Some concert—the place is nearly empty. Self-proclaimed musical pioneer Brother Ah stands at the center of the stage inside downtown’s First Congregational Church, backed by his Sound Awareness Ensemble. A few dozen loners and a smattering of couples dot the wooden church pews, making the cavernous hall look more desolate than it usually does. Brother Ah, having played a number on the flute and then another on a harmonica, grabs a white conch shell speckled yellow with ocean tartar and blurts out a series of brassy phrases a la Louis Armstrong.
He uses his hand as a mute and pegs his notes without the benefit of actual keys, maintaining the sweet, round tone of a classical trumpet. On the table behind him lie several pieces—just a fraction—of his exotic instrument collection, which look as though they should be encased in a vitrine at the Smithsonian: nut-adorned rattlers, animal-horn woodwinds, and several types of hand-carved wooden flutes. Ah learned to play one of those flutes, a stretch of gutted Japanese bamboo painted red, from legendary jazz gypsy Don Cherry on midnight strolls through Central Park in the early ’60s.
Ah walked with Cherry back when he ran around with New York’s jazz royalty: The nights at Birdland opposite Miles Davis with Gil Evans‘ band. The days in the studio recording John Coltrane‘s The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions. The years—10, to be exact—that he played with one of the most radical, bizarre, and influential bands of the century, the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Back then, Ah was a member of a most elite musical species: the New York sideman. He was the ultimate session player, one who laid down the gospel of jazz through his playing and worked with the masters, the Lester Youngs and John Coltranes, to usher in new musical eras. It’s a good title in a genre built famously around collaborations, and it applies to the very finest instrumentalists—folks like Max Roach and Paul Chambers, who are best known for their credits on the albums of others. During the years Ah played with Sun Ra, which ended in 1974, he was also sitting in with musicians such as Quincy Jones and Pharoah Sanders.
“Brother Ah was always able to give the writer or conductor exactly what they wanted,” recalls Grady Tate, a renowned New York drummer. “He led a kind of charmed existence.”
Ah still enjoys a charmed life, though the charms and the life have changed wholesale. His main gig these days does not involve New York’s jazz luminaries, nor does it really center around the local dates he sometimes plays. (The church show is a benefit for the celebrated prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier.) Many of the surviving jazz players of his generation—deities like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, drummer Roach, bassist Ron Carter—continue to maintain international touring schedules and pop up on contemporary recordings. But Ah rises weekday mornings to drive his white 1991 Volvo to the Ideal Charter School, just a few minutes from his Takoma home, where he spends his days in the classroom teaching instrumental music and music history to kids who range in age from 18 months to 18 years.
How did this revered session player come to find himself on a church stage blowing wind into a seashell for a dud crowd of random attendees? Why has Ah left behind post-big-band-era jazz, the victuals he grew up on? Why is this classicist, trained at the Vienna Academy of Music, for God’s sake, brewing such a watery musical soup? How come nobody’s here to listen?
The reason that this man, who once played to standing-room-only crowds at Birdland, is now presenting his oblique creations to near-empty church pews is simple: He is following his vision. And when a performer’s vision turns oblivious to the size of his audience, he usually fails to attract one.
On a bright Wednesday afternoon in early December, Brother Ah hauls a fleet of percussion instruments out of the closet inside his classroom at Ideal. A sixth-grade class is about to show up. He arranges the tall conga drums, bongos, and an array of brightly colored African drums—djembe, sangbe, jun jun—in a loose circle around a patch of carpet at the front of the room. Ten minutes after class is supposed to start, the door swings open. A squadron of preteens invades the room, wildly charged from science class; their experiment today involved holding their noses and seeing whether they could taste the difference between apples and onions. Now they’re arguing about whose breath reeks the worst.
Ah, with a speaking tone that suggests rather than demands, coaxes the kids into taking seats around the classroom’s long tables. He starts assigning them instruments. A dozen rambunctious munchkins are about to be turned loose on musical equipment that requires repetitive banging.
“I want to play this!” yells a pudgy girl in a blue Mickey Mouse sweat shirt, leaning over the table and pointing to a sangbe drum mounted on a plastic chair.
