Bob Northern, a jazz French hornist, flutist, trumpeter, and radio personality known as Brother Ah, died May 31 at Bridgeport Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was 10 days past his 86th birthday.
His death was confirmed by his wife of 43 years, Dr. Ayanna Watkins-Northern. At press time, cause of death was still unknown; however, Northern had been hospitalized for some time with a respiratory ailment.
As a rare French horn specialist in jazz, Northern was frequently called upon for large ensembles or chamber-jazz projects in New York in the late 1950s and ’60s. He was probably best known for performing on 1959’s The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall, but he was also an important voice on John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass, Freddie Hubbard’s The Body and the Soul, and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. He worked regularly with the Quincy Jones Big Band and the Ella Fitzgerald Orchestra, and was for 10 years a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Since the 1980s, Northern had been living in Washington, where he worked as a healing musician, playing bamboo flute and various percussion instruments at Georgetown University’s cancer center and in public healing sessions, and a wordless drumming teacher at a school in the city. He was also a beloved radio personality, for two decades the host of the weekly program The Jazz Collectors on community station WPFW-FM.
Northern espoused, in his educational fora, healing sessions, and radio broadcasts, a philosophy he called “sound awareness.” “I learned that every entity on Earth is communicating through sound,” he told The Washington Post. “Every animal, every bird, every insect. And if we hear it, we can be a part of it.”
Robert Anthony Northern III was born May 21, 1934 in Kinston, North Carolina, and grew up in Harlem and the South Bronx. His mother made and sold custom lampshades; his father worked for Consolidated Edison—the New York City power company—but was also a vocalist who appeared in Broadway musical productions as well as on the nightclub circuit in Harlem. Northern grew up hearing his father perform and rehearse, and performing himself at family gatherings.
As a child, he began playing bugle on the fire escape of the family’s Harlem apartment, imitating the calls of the fruit vendors who would hawk their wares from wagons in the street. He switched in junior high school to the trumpet, then attended New York’s High School of the Performing Arts as a jazz trumpet player (having already played at jazz clubs in the Bronx). However, in his junior year, Northern was asked to switch to the French horn so he could solo in a performance of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. It became his primary instrument, and the one on which he earned a full scholarship to Manhattan School of Music (where he studied with Gunther Schuller). His studies were cut short, however, when he was drafted into the Korean War in 1953.
After serving in the Air Force, Northern returned to New York to take a job with a publisher and look for work as a professional musician, often running into difficulties because of his race; he often recalled that at one orchestral audition, half the violin section walked off the stage as soon as he took it. He did find work with the Metropolitan Opera and the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, as well as the orchestras of various Broadway productions, in which he was frequently the only black musician.
In 1959 Northern was asked by jazz composer and bandleader Gil Evans to play on a recording session and a three-week stint at Birdland in New York; Thelonious Monk was at one of the Birdland shows and offered Northern a slot at his now-legendary February 1959 Town Hall concert. This began a lengthy series of mostly large-ensemble jazz gigs, both live and in the studio, including Africa/Brass, The Body and the Soul, Liberation Music Orchestra, Andrew Hill’s Passing Ships, and Oliver Nelson’s Full Nelson, as well as numerous sessions for Jones’ big band and performances with Fitzgerald’s orchestra.
Northern was usually not an improviser in these situations. As he told it, he was primarily hired when the era’s other major jazz French hornist, Julius Watkins, was unavailable. One notable exception was his 10-year tenure (1964-74) with Sun Ra’s Arkestra; while he rarely soloed on record, he did so regularly in live performance.
Throughout all this, he continued performing in Broadway shows. While working in 1776, Northern, in 1969, composed the music that would become his 1972 debut album Sound Awareness. (Two more recordings, 1975’s Move Ever Onward and 1983’s Key to Nowhere, would follow.) In 1970, Don Cherry asked Northern to substitute for him for a semester at Dartmouth College; it turned into a three-and-a-half-year position. (It was during that time that his students, while listening to him lecture, noticed Northern’s habit of sighing softly—“Ahhh”—as he spoke. He adopted “Brother Ah” as a lifetime appellation.)
He then spent nine years at Brown University, studying healing music in Africa during the summers, before moving to Washington in the 1980s to work at the Levine School of Music. After that, he spent his remaining four decades as an educator, radio personality, and healing musician. Open Sky, a 1985 recording with zitherist Laraaji, became both his calling card (never released but sold privately) and his talisman, and in 2017 the Brooklyn label Manufactured Recordings released a boxed set of three albums of healing music that Northern had privately recorded in the ’70s and ’80s.
In addition to his wife, Northern is survived by a daughter, Dara Northern, and two sons from a previous marriage, Alex and Buschka Northern.