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CLASSICAL MUSIC

It's his horn of plenty

Bob Watt's skill took him from a New Jersey coldwater flat to the L.A. Philharmonic. Now it's time for another journey.

January 20, 2008|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Special to The Times

There are many success stories feeding the L.A. mythos that this is a land of opportunity where anything can happen for anyone, but few are as convincing as Bob Watt's. The New Jersey native was flat broke and all of 22 when he hit town back in 1970 to audition as a French horn player for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led at the time by rising star Zubin Mehta. It was a heady moment that Watt played perfectly: He landed the job, becoming in an instant not only the youngest member of the Philharmonic and its only African American player, but the first black hired to play French horn in any major American orchestra.

"I felt a little bit like Jackie Robinson felt, like a new guard," says Watt. "I was the youngest guy in the orchestra, playing an elite brass. It was March, and L.A. looked like Shangri-La. And I was getting paid $300 a week. I couldn't ask for more."

It was a good gig that Watt, now an assistant principal French horn, kept for more than three decades. But there won't be a fourth: After 37 years, he's calling it quits. His last performance with the Philharmonic will be next Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, when Lorin Maazel will lead the orchestra in the last of four performances of Benjamin Britten's mammoth War Requiem. Watt says he's not dissatisfied, simply that it's time to focus on projects that a full-time job -- even an ideal one -- can get in the way of. "It's time to move on," he says. "Some of the things you may have wanted when you first got them end up over time not being that important. I kind of outgrew the Phil."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 22, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Bob Watt: A teaser on Sunday's Arts & Music cover to an inside article about French horn player Bob Watt said he was the L.A. Philharmonic's first black musician. The first was double-bass player Henry Lewis, who joined the orchestra in 1951.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 27, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Bob Watt: A teaser on last Sunday's Arts & Music cover to an inside article about French horn player Bob Watt incorrectly said he was the Los Angeles Philharmonic's first black musician. The first was double-bass player Henry Lewis, who joined the orchestra in 1951.

Watt talks about his career in classical music as something of a contradiction. On the one hand, it's the fulfillment of a hard-won dream; on the other, a gilded prize that is still far out of reach for other black musicians who didn't have the support Watt had in a profession that is still overwhelmingly white. (According to the League of American Orchestras, blacks account for about 1.6% of instrumentalists playing in the country's top 27 orchestras. The only other African American players in the Philharmonic now are violinist Dale Breidenthal, percussionist Raynor Carroll and bassist Frederick Tinsley, who's on sabbatical.)

Watt himself is an interesting contradiction. Though nearly 60, he has a brashness and an exuberance that are decidedly youthful. His height and deep baritone voice make him an imposing figure, but in the heat of conversation -- about music, politics and a million ideas in between -- he can come off as an excitable teenager. Enthusiasm was something that marked him early in life. "I was so in love with music, so passionate," he says. "It was the most beautiful thing in the world to me. I just went where the instrument led me."

Sounds poetic, though Watt's upbringing was anything but. He grew up in the hardscrabble black section of Asbury Park, N.J., one of seven children. His mother was head chambermaid at a Howard Johnson's motor lodge, and his father shined shoes and polished floors. The family lived in a coldwater flat that often lacked heat and electricity and had no telephone.

Watt's father was also a musician, however, a trumpet player with a jazz band called the New Jersey Squires of Rhythm in the 1940s, and Watt was fascinated with the trumpet, which his father kept on a mantelpiece. When he was 13, he joined a drum and bugle corps and took up his first instrument, the French horn bugle. Though passionate about the music, he became equally passionate about a girl at school he was seeking to impress with some musical chops. "She played organ and bass clarinet," recalls Watt. "I wanted to show her that I was really doing something."

Some dissonant notes

To accomplish that, Watt decided to graduate to a real French horn. There was only one problem: The school said it didn't have one. "The bandleader, who was white, suggested that I start with a trombone or tuba, because he said, 'You colored guys have big lips that fit over the mouthpieces,' " Watt remembers, shaking his head. "The French horn has a small mouthpiece. I persisted. Finally he brought one out -- it was all old and dusty. He said, 'Take it home and see what you can do with it.' "

Watt eventually found support at school for his ambition, though he encountered plenty more resistance from white teachers who doubted it would come to anything. When he won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory in 1967, it was vindication in more ways than one. "My dad had auditioned for Juilliard," says Watt. "He had a great tone. But then he was asked to play a Bach wedding cantata. He didn't know it. He ran out of the room."

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