“Don’t call it ‘this’!” Ah snaps. “Every instrument has a name, which I’ve taught you.” He points to each piece in the percussion arsenal, calling on different kids to identify the instruments, some of which have tongue-twisting African names. Incorrect enunciation isn’t tolerated.
“‘Conga’?” Ah responds to one girl, repeating her short “o.” “No. It’s ‘cooonga.’”
Ah then points to an instrument he’s dragged out today for the first time: roto-toms, a trio of drums mounted on a rack like three thick pancakes.
“It’s a drum set!” says one boy confidently.
Ah walks over to the drums and bangs out a quick, complicated rhythm sequence with two sticks.
“These are used to play the sounds of Southeast Washington,” Ah says, as he segues into a story he tells so often that it seems like a fable.
It’s the story about his first trip to Africa, back in the summer of 1972. He was playing to the flowers at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, when he stumbled upon a palm-wine scavenger, an Ashanti, from the village of Gyinyase, who led Ah to his hometown. One villager there asked Ah to play the rhythms from different regions of his homeland, the U.S. Ah drew a blank. He’d been versed in the trademark rhythms of various African peoples, but he couldn’t play the street rhythms of his own country. The villager diagnosed Ah with amnesia: He had forgotten who he was.
“People in Ghana or Tanzania don’t want to hear their own rhythms when they meet you,” Ah tells the class to round out the parable. “They want to hear your rhythms. Traditionally, you have to know the rhythms of your own community.”
With that introduction, Ah unleashes the children on the instruments. He opens up a huge yellow fabric sack and distributes plastic yellow maracas, metal shakers, and a dangerous number of metal cowbells to those left drumless. When everybody in the group has an instrument, Ah takes a seat behind his djembe, which rises 3 feet from the floor and resembles half an hourglass. He starts laying down a beat that smacks of hiphop—only it’s rawer, because he’s playing it on a single acoustic skin. Ah tells the class to watch his hands—the way he strikes the rim on some beats, muffles hits to the drum head’s center on others.
Around the circle, kids start pounding on congas and go-go bells—two circular cowbells connected by a bar bent into a U. Some beat vigorously, others softly, so as not to be heard; few are in sync with Ah’s steady pulse. In the face of this clanging cacophony, Ah refuses to stop. He stares at a girl who’s wearing plaid flannel behind a shiny, jet-black conga, exaggerating his hand movements to relay the proper rhythm.
“Now it’s your turn!” he yells to her above the noise.
She squirms in her seat and turns her head down toward the drum. Then she plays the part perfectly. Ah repeats the process with the other two conga players, who catch on quickly, further reducing the group’s rhythmic entropy.
With 10 minutes left ’til the end of class, Ah whirls around the ring of students to give quick lessons to the bongo and roto-tom players. He approaches the girl in plaid, who is now carrying a cowbell. He demonstrates a tricky eight-note counterrhythm that begins on the off-beat, a repeating line that a vocalist would normally mold lyrics around. Then he jumps back behind his djembe, counting off the time:
“One, two…You know what to do. Come on!”
The players nail the dance beat. Out in the hallway, teachers passing by shake their butts and peek in, gape-mouthed, through a window in the door. In half an hour’s time, Ah has transformed tasteless percussion into legitimate song. But he keeps pushing it. At the end of every three-bar phrase, he spreads his arms out hyperbolically, signaling a cut to make room for one-bar turnaround solos. At each cut, he points to direct a different player to take the spotlight for four beats. When a student occasionally misses the cut, Ah doesn’t get upset; he just lets that kid take the next solo. He encourages one shy boy, who’s tapping the table in order to vibrate the tambourine that’s resting on top of it. After each student has reveled in four beats of fame, Ah intercedes on the final cut with the lyrics “Goodbye, y’all.” Then he stops. The kids disregard his coda, screaming, “No!” and sustaining the rhythm for a few more run-throughs before splitting for the day. A few kids stick around to fill out notebook-paper contracts so they can each bring a cowbell home to practice for the night.
His name, by the way, was not always Brother Ah.
