Peter Hirsch, French Horn

First studies on piano and violin affirm love of music and complete lack of ability on respective instruments. Inspired by trumpet-playing bunk-mate to take up horn while at summer camp in New Hampshire after 5th grade. First legitimate horn teacher was Arthur “Professor Schmutzig” Goldstein starting in 1962. Attended Baldwin Harbor JHS when the plaster was still damp when it opened in 1963. Unwisely choosing to run against the quarterback of the football team, was soundly defeated as candidate for President of Student Council in 9th grade. Attended Hempstead High School, graduating in 1968. Later studies were at Manhattan School of Music with Clarendon Van Norman. These were followed by additional inspiration from various teachers and role models, including Carmine Caruso, Julius Watkins, Dick Moore, Bill Hamilton and Dave Jolley. Work as an usher at Carnegie Hall for most of three concert seasons provided a post-graduate level musical education in the era of Stokowski, Szell, Kertesz, Horenstein, Solti, et al. During an on and off free-lance career, starting with $5 a night performances of “La Perichole” at Adelphi College (it wasn’t a University in 1965), played on tour in U.S. (City Opera Touring Company, Eglevsky Ballet, Goldovsky Opera, Carolina Opera, NY Gilbert & Sullivan Players) and in Europe (Schweizer Tournee Theater). Temporary member of the Caracas Philharmonic for a month in 1979. Scattered gigs, highlighted by work with Gil Evans, Paul Jeffrey and Joel Kaye in the jazz sector and orchestral work with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, Symphony of the New World, American Symphony and New Jersey Symphony. Second horn (to John Rossi) in the Goldman Band for 30 years, commencing in 1975. Presently (since 1998) employed by the New York Public Library but still occasionally appearing in the pit for Village Light Opera, New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players and whatever else happens to come along.

[The following link will take you to an interview with Peter by Dr. Patrick Gregory Smith in conjunction with his Doctoral Dissertation on “Julius Watkins and the Evolution of the Jazz French Horn Genre”]

From (Pages 198 - 205)



Patrick Smith: Peter, I want to thank you for meeting with me today to discuss your recollections of Julius Watkins. I’ve realized recently that there is so much to know about this man, yet so little material which is really accessible to us.

Peter Hirsch: It is tough to get a whole lot without actually talking to people who knew him. Part of the problem with finding material about Julius lies in the fact that Julius himself led a very soft-spoken, quiet life. He lived most of his life below the radar. People recognized who he was, but being a jazz French horn player, especially in the 50’s and 60’s, it wasn’t a real high status in either the jazz or the horn world. It’s not like he was Barry Tuckwell, you know? It’s not like he was Maynard Ferguson either.

PS: Could you please start by telling me a little about yourself and your performing background?

PH: Sure. Here’s who I am. My first private teacher was Eric von Schmutzig. I studied with him from around sixth grade until high school. I took some lessons with Arthur Byrd. I went to the Manhattan School of Music where I studied with van Norman, first horn in the Met at the time. I was at MSM from 68-72. I was a big Conn player and had very structured lessons rooted in the strict classical traditions of the New York Philharmonic. I then did some freelancing for a while. Only about twelve years ago I made the decision to do more archiving work and things in the library and found that I could make a decent living doing it. I did play with the Goldman Band and I feel that I have done a lot of different things in a number of professional capacities. I play with a Gilbert and Sullivan group. I’m not looking for a professional high-pressure gig. That just isn’t for me. I really enjoy these other things on the side though. I went to school at the same time as David Jolley and I though about taking lessons with him for a while. We did meet a few times and he helped me to get focused on a few things. From day one of playing the horn, I was a kid who had a pile of music. I didn’t get the Mozart concerti and the Kopprasch etudes and just started to collect stuff. I wasn’t going to be the best horn player in the galaxy, but I thought that I should know as much stuff about the horn as I could regarding literature, people, recordings, etc. When I was in camp as a kid, one of my bunkmates played the trumpet. I said to him, “I want to start playing the French horn.” I am a musician. I am a horn player. I think that as a musician, I should not just play music, but I should know as much about music as I can.

