'The Black Horn': Blowing Past Classical Music's Color Barriers
Robert Lee Watt fell in love with the French horn at an early age. He met a lot of resistance from people who thought his background and his race made a career with the instrument unlikely — but he went on to become the first African-American French hornist hired by a major symphony in the United States.
He became the assistant first French horn for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1970, and stayed with the orchestra for 37 years. His memoir, The Black Horn, tells how he got there.
Watt grew up in New Jersey with a mother who played piano by ear and a father who played the trumpet. His dad was keen to have Watt follow in his footsteps and play popular music and jazz on the trumpet.
But then Watt discovered a French horn in the basement of the local community center, and asked his father what it was.
"He says, 'French horn — that's a middle instrument, it never gets the melody. And besides, it's for thin-lipped white boys. Your lips are too thick,' " Watt remembers.
Despite his father's dismissal of the French horn, Watt was drawn to the instrument.
"It gives me chills," Watt says. "It just really touched me."
Today, symphony auditions are "blind," featuring screens between musicians and the committee judging them. That wasn't the case back when Watt started his career, and he wasn't sure that, given his race, he'd even have a chance in auditions.
He tells NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates how one teacher encouraged him to audition anyway, and how he overcame skepticism within and outside the world of classical music.
On continuing his French horn career after attending the elite New England Conservatory of Music
I think it was toward the end of the third year, my teacher came to me and said "I think it's time for you to start looking for a job." And I said, "Doing what?" And he says, "Playing your horn, dummy." And so my teacher — who just passed away a few months ago, by the way, at age 100 — was very paternal for me.
On racial tensions he faced in the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Most people were fine. They just — there were things that [were] what James Baldwin would call ignorant and innocent at the same time. ... I do remember meeting a concert pianist and he says he almost fainted when he saw me sitting there. He says, "You're so starkly black [against all the orchestra's white faces], there you were in the LA Philharmonic." ...
I had a nickname ... Boston Blackie. No one had ever called me that personally but many people came to tell me that that's how I was referred to.
And then there was a Chinese guy, very young, came up to me and he said, "Welcome. Bob, now that you're here, try and get as many black people where you are." He says, "That's how things change." And he became my first friend in the orchestra.
On what he wants people to take away from the book
One of the things that I think ... we're not honest enough about is, we tell young people that, "You can do anything you want, just put your mind to it." But that lofty paradigm defaults to: "You can do anything if we're comfortable with it."
In my hometown people would say things like, "You wanna play French horn, I see. Have you seen anyone else doing it?" I said, "No." ... That was the mentality in my hometown. If it's different, right away, you're going to get resistance.
Or, in the case of my father, it was fear. Because my father, I found out just before I went to conservatory, that he actually auditioned for Juilliard. He bolted out of the audition because he ... could play bands, he could read Sousa marches and he could play in the jazz band, but ... he wasn't classically trained trumpet. So it created a fear and a stigma, so when I come along a generation later saying, "I want to play French horn," he thought, "You think they're gonna take you? You'll see."
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: You know this sound, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YANKEE DOODLE")
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:
It's the lush, golden sound of the French horn, an instrument that usually makes its home in the orchestra. Robert Lee Watt fell in with the French horn at an early age. And despite a lot of resist from others who thought his background and race would make this unlikely, he became one of the very few black members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)
GRIGSBY BATES: Robert Lee Watts' memoir, "The Black Horn," tells how he got there - the fourth of seven children growing up in the frigid Northeast.
ROBERT LEE WATT: We grew up kind of in a giant cold-water flat of a house. But we didn't think about - we made fun kid stuff of it - snowball fights inside the house because there were cracks in the windows, and snow would drift in.
GRIGSBY BATES: That sounds kind of chilly. You grew up back east, yes?
WATT: Yes, New Jersey. So we didn't - but we didn't think, oh, my God, we have - this is terrible. We have no heat. We just used the - made fun of it.
GRIGSBY BATES: Were your parents musical? Did you get that at all?
WATT: Yes. My mother played piano by ear.
GRIGSBY BATES: Your dad also played an instrument.
WATT: Played trumpet.
GRIGSBY BATES: But not the piano. OK.
WATT: No, trumpet. He would come home himself at night - sometimes a little bit boozed - and fall out on the floor and play trumpet his trumpet and skat. And I would peek down from the stairwell. Yeah.
GRIGSBY BATES: Did he want you to follow in his footsteps and play trumpet?