He grew up as Robert Northern, in the Southeast Bronx. When he was 9 years old, little Bob inherited a bugle from a woman in his neighborhood. Her husband hadn’t made it out of World War I, and she let the local kids play on the horn he had left behind.
“When it got into my hands, I made a beautiful, big sound,” Ah says. “She giggled and gave me the bugle to keep.”
Bob and the bugle were inseparable. He took the bugle on walks around the block; he even showered with it. He used to practice out on the fire escape. He tried to imitate the sounds of the street—a barking dog, a fire engine’s whining siren, a jalopy puttering down an alley—by blowing into his horn. “I fell in love with the idea of being able to express myself, my deep feelings, without words,” Ah recalls. “It was stuff I couldn’t say at 9 years old.”
“And the sensation of blowing air through resistance, the spirituality of the breath…” Ah muses. “The blowing and breathing of air was an exhilarating experience.” He smiles, leaning back in a worn brown recliner, which contrasts with the polished hardwood floors and the neatly arranged collections of carved wooden souvenirs from Africa inside the first floor of his house. The chair cradled Ah’s father for the last 12 years of his life, after a series of heart attacks and strokes relegated him to a life of stillness.
Ah’s dad had toured with the Northern Brothers, a singing troupe that performed in nightclubs, concert halls, and in Broadway musicals. In 1937, his parents left Kinston, N.C., the small town where Ah was born, in ’34, to head north. Disgusted with Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan, the family fled to the Bronx, where Fats Waller—and, later, Charlie Parker—was performing at dance halls.
When he was 13, Bob started taking trumpet lessons from Benny Harris, a local trumpeter who had penned the bop anthem “Ornithology.” A couple of years later, he joined his first band to play dances. Jimmy Lyons, Charlie Parker’s stylistic heir, who later defined the avant-garde with pianist Cecil Taylor, played lead sax. After junior high, Bob was accepted by the prestigious School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan.
The course of the kid’s life changed significantly during his sophomore year in high school, because of a relatively simple logistical problem: The school’s orchestra was scheduled to play a movement in Dvorak‘s New World Symphony at graduation. The piece includes a lengthy French horn solo, but all the French horn players were graduating. Bob put down his trumpet, picked up the French horn, and never looked back. After the graduation ceremony, a trustee from the Manhattan School of Music offered him a scholarship to play French horn at the school when he graduated himself. He accepted the offer.
In 1953, Northern left Manhattan to join the Air Force band, and he wound up playing for U.S. troops at the tail end of the Korean War. Afterward, he headed to Austria to study French horn at the Vienna Academy of Music. In 1958, Northern returned to the States to play with the Metropolitan Stage Band, an adjunct to the Metropolitan Opera.
At the Met, he got his first foul taste of institutional racism. “It was hard for black musicians just to find out about auditions,” Ah says. “The uptown musicians’ union in Harlem would never post audition notices. The Urban League told us [black musicians] to get our repertoires ready, because [the Urban League] might call right before an audition.”
On one occasion, Northern got a call from the Urban League telling him of an audition for the Radio City Orchestra, the house band for Radio City Music Hall, with half an hour to spare. He ran to get a cab downtown. “For the white French horn players, they brought out light music,” Ah remembers. “For me, they brought out the hardest things. For 45 minutes they kept bringing out harder pieces,” he recalls. “You would think I was auditioning for the Philharmonic.”
He made the cut, but he faced the type of discrimination at Radio City that his parents thought they’d left in Kinston. “There were two of us in the pit, and there were no black ushers, conductors, or stagehands. The stress was making me ill. I had been playing the Christmas show for a few years, and in ’62 or ’63, the show was taped for TV. I was eliminated for the taping; they hired a temporary horn player. That was it.” He and Radio City were through.
His departure pushed him even farther into the jazz scene he had begun to explore. He’d already played a Town Hall concert with Thelonious Monk in ’59 and then at Birdland that same year with Evans’ band, sharing the bill with an all-star group comprising Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Red Garland, Jimmy Cobb, and Chambers. Then one day in 1964, a baritone saxophone player named Pat Patrick persuaded Northern to check out the group he was gigging with on Monday nights.
