ROBERT LEE WATT didn’t allow racial stereotypes and the low expectations of others to hold him back. From the beginning, the classical musician used that negativity as his fuel to excel.
In The Black Horn: The Story of Classical French Hornist Robert Lee Watt, he has narrated his fascinating journey. The fourth of seven children, Watt grew up in poverty in New Jersey and became the first black French hornist hired by a major US Symphony, spending 37 years with the LA Philharmonic.
Watt, 69, first heard the French horn as a kid, in the William Tell Overture — and knew that he’d found his calling. Although he came from a musical family — Watt’s father played the trumpet, his mother piano — he did not have much support. The senior Watt didn’t approve or understand his son’s interest in the French horn. “It’s an instrument for thin-lipped white boys,” Watt remembers his father saying. “Your lips are too thick for that narrow mouthpiece.”
That didn’t deter him. His musical passion eventually gave Watt access to a world of possibilities: he’s traveled the globe, learned to pilot a plane … and he isn’t shy about revealing his sportsman-like dalliances with myriad women — sections which could have benefited from stricter editing. He also shares stories of his friendship with jazz trumpet great Miles Davis.
The Black Horn is candid and often humorous. Watt’s stories of transcending racial and class discrimination are especially edifying. In chapter 24, for instance, he details an encounter with the dean of the New England Conservatory of Music, who had just learned that the LA Phil wanted to hire Watt. “[He] looked at me with that typical surprised, wide-eyed and trembling lips look that older white people typically give a black person when said black person significantly exceeds their expectations,” he writes.
I caught up with Watt at a Starbucks not far from his home in Baldwin Hills to talk about how he made it through despite the pushback, his tempestuous relationship with his father, and the future of African Americans in classical music.
MEKEISHA MADDEN TOBY: Yours was an unlikely path for a black kid in the ’60s, but in the book you talk about all of these people in your life who helped you — your guardian angels, including your high school assistant superintendent, who’s like a character out of Dickens’s Great Expectations.
ROBERT LEE WATT: Donald Smith — that was his name. He believed in me. He’s still there in the area. Maybe I’ll see if I can find him when I go back at the end of the month. I think he’s still alive. It’s worth a check.
I’m still in touch with Bledsoe [a childhood friend who encouraged him]. He went into the Merchant Marines. He’s my sandbox buddy from the old days. I studied French horn with Harry Shapiro [the Boston Symphony’s principal hornist] at the New England Conservatory, and he was very paternal to me, and lived to the age of 100. There were a lot of people looking out for me.
Still, you had to overcome a lot of racism and racist remarks, which you capture very well in the book — like finding out you were being called “Boston Blackie” behind your back not long after you arrived in Los Angeles. Were those moments cathartic to write about?
It was cathartic, and it was a good writing exercise. I had to show the reader why something was racist without using the word racist. Show it, don’t tell it. Those were my big writing lessons.
The things people would say to your face were equally appalling, like, “Your lips are too thick to play the French horn.” Do you cringe when you think about those remarks?
It’s what they believed — and it wasn’t just white people. My father said it to me first. They had these old ideas and, in his defense, he didn’t know any black French horn players. These ideas were stuck in their heads and they dumped them on their kids.
Then I went to high school, and the white band director said the same thing — he had also taught my father in high school. But he ended up being the guy who helped me the most. He bought a new instrument for me through the high school, so I could really play. But eventually, I had to get my own.
I took my instrument home every day and there were these privileged white kids who lived across the lake from the school and got to ride the bus, and they didn’t bother to take their instruments home — when the band director found that out, he let them have it.
Like me, most of the black kids had to walk a mile to school, or get there however they could, from the west side. So many kids had to do that and worse. It’s so important for young people to hear these stories and know they can persevere. It doesn’t matter where you start off. It’s where you end up if you really want it.
Going back to your dad: Did he see you as a rival?
A lot of people say black men of that generation had a hard time complimenting their kids, and he was always very critical of us. He had a very condescending posture and, in a way, he resented my strength and independence as much as he admired it.
Growing up, he was denied so much, so there was a quasi-envy, and when he missed my Boston Pops performance, it made me bitter at him for a long time. But he lived until he was 82 and, before he died, I forgave him. He served a purpose. I had a father.
In chapter 42, you share a fond memory of your father and brothers saving your life during a fishing trip. So he wasn’t a complete monster.
