Accomplished jazz artist Robert Northern, also known as Brother Ah, has died at the age of 86. He passed away on May 31st in Washington, DC after battling a respiratory illness, as reported by the New York Times.
Northern was born in 1934 in Kinston, North Carolina, but was raised primarily in the South Bronx area of New York City. The first few decades of his lengthy music career saw the French horn master serve as a session musician for jazz legends such as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones, and McCoy Tyner. He notably appeared on records like Monk’s The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall from 1959 and Quincy Jones Explores the Music of Henry Mancini released in 1964.
Around this same era, Northern played as part of Sun Ra’s cosmic, ever-evolving ensemble Arkestra, His credits included 1965’s The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra and 1968’s Pictures of Infinity.
By the early ’70s, Northern found his calling as a bandleader, operating under the moniker Brother Ah. His first proper solo album, Sound Awareness, came in 1972 and featured Max Roach and M’Boom. During this time, he also spent his summers studying non-Western music in Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania.
Northern later taught classes at Dartmouth College, Brown University, and Levine School of Music in DC. He also oversaw a weekly jazz radio program, “The Jazz Collectors”, on DC’s 89.3 WPFW.
In a 2018 interview with Open Sky Jazz, Northern recalled the night he played with Gil Evans at NYC’s legendary Birdland jazz venue,
“I used to sit there, as a teenager, and look at Charlie Parker, and dream, fantasize, myself playing with Bird up there. When I got to play in Birdland, with Gil Evans, I’m sitting on the stage, and I’m looking at where I used to sit, as a teenager. Oh man, it blew my mind.
We were playing opposite John Coltrane, and Miles, and all those cats. I was there. It was a wonderful thing. When we got up, Trane and Miles was up there, so I got a chance to hear them every single night, and meet them, and talk to them, and listen to them, and have conversation with them, in Birdland, the mecca.
I’m looking at where I used to sit, and I’m blowing, man. I said, ‘My God, talking about dreams and visions coming true.’ I would never have thought. Then, I sat in that same thing with Duke Ellington’s band.”