It was called the Sun Ra Arkestra. Except for Patrick’s ravings, Northern had never heard of it.
Originally formed in Chicago, Sun Ra’s Arkestra was defining the jazz avant-garde before it was even defined as such. Incorporating theatrics, spacey lyricism, and bizarre costumery into live performance, Sun Ra believed he was sending messages to cosmic beings through song. Initially dissed by the jazz mainstream, Sun Ra’s name now tops the list of free-jazz pioneers in music history books.
“At that performance, I literally found myself standing on a table chanting, ‘Sun Ra!’” Ah says. “At set break, I went up to Sun Ra and grabbed him by the wrists. I said, ‘I have to come play with you.’”
A few days later, Northern showed up at the band leader’s claustrophobic apartment on the Lower East Side. It was raining outside, he recalls, and he was soaking wet. At Sun Ra’s request, Northern sat in front of an open oven to dry off while the band leader disappeared with John Gilmore, his tenor saxophonist and right-hand man. They returned bearing reams of paper and with a crowd of musicians in tow. Sun Ra sheet music was distributed.
“It was more difficult than anything that I had ever seen, and I had played Wagner and Schoenberg,” Ah says. “But for some reason, I read it flawlessly. Gilmore told me to come to the club on Monday night. I showed up and sat next to Sun Ra. At one point, the whole band stopped playing, and I took a solo. But I couldn’t keep my mouthpiece on my mouth—it kept slipping off. I realized that my mouth was bleeding from playing so hard and so long. It was my blood initiation into the band.”
Northern spent the ’60s gigging with the biggest names in New York’s jazz circles, dabbling in classical music on the side, occasionally entering a classroom to work with kids. In 1970, he took a position at Dartmouth College, leading classes that he calls “multiculti”: an unusual mix of history, music, and world culture. It was his students at Dartmouth who christened him Brother Ah. “They said I emanated an ‘Ahhh,’” he says, inflating the H with his breath. Ah discovered that his new title corresponded with the ancient Egyptian word for “moon.” And a numerologist informed him that “Brother Ah” and “Robert Northern” are numerically equivalent, so he started to “wear” the name.
The name change signaled a deeper conversion. In New York, Bob Northern had kowtowed to the elders—Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Sun Ra. He was a sideman for the masters, but a sideman nonetheless. At Dartmouth, Brother Ah opened his classroom door to find a baby-grand Steinway with his name on it. He took up the experiments in sound awareness that he’d begun on his open-air fire-escape laboratory 25 years earlier. He indulged promiscuously in musical instruments: flutes from India, Ethiopia, and the Orient; sitars; and a half-dozen kinds of oboes. “I spent the ’60s absorbing, playing everyone else’s music,” Ah says. “Not until I got to Dartmouth did I start working on my own music.” After three years at Dartmouth, Ah spent nearly a decade at Brown University.
As he ages, his bandmates keep getting younger. As a young man, Ah played with New York’s jazz elders. In middle age, it was college kids at upper-crust New England universities. On the precipice of senior citizenhood, he’s playing with toddlers. At 65, he just struck up a group for 2-year-olds in November. Ah says that the music’s rhyme and reason haven’t changed, though the music itself has.
“In New York, we used to play a lot of bebop, and I love bebop,” Ah says. “But I love Beethoven, too, and that’s from the 18th century. It will always have its place in music. But it’s not fulfilling to play bebop anymore. It’s not pertinent to the times, just as it’s not the same to play Beethoven in the 21st century. It doesn’t reflect the tempo of the times anymore.”
Ah thinks that the new tempo—set by D.C. bureaucrats trudging to the office each morning and bike messengers gliding through red lights along K Street—is most purely replicated by kids behind drums who have little idea of what they’re creating, let alone what they’re reflecting.
Players who knew Ah, or Northern, in those days in New York say his move from nightclubs to classrooms doesn’t strike them as odd or out of character.
“He’s a humanist, to say the least,” says Roach. “He’s the type of person who loves people. Everybody wants to be like Bob Northern. He’s a free spirit. And he’s really socially conscious—that’s how we hit it off.”
