For Brother Ah — who was born Robert Northern in 1934, and who died on Sunday at 86 — existence was a continuous listening experience. Seven years ago, hoping to learn his life story, I spent a week following him around the D.C. area, from the WPFW studios to the Montessori school where he gave wordless drumming lessons. His ears were always on. He might be in the middle of telling a story about the recording session for Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass,” when he would notice a particular sound in the background, point his index finger toward the sky and smile.
He got his start on a bugle, playing call-and-response games with the sounds of the city from a fire escape in the Bronx. He played trumpet throughout his adolescence, but switched to the French horn to gain entry to the Manhattan School of Music, where he learned the music of Brahms and Schubert. After stints with the Metropolitan Opera and the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, he appeared on records with Charlie Haden, Art Farmer and McCoy Tyner before eventually recording with his own improvisational groups in the mid-’70s.
But instead of “improvisation,” Brother Ah preferred the term “spontaneous creativity,” and “it really came to me when I was playing with Sun Ra,” he said. “When I got into Sun Ra’s band, I came with my education, I had studied at all these conservatories. . . . Sun Ra turned to me, ‘Man,’ he says, ‘Forget all of your laws. The only law of my band is the law of nature.’ ”
That idea stuck. While teaching at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, he began focusing his ears on the bird calls that filled the nearby New Hampshire woods. Between semesters, he’d take trips to Tanzania where he’d try to play along with the birds in the bush. One enchanted night, he and Don Cherry spent the tiny hours strolling through the quiet of New York City’s Central Park playing bamboo flutes, listening to their own chirps echo through the trees.
Brother Ah seemed especially proud of those collaborations — the kind that couldn’t be captured on tape or even a bandstand. “I did a performance somewhere in Pennsylvania with Pete Seeger,” he once told me. “And during intermission time, we’re in the dressing room where there’s a sliding door that goes out to the garden outside. So we stood there and we got involved in sliding the door, inch by inch, listening to the sound of the wind coming through the door. We forgot about the audience! We were 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!’ ”
When great musicians die, we remember them for the music they made. Could they be remembered for the music they heard? If so, Brother Ah’s music is everywhere, all the time. It’ll continue to surround us until we join him in whatever comes next.