If You Really Want It: A Conversation with African-American French Hornist Robert Lee Watt

I’m playing at Carnegie Hall. They could be so quick. 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. JUNE 29, 2017

ROBERT LEE WATT didn’t allow racial stereotypes and   the low expectations of others to   hold him back. There   has always been a part of me that felt like: How   do   you like me now? I tried to capture that the best way I could and I   was happy with the final product. Although he came from a musical family — Watt’s father played the trumpet, his mother piano — he did not have much support. 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. I had a father. I think he wanted to support me, but I took this gift away from him. That’s   where I got my   class. I’m still in touch with Bledsoe [a childhood friend who encouraged him]. He’s my sandbox buddy from the old days. 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. You have plenty others. 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? He had his moments. ¤
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles–based journalist. He went into the Merchant Marines. From the beginning, the classical musician used that   negativity as his fuel to excel. 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. Maybe I’ll   see if I can find him when I go back at the end of the month. How much of a role did she play in the man you became? She’s in Maitland, Florida. 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. 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? Your self-description is equally fascinating. The audiences just go   wild. 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. They say when your mother dies you get over it but that connection never dies. I wasn’t there to make a political statement. Watt, 69, first heard the French horn as a kid, in the William Tell Overture — and knew that he’d found his calling. She looks the most like I remember than anybody else I knew   in high school. She was so generous and my father was so selfish. Show it, don’t tell it. Then I went to high school, and the white band director said the same thing — he had also taught my father in high school. She never married, and went into mental health. There are some parts in the book that could   arguably   have been edited. My mother was proof that class doesn’t come from money. There was a lot of compromise. It’s worth a check. He’s still there in the area. I can’t say I paved the way,   but it does feel good to   look around and see all of these   young   black faces. He believed in me. I loved teaching the black kids, because there was an extra sense of savvy and   a   sense of the world. 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. In   The Black Horn: The Story of Classical French Hornist Robert Lee Watt, he has narrated his fascinating journey. 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. It’s a great effect. He served a purpose. It’s so powerful. A few summers ago, I saw a homeless woman without shoes and I could hear my mother   saying: Poor thing. It felt like when you’re in school and the teacher marks up your paper in red — I’m a teacher at   heart. 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’s part of it. The Black Horn is candid and often humorous. Like me, most of the black kids had to walk a mile to school, or get there however they could, from the west side. My father said it to me first. That was my alpha male student, trumpet player Tunde Ahmad. We met up in New York 10 or 12 years ago. He had a very condescending posture and, in   a way, he resented my strength and independence as much as he admired it. Then I looked around and realized my father was right: black men didn’t play the French horn. 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. It was   cathartic, and it was   a good writing exercise. In chapter 42, you share a fond memory of your father and brothers saving your life   during a fishing trip. “It’s an instrument for thin-lipped white boys,” Watt remembers his father saying. My mother used to feed the little kids next door — and we barely had enough — but she shared with those kids. These ideas were stuck in their heads and they dumped them on their kids. ¤
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. 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. So he wasn’t   a complete monster. “Your lips are too   thick for that narrow mouthpiece.”
That didn’t deter him. It’s so important for young people to hear these stories and know they can persevere. Were you having too much fun? I had four black boys from the Oakland inner city and they all had high GPAs — that’s a requirement for the program. I think he’s still alive. It   was just me and Jerome Ashby — my only true peer —   not that long ago. 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. I had to show the reader why something   was racist without using the word   racist. What do you enjoy about teaching? There weren’t any blind auditions   in my day. 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. But eventually, I had to get my own. 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. Have you stayed in touch with her? But he lived until he was 82 and, before he died, I forgave him. Why do you think you never got married or had children of your own? Now there are black French horn players   on Facebook and everywhere. Give her your shoes. 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. Remember   the student from Oakland who   got   into eight Ivy League schools? 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. She worried about me and wanted to make sure I never went hungry. I just wanted to play. So many kids had to do that and worse. Were those moments cathartic to write about? She was your first love and someone who inspired you to be a better student and person. I had never seen anything like that in my life. He had a 5.0 GPA and he was always ready to start. I do get excited seeing all the black French horn players. 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. 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. There were people who made me feel that way to keep me in my place. It’s what they believed — and it wasn’t just white people. Several chapters — 36 through 43 — are   stylistically different from the rest of the memoir. That was my self-image, but I don’t   feel that way anymore. I also grew up as one of seven kids, so I’ve always valued my space. They had these old ideas and, in his defense, he didn’t know any black French horn players. They would start the concert as a chorus and then go and pick up their respective instruments. That’s what my mom wanted me   to do. He’d tell the kid who wasn’t as quick to shut up, because he was   so   ready to learn. I like to drop big words on purpose to see what they know about them. “[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. Why? There were a lot of people looking out for me. Major orchestras aren’t much better now, but there are more black players in conservatories that will eventually be in these orchestras. It’s beautiful, and if it would’ve happened I would have been totally immersed. He also shares stories of his friendship with jazz trumpet great Miles Davis. ROBERT LEE WATT:   Donald Smith — that was his name. I didn’t think about that when I started playing the French horn. I hope I have more of my mother’s genes. The senior Watt didn’t approve or understand his son’s interest in the French horn. I taught at a program up in Oakland and they used to fly me up there [from Los Angeles] to teach. It doesn’t matter where you start off. Those were my big writing lessons. Watt’s stories of transcending racial and class discrimination   are especially edifying. I gave her the old Crocs I was wearing. I like kids and they like me, but for some reason   I never ended up with any. Going back to your dad: Did he see you as a rival? When I got the manuscript back, there was so much red, it looked like a chicken had walked through it. It’s where you end up if you really want it. She was my high school sweetheart — but I changed her name in the book. Now that’s not the case. 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. When I became an adult, we played music together. She was so poised and carried herself in a way that commanded respect.