Dorothy Ashby

Detroit-born harp master, Dorothy Ashby, “stands as one of the most unjustly under-loved jazz greats of the 1950s.” [1] She was an accomplished, classically trained pianist, but her heart was in jazz. She taught herself the harp and would go on to blaze her own path as a soloist and accompanist appearing on countless records. Ira Gitler wrote in the liner notes of her 1961 album, Soft Winds, “Dorothy Ashby may not be the first jazz harpist (Caspar Reardon) or the first female jazz harpist (Adele Girard) but her feeling for time and ability to construct melodic guitar-like lines mark her as the most accomplished modern jazz harpist.” [2] One reviewer of her album “The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby” wrote, “This isn’t just novelty, though that is what you expect. The harp has a clean jazz voice with a resonance and syncopation that turn familiar jazz phrasing inside out.” [3]

Dorothy was also raised in a musical family. Her father was a jazz guitarist and she played along with him on the piano growing up, saying that her father taught her “more about harmony and melodic construction than I learned in all my years of high school, college, and private study,” and who “sacrificed more time and money than the family could afford for [her] musical training and instruments.” [3]

It was difficult at first for Dorothy to find work as a jazz harpist in the 50’s as club owners weren’t willing to take the risk on an unusual combination of instruments, so she made her own opportunities playing at local dances and engagements for free until word got out about her unique sound and she was finally able to break into the Detroit club scene. She was “addicted to the sound of the harp and the challenge of trying to play things that were so much more difficult on harp than they were on piano.” [3]

She toured with her trio throughout the 60’s, including her husband, drummer John Ashby. The two of them also became very involved in producing theatrical musical plays, founding their theatrical company, The Ashby Players of Detroit. Dorothy wrote the music and John wrote the scripts. The company “not only produced black theater in Detroit and Canada but provided early theatrical and acting opportunities for black actors.” [4]

In 1968, she recorded the ground-breaking album, “Afro Harping” which incorporated funk and R&B textures into her sound, and then in 1970, she recorded “The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby” “Imbuing her sound with deep Eastern shades.” Rashid Ollison writes, “In addition to playing the electrified harp on the “Rubaiyat” sessions, Ashby also plucked the kalimba and the koto. The esoteric lyrics were enfolded by music that swirled in several directions but was all rooted in a groove-rich bottom.” [5] In my opinion these albums should be up there with Miles Davis’ “On the Corner.”

In the early ’70s the Ashbys moved to California and Dorothy became extremely well-established in the recording scene there. Bill Withers discovered her playing and hired her for several recording sessions (her lovely sound can be heard on his tune “Stories” from the album “Justments”). Bill Withers also introduced her to Stevie Wonder who loved her playing. She was the harpist on that incredible tune, “If its Magic” from “Songs in the Key of Life.” Since Ashby passed, Wonder sings to the recording of her accompaniment at his concerts because he doesn’t believe she could or should be replaced. To my ear, Ashby’s harp is the perfect counterpoint to Wonder’s gorgeous voice and poignant lyrics. Its one of those recordings that never ceases to overwhelm me with emotion no matter how many times I hear it. Do yourself a favor and take a listen:

Along with Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder, she worked with the likes of Frank Wess, Freddie Hubbard, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Stanley Turrentine, Diana Ross, Natalie Cole, Gary Bartz, Rick James, and so many others. Here’s a running discography of albums to which she contributed her sound.

Dorothy’s commentary on jazz improvisation, reception, and education is perceptive and articulate. She says “I don’t believe the American public realizes what the jazz players are doing when they do it. Its a skill that you’ve developed over a number of years, to know how and when to drop the chords in a certain amount of time and in particular rhythms that are complex, not just evenly divided but in syncopated, in mysterious ways that your mind creates as you go along, and that makes a real art form that hasn’t been capitalized on or touted properly by Americans.” [3]

Ashby participated in a panel discussion about jazz education in academic settings with Cannonball Adderly which was published in Dominique-Rene de Lerma’s Reflections on Afro-American Music. In this discussion, she offers the wisdom that being a proper jazz educator “requires a keen ear, one that really has heard all kinds of jazz for years. It requires a sharp mind, one that has learned jazz outside of the formal education system. Of course, we learned the basics of music techniques at school, but we did not study the art of improvisation. Jazz, being the product of the moment, must have spontaneous creation.” She says one must learn “how to create endlessly varying melodies and rhythms in a particular idiom, using a given set of chords; how to fashion continuous harmonic variations for a given melodic line in one or a multitude of forms; and how to design combinations of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic variations for this spontaneous improvisational form we call jazz.” [6]

Discovering Dorothy Ashby’s music has been like meeting one of those people that you immediately know is “your” people. In some ways, it’s been that way with most all of the jazzwomen I’ve researched thus far. I certainly felt that way yesterday while studying Maxine Sullivan; her personality resonated with me especially. Maybe its the breadth of styles Ms. Ashby’s recordings cover, maybe its the beauty and clarity of her treatment of the tunes, maybe because there’s a lot of flute on her recordings and flute and harp is one of my favorite combinations… the first live music I ever heard was the Mozart flute and harp concerto played by the Austin Symphony when I was a baby. And maybe its because she was just one of those special people.

She died of cancer in 1986 at only 55, but she led an incredibly full life and contributed so much richness to the world through her music. Enjoy this playlist!

(Re)sources

[1] Tom Moon. “Dorothy Ashby and a Harp that Swings.” NPR. November 15, 2006. (https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6488979).

[2] David Johnson. “The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby.” Indiana Public Media. March 31, 2017. (https://indianapublicmedia.org/nightlights/fantastic-jazz-harp-dorothy-ashby/).

[3] Sally Placksin, American Women in Jazz 1900 to the Present. (New York: Seaview Books, 1982).

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Dorothy Ashby,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dorothy_Ashby&oldid=876732178 (accessed January 20, 2019).

[5] Rashod Ollison. “Dorothy Ashby, the jazz harpist who blurred the edges.” The Virginian Pilot. December 6, 2016. (https://pilotonline.com/entertainment/music/behind-the-groove/article_23ff3716-e7b7-55ee-abc7-dd54efa9a699.html).

[6] Dominique-René de Lerma. Reflections on Afro-American Music. (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1970).

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