Artist’s Choice: David Amram and the French Horn in Jazz

The composer shines a spotlight on one of the music's less common instruments

David Amram on the French horn
David Amram (photo: Alan Nahigian)

On the one hand, French horn remains one of the rarer instruments in the jazz world, past and present. On the other, though, the picture that the average jazz fan has is that there are only three or four of us that were out there playing it. There were a lot of people who did it, and are doing it. The players listed here are all people I’ve crossed paths with, and people who have all played their asses off. And they’re not alone: Every week I’m encountering players whose abilities on the horn are scary. These, though, are a good start on the range of styles and conceptions that are out there. —DAVID AMRAM

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all the songs in this Artist’s Choice:

Junior Collins
“Move”
Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1957 [recorded 1949-50])

My French horn teacher was Gunther Schuller, who played on Miles’ Birth of the Cool sessions, and he told me that “on the dates that I couldn’t make it, Miles got this really great player named Junior Collins.” Junior is one of the great jazz players that almost never got recorded. He did one orchestra date with Charlie Parker, and Miles’ sessions. On the latter, and on “Move” in particular, you can actually hear the French horn, even though he’s just playing a written part in that beautiful counterpoint. He was a wonderful improviser, even though he never did that on a recording, but it was just his very presence with Miles that opened the door for the rest of us in modern jazz.

Julius Watkins
“Friday the 13th”
Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins (Prestige, 1954)

Dizzy Gillespie had told me in 1951 that there was this amazing cat named Julius Watkins on the French horn, but I didn’t get to hear him until Monk’s “Friday the 13th” record. I was in the Army when it came out, and finally caught up with it after my discharge. Even more than Junior Collins, Julius was the one who set the pace for the horn in jazz, because he put his improvisations on record. So on “Friday the 13th,” you get one of the earliest great recorded examples of the language of jazz improvisation. One of the great lessons of music is that what is beautiful stays beautiful, and therefore stays relevant, and Julius’ solo here is proof.

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Willie Ruff
“Sheffield Blues”
The Smooth Side of Ruff (Columbia, 1968)

Willie Ruff was another one like Julius Watkins—he made a lot of people see the horn as an instrument that was much more than the role it was assigned. He could have played in the symphony if he wanted to, but he had something else he wanted to do. When I met him in the ’50s, word had just gotten out that there was this great player at the Café Bohemia who could solo up a storm on the French horn, and all the musicians in town, classical and jazz, would come down to hear him. He was eventually a professor at Yale, a jazz educator before we had anything called “jazz education.” More than that, though, he did musical-philosophical-political education all at once, with French horn as his teaching medium. That’s what you hear in his blues choruses on “Sheffield Blues.”

Tom Varner
“Isaac Has a Vision on the Subway”
Martian Heartache (Soul Note, 1997)

Tom was one of the first French horn guys who started out wanting to play jazz, not coming from a classical perspective and transitioning over. He loved Julius Watkins’ playing and fell right into jazz, which he felt was his calling, and actually helped establish the Julius Watkins Festival. His playing on this particular piece, especially at the very end, puts him in character (so to speak) and reflects some of this turmoil and, I guess, agony on the subway. Whatever Isaac’s vision is, it’s a disturbing one. It’s interesting to hear a French horn playing what we now call “free jazz,” which of course is a dumb name because everyone is always free to play however they want.

John Clark
“Dolphin Dance”
Il Suono (CMP, 1992)

I was playing someplace in Boston, years ago, and this really young guy told me that he was doing that (i.e., playing jazz French horn) too. That was John Clark, and he became a master player. He had a duo with a jazz bassoonist named Michael Rabinowitz, which proved that there’s no such thing as a “jazz instrument,” there’s just instruments, and some creative musicians that can play jazz on any given one of them. I enjoy the way the whole band [trumpeter Lew Soloff, trombonist David Taylor, saxophonist Alex Foster, guitarist Jerome Harris, bassist Anthony Jackson, drummer Kenwood Dennard] plays on Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” but John stands out for his absolute command of his instrument. He’s a great player who just keeps getting better and better.

Morris Kliphuis
“Lamento”
VanBinsbergen Playstation, Tales Without Words (Buzz, 2017)

Morris is from Holland and studied with John Clark. This guy is scarifying. He does everything on the French horn that Julius and I and the others were trying to do in those early days of way-back-when, and he does it effortlessly. On top of that, he’s created his own personal language, as you can hear on “Lamento,” which is a full-length solo piece. It shows his ability to keep that horn sound we all recognize, and at the same time to take the instrument to lyrical new places. When you hear Morris, you never say, “Oh, that’s a clumsy instrument”—he simply makes it his voice. It’s that effortlessness that is the most wonderful aspect of his music.

Vincent Chancey
“Oh, What a Night”
Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, Avant Pop (ECM, 1986)

Vince Chancey is such a terrific player, and I think that even now he’s the guy in New York that’s your first call if you want someone who can flawlessly play parts on the horn and also really improvise. He also understands the traditional jazz language, and that it comes out of hundreds of different styles, but that it’s also about the spaces and silences instead of just the hot licks. In Lester Bowie’s band, Vince finds the French horn’s position in the old brass-band sound and takes it to another place. But what’s interesting about “Oh, What A Night” is that they apply that same brass harmony and texture to the doo-wop tradition, which the snobs never considered jazz but of course is constitutionally permissible.

Bob Northern
“The Brown Queen”
Andrew Hill, Passing Ships (Blue Note, 2003 [recorded November 7, 1969])

Bob Northern, who’s also known as “Brother Ah,” is a beautiful horn player. Very thoughtful, philosophical, sensitive. And very original, very musical. He’s done so many things; he wanted to transcend the roles you might be assigned in the music business and just be himself, and he’s done that his whole life. I love his approach to the horn, which you can hear on “The Brown Queen”: He never tried to emulate the kind of lines or tone that a trumpet or trombone or anything else would, he just created the Bob Northern sound on the French horn, his own personality, and it comes through loud and clear. Even when he’s just a voice in the ensemble, you know that it’s his voice.

Richard Todd
“Our Waltz”
Rickter Scale (GM, 1989)

Richard is one of the best French horn players in the world. In the Hollywood scene, where they have an army of sensational horn players, he was the top guy—but he loved jazz and decided that he really wanted to dare to do that, and it turned out he was killer at that too. Even when he’s doing jazz, the classical horn players hear it and go, “Good heavens, is that guy great!” On “Our Waltz” he plays with such clarity and brilliance. Clifford Brown told me, “Try to make every note sound clear as a bell,” and when you hear Richard play on this tune, he actually makes every note sound like a bell.

David Amram
“Pull My Daisy”
No More Walls (RCA, 1971)

This solo is the best thing I ever did on the French horn. It was one of those things where I just picked up the horn—hadn’t even practiced it for the date—and it came out right in one take, in the moment. It sounds natural, like somebody telling a story while still fitting it into the song. I didn’t want to put a lot of rhetoric into it, five pages of hot air. Pepper Adams was also playing, and a singer named Lynn Sheffield—who was actually a cab driver and sang folk, but her voice was so beautiful that I brought her in for this recording. It was a moment where the feeling was just so nice, and I enjoy listening back to it now.

[as told to Michael J. West]

David Amram

David Amram, a multi-instrumentalist and composer of classical, jazz, film, and theater music, played French horn in the bands of Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, and Oscar Pettiford. He is currently working on his fourth book, David Amram: The Next 80 Years.