Born in 1934 in his grandmother’s house in Kinston, N.C., he migrated north a few years later, after his father settled a dispute with his employer — a white man — with his fists. When the scuffle was over, friends dusted him off and put him on the first train to New York. His family followed, but the Northern children would return during the summers to help aunts and uncles pick cotton and tobacco.
By age 9, Northern had fallen for the Count Basie melodies pouring from the family radio and was given a trumpet at Christmas. “I’d take it in the shower,” he says. “I’d put it under my arm and take it for a walk.”
With the blessing of his father, a Broadway performer, and his mother, a housewife and department store sales clerk, he took lessons from bebop trumpeter Benny Harris, and by 14, had talked his way onto the bandstand at the Bronx’s storied Club 845. When he enrolled at Manhattan’s performing arts high school, it was mostly because the school “wasn’t far from Birdland, and I wanted to use my lunch hour to go hear [Charlie Parker] and those cats rehearse.”
When a student concert required a volunteer for a French horn solo, Northern raised his hand. His playing instantly wowed a representative from the Manhattan School of Music, who awarded him a scholarship. There, he would join trumpeter Donald Byrd, trombonist Eddie Bert, pianist John Lewis and other frustrated students of classical music. “All these great jazz players, and we were not allowed to play jazz!” Northern says. “They told Max Roach he wasn’t a good [drummer] because he didn’t hold his sticks the proper way.”
Northern’s instructors pushed him to drop the trumpet and focus on the French horn, and he quickly found himself enchanted by classical music’s vast sonorities. His studies were interrupted by a stint in the Air Force that landed him in Europe, where he would return to perform in various symphonies after completing his service, improving his fluency in Beethoven and Brahms.
When his father suffered a heart attack in 1958, he boomeranged to New York, where landing work was difficult in ways unrelated to his his talent. During one audition at Carnegie Hall, half of the violin section walked off stage the moment Northern appeared.
“Very, very hurtful,” says Northern. “Nobody tells you. . . . ‘You’re going to get a degree, and then nobody is going to hire you because of your color.’”
He scored temporary stints with the Metropolitan Opera and the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra and worked on Broadway shows, supplementing his income by teaching music and taking odd jobs, such as alphabetizing jazz critic Nat Hentoff’s record collection.