When the ON AIR light is glowing, his voice blurs warm and cool. But when it goes dim, he shouts along to the music, taps his Oxfords on the grimy carpet, grabs at the air as if wrangling some phantom trumpet.
The radio station’s mantra is “Jazz and Justice,” but for three hours every Monday night, justice gives way to the undiluted wisdom of Robert Northern, the 78-year-old jazz traveler known to listeners as Brother Ah.
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.”
What isn’t down here is the bugle his neighbor gave him after her husband died playing it on a World War I battlefield. Instead of lessons, the 5-year-old would perch on his fifth-story fire escape in the South Bronx and play call-and-response with the street vendors below. “They’d shout, ‘Waaaaa-termelon!’ or, ‘Fresh peas! Fresh peas!,’ ” Northern says. “Every hawker had his own song, and I learned all of those tunes on my bugle.”
As a child, he grew attuned to the sonic contrasts between the bustle of the Bronx, the tranquility of the Carolina cotton fields and the roar of train tracks between them.
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.
In 1959, the gravity of jazz grew strong. Pianist Gil Evans recruited Northern for a recording session, followed by a three-week stand at Birdland playing opposite the likes of Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis and Coltrane. The visibility kept his phone ringing. Monk tapped him for a live album. Quincy Jones beckoned him to the studio. Peggy Lee hired him for a run at the Copacabana.
The more work he landed, the more music began to feel like a spiritual pursuit. “I eventually stopped using the word ‘entertainment’ and started using ‘inner-attainment,’ ” Northern says. “I wanted [listeners] to remember who they were on a spiritual level.”
There are other words in Northern’s vocabulary that have been swapped out over the years. He refers to colleagues and collaborators who have “died” as “ancestors.” To escape the stuffy, academic associations tied to “improvisation,” he prefers “spontaneous creativity.” And there’s one word he’s expunged without assigning a substitute.
He steps out the front door, then freezes, like he’s forgotten his wallet or left the oven on.
“Hear that?” Northern asks. “The birds are just fantastic today.”
He’s headed to his Friday afternoon class at Jamon Montessori Day School in Silver Spring, where he’ll welcome about two dozen children into a 45-minute drum circle that’s almost entirely nonverbal. Northern says he’s learning as much they are. “Musicians have said to me, ‘Man, where’d you get that beat?’ I say, ‘Man, a 5-year-old taught me that beat.’ ”
His career as a music educator started at P.S. 49 in the Bronx after returning from Europe in 1958. One morning, he was greeted by a monstrous noise. His students told him they were simply imitating the sounds outside the classroom window. “Just like I used to do on my fire escape!” says Northern. “I had forgotten that. Right then and there the words ‘sound awareness’ popped into my head.”
“Sound awareness” became the name of his methodology, the Sounds of Awareness became the name of his ensemble, and he developed both throughout the ’70s while teaching at Dartmouth College and Brown University. (It was his students at Dartmouth who started calling him Brother Ah, a joke on a vocal tic of his, which he embraced upon learning the word had significant meanings in ancient cultures.)
Between semesters he flew to Africa, where he studied traditional drumming and the sounds of nature for seven consecutive summers. “My musical studies were in the forest,” he says. “I would literally get into conversations with birds.”
He met his wife-to-be, Ayana, in Tanzania, (Northern has two middle-age sons from his first marriage, which ended in 1969), and the couple eventually settled in Washington, where they would raise their daughter, Dara, now 21 and away at college.
He worked at Washington’s Levine School of Music in the ’80s, and since then has taught at other schools and programs, including the D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program, which brought him one of his most accomplished students, Rich Harrison, the writer and producer of “Crazy in Love,” a 2003 R&B hit that transformed the girl from Destiny’s Child into Beyoncé.
“In the course of a day, he could teach people that range from senior citizens to children 3 years old,” says Ayana Northern, 65, a psychologist. “Embracing music and using it as a source of soothing and healing, I think it brings him a sense of fulfillment and peace.”
Northern refuses to call himself a healer — “There are so many quacks out there” — but still holds an unshakable faith in the healing powers of music. He performs regularly for the sick at hospitals and believes that repeated listens to “the most profound work that’s ever come through me” — a 1985 recording with zither player Laaraji called “Open Sky” — helped him survive the removal of a growth on his pancreas, the same type of growth that took his mother’s life.
He looks remarkable for his age. As he packs up his drums after Friday’s Montessori class, one of his students tugs at his windbreaker: “Brother Ah, will you take me to Six Flags?”
“Six Flags! When do you want to go to Six Flags?”
“We could go right now,” the kid says.
Northern smiles as if it’s not a bad idea. Teaching music six days a week, bouncing from school to school, seems to help him maintain his vitality.
“My elders always told me, ‘When you’re young, do mature things, do sensible things,’ ” Northern says. “ ‘And you’ll be young when you’re old.’ ”
The next Monday, WPFW’s studios are showing their age. None of the microphones are working, so Northern will have to call in to his own show, his voice passing through the fuzzed telephone connection like solar warmth through layers of cumulonimbus.
“As musicians, we reach for these planes of truth through sound,” he says, cradling the receiver to his ear. “I’m still searching myself.”
He’s been spinning music from “Africa/Brass,” the 1961 album he appeared on when Coltrane invited him to the studio to “play like elephants.” Northern remembers the session tape rolling from from midnight through sunrise.
“And it felt like an hour,” he says. “The music transported us at such a level that we lost touch with our immediate environment, lost touch with time.”
He has countless stories about that, this, everything else. About how martini-shaking bartenders used to drive Miles Davis into fits. About how he and Don Cherry liked to float around Central Park at 3 in the morning, playing bamboo flutes. About how saxophonist Pat Patrick — father of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick— helped him score a one-off gig with Sun Ra that would lead to a decade of collaboration.
“I’m up there, and Sun Ra says, ‘Take a solo,’ ” says Northern, who remembers losing himself in the music until his mouth slipped from his mouthpiece. “I thought it was perspiration, but I looked down and I was covered in all this blood. Everybody saw it, and nobody stopped me. . . . That was my baptism.”
Northern cues up another vinyl disc he’s graced — pianist McCoy Tyner’s 1967 album “Tender Moments” — then sits back to listen to the players forge their melodic shapes, scatter into their respective solos, reconvene, crest, recede . . . and he’s back on the air.
“Yes, yes, yes. That was McCoy Tyner doing what he loved,” Northern purrs. “Doing what you love is freedom, and loving what you do is happiness. And that goes for any discipline. Music, of course, is my discipline, so I can attest that’s the truth. . . . So I pass that on to you.”
airs on WPFW (89.3 FM) from 7 to 10 p.m. Mondays. Read more about Robert Northern’s encounters with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and other jazz greats.