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Robert Northern, who, as ‘Brother Ah,’ became a synthesizer of sounds, dies at 86

Robert "Brother Ah" Northern hosts "The Jazz Collectors" at WPFW in 2013. (Matt McClain/THE WASHINGTON POST)

A classically trained French hornist, Robert Northern played in experimental jazz ensembles with luminaries such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sun Ra and Thelonious Monk in the late 1950s and 1960s. He also performed at the Birdland and Copacabana nightclubs in New York, in the orchestra pits of Broadway shows, and in the concert halls of Europe, rendering Brahms and Beethoven.

Mr. Northern, who for much of his professional life was known as “Brother Ah,” also taught music on the Ivy League campuses of Dartmouth College and Brown University, and settled in Washington in 1986.

For 20 years, he could be heard on WPFW-FM, a community-supported radio station where — for three hours on Monday nights in a program called “The Jazz Collectors” — he expounded on his life in jazz and a musical belief system he called “Sound Awareness.” Sound awareness, he said, is hearing the music in ambient, everyday sounds such as the squeals of children playing and crickets chirping.

Growing up in the South Bronx, Mr. Northern honed his ear for sound while sitting on the fire escape outside his family’s fifth-floor apartment. With a trumpet he received as a gift, he tried to mimic the noises rising from the street below — the vendors hawking fresh fruits and vegetables, the clopping of carriage horses, the rumble of subway trains, the roar of vehicular and human traffic.

He later explored non-Western musical traditions in his search for an artistic identity that straddled jazz, classical, soul and the universe of the sounds he heard in his daily life.

“The word ‘spiritual’ has been so overused, but this music came to me in a spiritual time in my life,” he told The Washington Post in 2017. “I was very intensely in tune with nature. I had spent so much time by the seaside, and in the forest. I had birds’ nests on my porch. . . . I learned that every entity on Earth is communicating through sound. Every animal, every bird, every insect. And if we hear it, we can be a part of it.”

Mr. Northern, 86, died May 31 at a hospital in Washington. His wife, Ayana Watkins-Northern, said he had a respiratory ailment but did not know the immediate cause.

Brother Ah: A lifetime of jazz on local radio

Robert Anthony Northern was born May 21, 1934, in Kinston, N.C., an agricultural and mill community. He did not stay there long. His African American father bested a Klansman in a fistfight, and “my father’s friends took him, right from that spot, to the railroad, and sent him to Harlem, got him out of there, and we all left,” he recounted in an oral history with the Open Sky Jazz website.

The family soon settled in the Bronx. His father, a singer, performed in Broadway shows and Harlem nightspots before settling into a job with the Consolidated Edison power company. His mother was a clerk at a Woolworth store.

At 9, Mr. Northern received a trumpet for Christmas. Within a few years, he was taking lessons from a neighbor, trumpeter and composer Benny Harris, best known for his bebop standard “Ornithology,” co-written with and recorded by Charlie Parker. Harris encouraged his student, saying, “Man, you’re going to be a musician.”

In his junior year at the School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, he volunteered when the orchestra needed someone to play a French horn solo in Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” at graduation. On the strength of that performance, he won a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music, before leaving in 1953 to serve in the Air Force during the Korean War.

After his military service, he went to Europe and played French horn in the Vienna Philharmonic and the Wiesbaden Symphony in Germany. He also had a side gig as a blues singer in Austria.

In 1958, his father had a heart attack, which brought Mr. Northern back to New York. He got a job with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where, he said, he was singled out for abuse by other players.

“I had a rough time with the white guys,” he told Open Sky Jazz. “I would sit in the back, resting, and a guy would come by and kick me, kick me in my ankles.” During an audition at Carnegie Hall, he recalled, several violinists filed off the stage in protest.

A turning point came in 1959, when pianist, composer and bandleader Gil Evans asked him to help make a record album, “Great Jazz Standards,” which featured Mr. Northern on songs including “Django.” That opportunity led to club and recording dates with major jazz figures, among them saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and singer Ella Fitzgerald. From 1964 to 1974, he was a regular in the Sun Ra Arkestra, an avant-garde ensemble that blended jazz, blues, chants and African drumming under the baton of its highly theatrical leader.

In 1970, a friend recruited him to teach music at Dartmouth, where students nicknamed him for his habit of beginning sentences with “Ah.” It bothered him until he learned that “Ah” had religious connotations in other cultures.

“One guy, he was from Mauritania, he said, ‘We twirl in the desert and we chant “ahhhh,” ’ Mr. Northern told Open Sky Jazz. “And then the guy from Egypt, he said, ‘You know “Ah” is the name of the god of the moon.’ Ra is the name of the Sun god, Ah is the moon god. Everybody kept telling me, so it stuck.”

Starting in 1973, he spent nine years in Brown University’s African studies department. He traveled regularly to Africa between semesters and made an album in 1974 called “Sound Awareness,” which featured drummer Max Roach as a guest star. Music critic Nat Hentoff, writing in the New York Times, described one of the pieces, “Beyond Yourself (The Midnight Confession),” as “unsettling, compelling, sometimes eerily attractive.”

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His first marriage, to Tamara Serfling, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 42 years, of Washington, survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Alex Northern of Norwich, Vt., and Buschka Northern of Minneapolis; a daughter from his second marriage, Dara Northern of Washington; a brother; and a granddaughter.

In Washington, Mr. Northern taught at the Levine School of Music and formed a group called World Music Ensemble. “We have Japanese koto, with Indian tabla, with flamenco guitar, with African percussion,” he told The Post. “It took three years to form the ensemble, because of the prejudices many cultures have. These wouldn’t play with those and so on, and everybody wouldn’t play with each other. But, finally, I found excellent musicians who were open-minded and who were willing to go beyond their own tradition.”

He also taught rhythm to students at a Montessori school in Silver Spring, Md., and described himself as a pupil as much as an instructor. “Musicians have said to me, ‘Man, where’d you get that beat?’ ” he recalled. “I say, ‘Man, a 5-year-old taught me that beat.’ ”

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