PS: That’s a very interesting point of view, to make those sorts of comparisons. I’ve felt for some time now that Julius is and was very much underappreciated for the work that he did.

PH: Let me give you what I can. Fortunately, since I work at the library, I have access to a copy machine and here are some copies of things that are probably the most relevant.

PS: Thank you very much. I see you have included here an article about John Graas. Of course, Julius was the first really prominent jazz horn player, but John Graas was the first to even tinker with the idea of playing jazz on the horn in a professional setting, right?

PH: Yes, there are names: Junior Collins, David Amram, Gunther Schuller, and other people who appeared on jazz albums in the 40’s. They were sort of predecessors of what Julius tried to do and did do. I have quite a lot of Graas recordings, but his was a different story. Graas’ capabilities as a jazz player didn’t match those of Julius, especially his high range. Some of his solos are just amazing. Even compared to some of today’s jazz horn players, they just can’t touch what Julius did. One very interesting aspect regarding Julius’ early career here in New York centers around his personnel manager, Princess Orelia Benskina. I’ve done a lot of research, fruitlessly, on just who the heck she was and she is a real mystery. I know people who have said, “Yeh, I’ve seen the name” but have no real hard data on who she was. I know some folks who were really big into the Harlem jazz scene, and if you can find out something concrete about her, you might get to more information about him. Julius didn’t leave a huge trail by any stretch of the imagination.

PS: No, he really didn’t. I mean, as I’m sure you know, he was homeless for at least one portion of his life.

PH: Yeh, you know, he had all sorts of problems: health problems, financial problems, practically whatever you could imagine.

PS: I am amazed at the amount of networking that is going into this project. One of the really exciting things for me to hear is the mentioning of new names of people who knew Julius who are still alive. In what capacity did you know Julius?

PH: I didn’t play with him on Broadway, but I did play with him. This isn’t a really big story but it is interesting. It was an organization; let me think of the timeframe, this was after I got out of school in ’72 but not long after. There was a group called Symphony of the New World. This has nothing to do with the group in Miami, FL with Michael Tilson Thomas. It was intended to be a group of mainly minority players. In that time, I’m not really sure what ‘minority’ meant; probably more with black (musicians) than Asian or Hispanic that we think of today. It was a symphonic organization that played classical music. It mainly brought in conductors like Leon Thompson who were African-American. It was designed to be an orchestra of opportunity for mostly black musicians who could not get other professional orchestral work or, as was frequently the case, not allowed to take part in professional orchestral ensembles like the (New York) Philharmonic. They played at Avery Fisher Hall and it turned out to be a very diversified group. It was not mainly black as the initial intent might have been. I got to play. I knew the contractor. I was playing there, at least once, and I clearly remember playing Brahms’ Second Symphony. Julius was playing 3 rd horn and I was either playing 4 th or 2 nd horn. I don’t remember which, but I do remember that I was sitting next to him. It was interesting because I heard the name and here he is next to me playing classical music. He came in and warmed up. He sat down and took the horn out and his register where he would start warming up was like a fourth above my highest note. I was normally a low horn player so that made it even more depressing. Here’s this guy screaming up there and I was just trying to get a second-line G to get focused. That’s the way he played his jazz solos: screaming high stuff almost all the time. But anyways, he didn’t seem to be totally comfortable playing in that sort of a classical setting. He didn’t really play with any confidence which was so surprising to me. Here was someone who could sit down and play in front of a crowd without music and he was having trouble looking and reading the part. I would have panicked to have been in the situations that he was in day-in and day-out. So, it was like, really sad because he didn’t really play all that well either. He missed a lot of notes. It was just (pause) I don’t want to say he was unfamiliar with the Brahms Second (symphony) but it sure as heck sounded like it. He didn’t really quite know when to come in and when he did he missed notes. It was really too bad. He was such a fine player. This is not a question! He could play Broadway charts and he could play all of that jazz stuff documented here. I don’t know of any other instances when he played in classical settings. He was such a sweet, quiet and nice person. Not the sort of person who walks around dropping names and gossiping. I mean, he worked with Quincy Jones and Monk and he certainly could have walked around bragging about all that he had done, but he didn’t. Other than being introduced to him once or twice, that was the one time I remember actually performing with him. I remember there was a horn player named Stu Butterfield who was taking lessons. We were in school together. He was having some major chop issues and couldn’t play very well in the high register. Somebody told him, “Why don’t you go take some lessons with Julius?” So I saw Julius with Stu a few times. Julius was, at least, a known factor still in the early 70’s in classical settings.

