will be razed to make way for a luxury hotel. The station’s landlords want the building vacated by May 25.
The deadline has sparked anxiety among supporters and staff over the possibility of WPFW leaving the District — or vanishing from the airwaves altogether. But as WPFW’s worries froth into panic, Northern maintains his preternatural calm.
During a recent broadcast of “The Jazz Collectors,” a prerecorded message from WPFW General Manager John Hughes comes over the studio speakers, promising that programming will continue.
“Well, that’s the first I’ve heard of this,” Northern says, stroking a beard the shade of smoldering charcoal briquettes. He had already made peace with the fact that his show would probably be off the air come summertime. And maybe it still will be.
All he can do is close his eyes and sink back into the music.
“This is — what do they call it?” he asks. “A man’s cave?”
There’s no pool table in the basement of Northern’s home on the D.C. side of Takoma. Instead, there are hundreds of vinyl LPs spilling off the shelves. Faded photographs of Max Roach, Duke Ellington and Yusef Lateef hang over the sofa. He’s stockpiled an arsenal of flutes made from bamboo and PVC, a pair of French horns sleep in their cases, and of the dozen African drums scattered about, two are covered with unruly stacks of Verizon bills. Northern grabs a conch shell from his desk, raises it to his lips and bleats out Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts.”