WATT: Oh, sure, absolutely. And that moment when I discovered the French horn in the basement of the community center, I said, what's that instrument? Oh, he says, that's a French horn. It's a middle instrument - never gets the melody - and besides, it's for thin-lipped white boys. Your lips are too thick.
GRIGSBY BATES: Your dad told you this. He thought you weren't physically suited to play the French horn.
WATT: Yeah, that was his believe. And he says, you like that worn? I said, it gives me chills. I said, let me hear it again, and it just really touched me.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)
GRIGSBY BATES: And from high school, you did something that surprised a lot of people. You went on to the very elite New England Conservatory of Music.
WATT: Yeah. I - my - I was lucky to get a teacher in my hometown who came down in the summer. I think it was towards the end of the third year, my teacher came to me and said, I think it's time for you to start looking for a job. And I said, doing what? And he says, playing your horn, dummy. So my teacher was - who just passed away a few months ago, by the way, at age 100 - was very paternal for me.
GRIGSBY BATES: So you go from home to the conservatory, which people would've thought was a very long shot. You leave the conservatory. And as still a kid, you end up working with one of biggest orchestras in the country. How'd that happen?
WATT: For a symphony audition these days, there's a screen. You know, the committee doesn't see you. You don't see the committee.
GRIGSBY BATES: I was going to ask about that.
WATT: Yeah. But when I auditioned, there was no screen.
GRIGSBY BATES: So they knew when you walked out on stage that you are going to be a different kind of French horn player. I don't imagine that they would have seen a whole ton of black classical musicians at auditions.
WATT: No, no - not - especially French horn. I did ask my teacher about that. I said, do you really think I have a chance. And he really said something that - you know, it's that kind of thing where it's like a transition, where things change. He said, you go to these auditions. You play the best you can. You knock them dead. And you cross that bridge when you come to it. What else could he say? There was other - there was no other precedent. I set the precedent.
GRIGSBY BATES: And the rest is history.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)
GRIGSBY BATES: Did people welcome you? Were they warm? Were they - what's this black guy doing here?
WATT: Most people were fine. They just - there were things that would - what James Baldwin would call ignorant and innocent at the same time - people wanting to same something, but even though they say it, it would also be very awkwardly - racially awkward. But they were trying to be nice. So, you know, it was a lot of that type of thing.
GRIGSBY BATES: You have a passage in there where somebody came up to you and said, you know, I just love black music. You know, it goes all the way back to slavery. Slaves produced such beautiful music, and that's why you people have musical ability. I just - to this day, I love it.
WATT: He - yeah, he meant no harm. He was a very nice man. But that's - there was a lot of that type of thing. I do remember meeting a concert pianist, and he said, he almost fainted when he saw me sitting there. He said, you were so starkly black. There you were in the LA Philharmonic. Then there were some things in town - freelance players. I had a nickname, and no ever called me, but I had a nickname. And...
GRIGSBY BATES: What was your nickname?
WATT: Boston Blackie.
GRIGSBY BATES: Boston Blackie - creative.
WATT: No one had ever called me that personally, but many people came to tell me that that's how I was referred to. And so - and then there was a Chinese guy - very young - came up to me, and he said, welcome. Bob, now that you're here, try to get as many black people where you are. He says, that's how things change. And we - he became my first friend in the orchestra.
GRIGSBY BATES: What do you want people to know about you in reading this book? What do you want? What's the Bob Watt that you want to come through?
WATT: One of things that - I think that, in this society - that we're not honest enough about is we tell young people that you can do anything you want. Just put your mind to it. But that lofty paradigm defaults to you can do anything if we're comfortable with it. In my hometown, people would say things like, you want to play French horn. I see. Have you seen anyone else doing it? And I said, no. There's your answer.
That was the mentality in my hometown. If it's different, right away you're going to get resistance. Or in the case of my father, it was fear because my father - I found out just before I went to Conservatory that he actually auditioned for Juilliard. He bolted out of the audition because he was basically - he could play band, he could read Sousa marches, and he could play in a jazz band, but he didn't have - he wasn't classically trained trumpet. So it created a fear and a stigma. So when I come along a generation later, saying I want to play French horn, oh, God, he thought. You think they're going to take you? You'll see. Yeah.
GRIGSBY BATES: Well, it's a good thing you didn't listen to anybody tell you no and forged your own path. And we ended up with this memoir and with some music that'll be around for a while. Robert Lee Watt was the first assistant principal French horn for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for almost 40 years, right?
WATT: It was 37 years.
GRIGSBY BATES: Thirty-seven. His memoir, "The Black Horn," has just been published. He spoke to us from our studios here at NPR West. Bob, thank you very much.
WATT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.