“I don’t know many players who do that [teach young children], but he’s just basically a nice human being,” says Tate. “It’s the welfare of others that he cares about.”
“I doubt if anyone is doing the selfless work for others that he’s doing,” says longtime jazz critic Nat Hentoff.
There’s plenty of truth to those assertions. Sure, Ah cares deeply for his students. He wants to spread the gospel of music-making to the little people. But his motivations aren’t entirely those of a selfless philanthropist. Ah gets a huge charge from observing kids as they bang the living shit out of cowbells and bongos, just as jazz freaks find religion in dissecting Art Tatum‘s piano solos. He believes he has discovered the uninhibited, instinctual musical compass that once steered his mentor, the self-proclaimed alien Sun Ra, in sixth-graders who aren’t afraid to flail around the room randomly or churn out simple quarter notes with the pride of accomplished multi-instrumentalists.
Yeah, Ah’s here to teach, but also to learn. The notion of an old-time jazz survivor taking notes on kiddie jam sessions seems odd, but it seems even more so when you consider that he was known in New York as a refined, classically trained perfectionist who forever impressed his fellow players. “The first thing that intrigued me about him was how well he played—playing was our initial point of contact,” Tate recalls. “And when I spoke with him, he was an in-depth individual who spoke about music and many other things. He wasn’t religious as such, but he spoke of life, love, and contentment.”
“Oh shit…I can’t remember when I met him,” Roach says. “But he was a fine French horn player and a wonderful person.”
He still is a fine French horn player, but he continues to veer further away from traditional notions of refinement. “I’m realizing more and more that the creative spark begins at infancy,” Ah says.
And that primitive spark isn’t merely a weird obsession of Ah’s; it was the animating force behind the ’60s free-jazz movement, in which Ah immersed himself when he joined Sun Ra’s ensemble. Free jazz stresses the expression of human feelings, an art that infants master without knowing better. Sun Ra’s Arkestra helped introduce the paradoxical musical bylaws that govern the seemingly anarchical jazz avant-garde: Sun Ra helped pioneer impossibly difficult music that comes off sounding haphazard and cacophonous despite its demand for precision. He also set the standard for communication between the performer and his audience despite alienating chords and minimal rhythms.
Ah didn’t reside in the privileged echelons of free-jazz messiahs who offered relief from the cliched lines of bebop. He wasn’t an Ornette Coleman, a Cecil Taylor, or a Sun Ra. But he was an apostle. “People in the Sun Ra band, they come mostly on their own and leave mostly on their own,” says reeds player Marshall Allen, who, at 76, leads the current incarnation of the Arkestra. “But when Sun Ra picked [Brother Ah], he picked a good one.”
Allen, too, views Ah’s turning to teaching as a natural step in the progression of the jazz life. Ah never strayed from the path of the devoted musician; the path simply led him out of the New York jazz scene. He had launched his New York career as a classical player, as Miles Davis and a slew of others tried to do. Davis quit Juilliard to attend “night school” inside the city’s bebop clubs, mutinied into his “cool” phase, and later pursued fusion to the point of electronic rock. Ah started out a classicist, attended the same “night school” as Davis, and took up with the jazz avant-garde under Sun Ra. He’s outlived most of his old schoolmates, and these days, jiving with technically inept school kids seems to him like the next ticket to bohemia. Ah sees kids as the wellspring of unadulterated creative energy that every artist longs to summon.
Ah wasn’t the first to shrug off the New York jazz scene. Don Cherry, Ah’s bamboo-flute mentor and helmsman in the free-jazz and world-music movements, slipped off to Sweden as the ’60s, a decade marked by freaky jazz experiments, drew to a close. Cherry, among the day’s pre-eminent musical scientists, left to strike up a music school for young Swedes. It was Cherry’s post at Dartmouth that Ah took in 1970, at Cherry’s urging.