He had his moments. I think he wanted to support me, but I took this gift away from him. He ran out of his audition at Juilliard because he got frustrated — he wasn’t classically trained and didn’t know what the technical terms meant. When I became an adult, we played music together.
In contrast, you depict your mom as a saint — a woman who put newspaper in her shoes to walk through the snow to send you a money order while you were away at school. How much of a role did she play in the man you became?
She worried about me and wanted to make sure I never went hungry. They say when your mother dies you get over it but that connection never dies. It’s so powerful.
My mother used to feed the little kids next door — and we barely had enough — but she shared with those kids. A few summers ago, I saw a homeless woman without shoes and I could hear my mother saying: Poor thing. Give her your shoes. You have plenty others. I gave her the old Crocs I was wearing. That’s what my mom wanted me to do. She was so generous and my father was so selfish. I hope I have more of my mother’s genes.
Your self-description is equally fascinating. In one part of the book, you describe yourself as a “poor, nobody kid from a cold-water flat on Springwood Avenue.” How have you overcome that image?
That was my self-image, but I don’t feel that way anymore. There were people who made me feel that way to keep me in my place. There has always been a part of me that felt like: How do you like me now? I’m playing at Carnegie Hall. My mother was proof that class doesn’t come from money. She was so poised and carried herself in a way that commanded respect. That’s where I got my class.
You talk a lot about your sexual conquests, but the teenage romance between you and Leslie is one of the best parts of the book. She was your first love and someone who inspired you to be a better student and person. Have you stayed in touch with her?
She was my high school sweetheart — but I changed her name in the book. She’s in Maitland, Florida. She never married, and went into mental health. We met up in New York 10 or 12 years ago. She looks the most like I remember than anybody else I knew in high school.
Why do you think you never got married or had children of your own? Were you having too much fun?
That’s part of it. I also grew up as one of seven kids, so I’ve always valued my space. I like kids and they like me, but for some reason I never ended up with any. I look around and there are so many people who should’ve just left [marriage and children] alone because they make a mess of people’s lives. It’s beautiful, and if it would’ve happened I would have been totally immersed.
There are some parts in the book that could arguably have been edited. Several chapters — 36 through 43 — are stylistically different from the rest of the memoir. For much of the book, it’s narrative in tone, then there are these — with you and the late Jerome Ashby, former associate principal horn with the New York Philharmonic, in a Q-and-A format. Why?
I tried to capture that the best way I could and I was happy with the final product. There was a lot of compromise. When I got the manuscript back, there was so much red, it looked like a chicken had walked through it. It felt like when you’re in school and the teacher marks up your paper in red — I’m a teacher at heart.
What do you enjoy about teaching?
I like to drop big words on purpose to see what they know about them. I taught at a program up in Oakland and they used to fly me up there [from Los Angeles] to teach. It was 130 kids and it was the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra, so if you got in as an instrumentalist, you had to sing in the chorus. They would start the concert as a chorus and then go and pick up their respective instruments. I had never seen anything like that in my life. It’s a great effect. The audiences just go wild.
I had four black boys from the Oakland inner city and they all had high GPAs — that’s a requirement for the program. So, I’d go up there dropping $40 words on purpose and they’d scramble to get their smartphones to see what the words meant. I loved teaching the black kids, because there was an extra sense of savvy and a sense of the world. They could be so quick.
Remember the student from Oakland who got into eight Ivy League schools? That was my alpha male student, trumpet player Tunde Ahmad. He had a 5.0 GPA and he was always ready to start. He’d tell the kid who wasn’t as quick to shut up, because he was so ready to learn.
Given that blind auditions in orchestras have helped curb racial and gender biases in hiring, how would you describe the diversity in symphony orchestras now?
There weren’t any blind auditions in my day. Major orchestras aren’t much better now, but there are more black players in conservatories that will eventually be in these orchestras. I do get excited seeing all the black French horn players.
It was just me and Jerome Ashby — my only true peer — not that long ago. Now there are black French horn players on Facebook and everywhere. I didn’t think about that when I started playing the French horn. I just wanted to play. I wasn’t there to make a political statement. Then I looked around and realized my father was right: black men didn’t play the French horn. Now that’s not the case.
I can’t say I paved the way, but it does feel good to look around and see all of these young black faces.
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles–based journalist. The Detroit native has covered television and the entertainment industry for 18 years for outlets such as Essence, MSN TV, The Detroit News, espnW, TV Guide, CNN.com, Playboy.com, and People Magazine.