PS: What were some of the challenges facing black musicians at that time? I know that it would have been just about impossible for him to have pursued a full time orchestral job due to his ethnicity.

PH: My consciousness of the professional orchestra scene starts in the late 1960’s. I was born in 1950. I got out of high school in ’68. I’d go to hear the Philharmonic and other groups. There definitely was the situation that if you saw any African-American player on any instrument it was noteworthy. I don’t think there were any in the major symphonies and it is still this way today. At least today, though, it is a situation that people are aware of. But back then, people thought, “Well, how can they be trained in classical music?” The attitudes were certainly different and had been set since the previous decades. There really was very little effort to integrate the professional symphony orchestra scene. So, in the 1970’s when I heard about this guy name Bob Watt and a couple of other people who were starting to cross the line into professional symphony orchestras. It certainly wasn’t a problem in the pop-music world at all. I mean, just think about it! The color line issues in pop music had been settled by the 1960’s. There were groups starting up in my time and I played in a lot of them because my friends were in them. Nothing was set up for minorities, but nothing was set up to discriminate against them. I knew many professionally trained musicians who really had nowhere to go because society could not envision minorities, especially blacks, in traditionally Caucasian ensembles. For Julius I think it was too little, too late. I would think that for Julius, he probably envisioned himself playing horn in an orchestra somewhere as a child. But this just didn’t happen for him. Willie Ruff, he teaches horn at Yale, has made a number of parallels to Julius’ life. Willie played in one of the military orchestras and that’s about it for his orchestral experience. His capabilities were very good. He was not a jazz player like Julius, but he was a good player.

PS: I know that Julius was really big into the record dates and club scene in New York during the 60’s. What was your perception of this scene being a student around that time?

PH: It was definitely different. There were lots of clubs, lots of places to play. Sometimes they would even have reading bands for people like Stan Kenton which featured four horn books. I know a lot of times, they would not be able to pay the musicians with cash, and, in fact, supplied the players with drugs as compensation. I got to play in bands like that – that’s where I met people like Vince Chancey. There was a fairly large scene at that point. Once you got in on one of these rehearsal reading bands, you were set. You’d get calls all the time. So that’s how I got into that setting. I was never a jazzer, but, I did get to see and play things that I wouldn’t have been able to experience otherwise. I did scope out the circle of people who were involved in that sort of thing. For someone of his age, I don’t think that there was really another person like him. Jim Buffington had a reputation for being somewhat of a jazz player, David Amram too. But these were white musicians. They could go and do whatever they wanted. Julius was very unique. Had it not been for Julius, there might never have been horns in jazz.

PS: Perhaps it was hard for you to gain this information, but did you learn anything about his family life?

PH: Well, he did have a drinking problem. Around the point that I was talking about earlier, when I played the Brahms with him, I think he had been through a lengthy period when he was working at the post office, when he was able to work at all. I don’t know how to say it, but there was a lot of drinking going on in the New York music scene back then. The culture, especially the brass players, embraced alcoholism. It was almost like you could say, “Well of course he drinks. He’s a brass player.” People would drink before, during and after the gigs. I don’t know if he even tried to dry out, but he definitely was a favor of the drink. I’m not saying people don’t today, but it was different then. He was playing a show called Bubbling Brown Sugar or maybe it was Raisin. He was so excited because he finally got a show! This helped to stabilize him because he finally had stable work. People watched out for him. They didn’t talk about him behind his back. They supported him. People loved him. Nobody begrudged him any success at that point when he finally got that gig.