“It makes sense that he’s teaching, because that embodies the spirit of free expression,” Hentoff says. “We writers and musicians always have something to say.” What Hentoff calls “free expression” is the liberty of the teacher to impart wisdom, to translate educational slogans into kid talk. But the teacher-student paradigm is typically a one-way street, with the flow of ideas from instructor to learner. For Ah, the group lessons foster a more open forum of ideas, spoken through sound. He schools the kids, and, unconsciously, the kids verse him in the ways of primal, undeveloped bangers and tappers.
His late-career legacy may play well with the aging New York cats, but some jazz heads closer to home wonder why he’s here. “He was once the dominant figure in jazz as a French horn player,” says Tom Porter, former program director for WPFW-FM and longtime friend of Ah’s. “I think he’s continued to do creative and exciting work, but the musicians around him in D.C. haven’t had the same experience, and so there’s been some unevenness. In a selfish way, I wish he were part of what is going on in music today in New York, especially some of the more avant-garde things. D.C. isn’t a sophisticated jazz town, and it’s hard for local musicians to get people to come see them continuously.”
Porter just released a Sun Ra Arkestra album—a performance piece recorded in ’68—on his Son Boy label, but he hasn’t tried to market it in D.C. because “it’s selling in New York like hotcakes.”
“Ah’s a virtuoso, one of those guys that could pick up any wind instrument and in a few minutes, he could play it pretty well,” says Mapleshade Records President Pierre Sprey, who co-produced Ah’s 1993 record, Celebration, with his World Music Ensemble. “I know some New York players who would love for him to go back.”
But Ah ain’t going back. He doesn’t even visit the city unless a special performance requires his musical presence. And such occasions are rare. The last major step Ah took in the New York jazz scene was his permanent exit 25 years ago.
Lacking a chalkboard, an overhead projector, or even so much as a ream of loose-leaf paper, Ah’s classroom revolves around a technique that he terms “sound awareness.” It’s the same technique that governed the composition of those Stone Age-meets-Space Age musical pieces Ah played at the First Congregational Church.
The “sound awareness” conceit is best explained anecdotally: Leaving his house before heading back to school after lunch, Ah spots a plump gray thrush perched on the black railing of the stairs to his front porch. He laments that the bird is still chirping out lines of song so late in the season. It should have migrated weeks ago, but, Ah says, the animal is confused by a streak of warm December weather. Driving off, he spends the next 10 minutes marveling at the bird’s vocal range: “I can’t believe the thrush’s repertoire,” he says, shaking his head. “I’ve been listening to that bird for years and have never heard the same song twice.”
Ah will probably quote the bird’s vast songbook in a future composition. That’s the process of sound awareness: imitating the distinct sounds of one’s own community, whatever its boundaries, in song. It complements the story about the Ashanti villager who admonished Ah for his ignorance of his native rhythms, the sounds of his back yard. And the process doesn’t stop with natural noise. All audible sensations, from the pat of stylish sneakers against cracked macadam to the dialect of a particular neighborhood to the booming whomps of bass that spill out of passing cars, are transcribed to reflect a specific place at a specific point in time—a collision we usually call “culture.”
Ah sees kids, those unjaded receptors of the surrounding world, as masters of sound awareness. At a Saturday morning session for 2-year-olds, he sits beating his djembe drum continually for a solid hour. Half a dozen toddlers drift in and out of the room; a pair saddle up on a plastic zebra rocking horse in the adjoining room. Ah communicates purely by body language; he rarely reprimands the kids, even when a boy in orange sweats starts smacking a delicate hand drum with a stick or another retreats from the bongos to take a nap on the floor. He invites them to pick up instruments through eye contact and suggests new rhythms wordlessly, with dramatic hand movements.
A kid named Ajani starts crying and waddles over to his mother. Ah hypnotizes him by pulling out the Japanese flute, fingering a melody with one hand while keeping the beat with the other. Ajani picks up a go-go bell from the shiny hardwood floor and starts knocking it haphazardly with a stick, drifting into the trancelike zone where all 2-year-olds occasionally sojourn. Though he hits the instrument with space-cadet regularity, Ajani’s always in time with the djembe’s beat.
One girl, who’s all of a year and a half, has spent most of the morning literally tasting the buffet of instruments. She gets hold of Ah’s flute and begins blowing a single note—over and over. It’s fatally redundant and piercingly shrill, but she plays in perfect time. For her age, it’s an impressive performance. But the charm dissipates entirely as the hour draws to a close. Parents are holding up tambourines and cow bells, begging their kids to play; Ajani’s near tears on his mother’s lap, and the flute princess is now using the hollow bamboo pipe as a drumstick. But Ah rides his djembe groove out until the hour expires.
After the session, parents praise Ah’s “tremendous patience.” But Ah basks in the John Cage-esque jam. “Oh, that was good. That was so good. I wish I could have recorded that,” he says at the end, as if waking from a dream. “They were making a real composition there. That sounded like Sun Ra there for a while. It’s hard to get professional musicians to play that simply.”
It was Sun Ra who told Ah to abandon the tenets of structure and form wrought over his years of classical training, to play only according to “the laws of nature.” So, whereas most instructors rely on books or sheet music to teach musical instruments, Ah wants his students to learn by listening and watching, by deduction rather than induction.
When explaining his peculiar educational ethos, he’s reminded of a story about Thelonious Monk. In 1959, Ah was rehearsing at 3 a.m. with Monk’s band at a loft overlooking 7th Avenue, preparing for a Town Hall concert. During a run-through of “Little Rootie Tootie,” Monk noticed that Ah wasn’t getting the part rhythmically. He called a five-minute break and took Ah aside. “Monk danced the rhythm of my entire part,” Ah says. “Just by watching his feet, I learned to play the rhythm.”
On Monday nights, Ah gives conga lessons in his basement to a 52-year-old postal worker named Arthur Coe. Pattering out an eighth-note pattern in three bars, Ah speaks to Coe only with his hands. After dozens of attempts, the student still stumbles recklessly across his drums; perhaps the 6/4 rhythm is too complicated. Ah apparently doesn’t think so. He trudges on with the same beat for nearly 10 minutes without a word. Finally, after what seems like an eon of trials and errors, the beat clicks. Coe has learned the rhythm through the imitative process of sound awareness, what Ah calls his “oral/aural” method. “Only in Europe and white America is notation used for learning. You never develop your ear,” Ah says. “Learning by the oral tradition develops your ear first.”
After dozens of revolutions of the 6/4 cycle, Coe, wearing a Washington Capitals T-shirt inside-out, yells above the hypnotizing beat, “Brother Ah! Give me a break to get out of this! How would you end this?”
Ah stares back coolly, apparently deaf to his cry for help. A split second later, the instructor smacks out an abbreviated solo, a punchy coda. Coe’s hands continue pounding a few beats past Ah’s final hit, but the student nods as if he’s just experienced some small percussive revelation. “It’s very mechanical, but I feel like my body is starting to give in,” he says, panting softly from the workout.
Coe met Ah two years ago, at a student concert at the now-defunct African Centered School in D.C. “I saw Ah playing with all these toddlers, and I said, ‘I’m 52 years old now. I could do this,’” Coe says, sitting a few feet from a coffee table stacked with worn LPs—sides of McCoy Tyner, Gillespie, and the Gil Evans Orchestra—vinyl preservers of Ah’s recording days in New York. “I don’t think it’s odd at all that I’m working with him. I think it’s the Creator doing his work. I didn’t choose [the congas]. I was chosen,” Coe says.
Ah’s teaching technique doesn’t really change depending on whether he’s working with a grown man or a group of pups. He realized as much at P.S. 41 in the Bronx, back in the days when he was still on the jazz circuit: Ah walked into a classroom full of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders blowing into horns of all types, creating an unbearable torrent of honks, shrills, and farts. His mission: teach the kids brass instruments. “I walked into that room and told the kids to stop,” Ah recalls. “They said, ‘You don’t know what we’re doing.’ I said, ‘Yes, I do. You’re making noise.’”
A couple of students pushed the window open, letting a stream of street noise flow into the room. “We’re just playing all the sounds of the outside world,” one of the kids said. Ah was struck.
“That reinforced what I already knew but had forgotten,” he says. He had forgotten the sensation of blowing through a brass mouthpiece as a 9-year-old. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.