Afro-Harping and the Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby
October 26, 2019 4:27 PM   Subscribe

Dorothy Ashby was an African-American jazz harpist who revolutionized the harp as a respected instrument of improvisational jazz, by proving that the harp was just as adept at bebop and hard bop as the saxophone or piano. Less well-known than fellow jazz harpist Alice Coltrane, Ashby's first album, The Jazz Harpist, was released in 1957 - more than a decade before Ms. Coltrane's own album debut. Yet Ashby remains "one of the most unjustly under-loved jazz greats of the 1950s." [NPR] This post is a brief overview and introduction to her musical contributions.

Selected songs:
Come Live With Me, from 1968's Afro-Harping (Cadet), perhaps her best known and most popular album.
Spicy, from her 1957 debut The Jazz Harpist (Regent).
Moonlight in Vermont, from 1958's Hip Harp (Prestige).
Drink, from 1970's The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby (Cadet), in which she also demonstrates her mastery of the Japanese koto instrument.

Remembering Dorothy Ashby, the Detroit Pioneer Who Introduced the Harp to Jazz - Harpists Brandee Younger and Zeena Parkins discuss the seminal Afro-Harping album on its 50th anniversary [RBMA Daily]
"A few years after I started playing, I came across her on the cover of Harp Column magazine. I literally noticed the black dot amongst all these other faces. There weren’t too many black harpists around. I saw that and said, “Who is that?” Prior to that, I had heard her music, but didn’t know who it was; for example, [Stevie Wonder’s] “If It’s Magic.” I always knew that that was harp, but I never knew who was playing it."
Dorothy Ashby In Her Own Words, On Teaching Jazz Music (excerpt from "Reflections on Afro-American Music", Kent State University Press, 1970) [The Cannonball Adderley Rendez-vous]
"Jazz has a long way to go in the academic community because some of those who teach have not experienced being with jazz people or jazz music, either from circumstance or choice, and continued to think of it as the music of disreputable people, to be performed in disreputable places. ... Jazz, being the product of the moment, must have spontaneous creation. This is something we learned in those places where people were doing that kind of thing, not in college. So the teacher would have to differentiate among two hip beat, Latin, Afro-Cuban, gospel type, a slick rock beat and a funky rock beat, etc. These terminologies were created by jazzmen to describe their own particular colorings and shadings, and they are often terribly subtle. The answer might rest in the intensity of the beat, the complexity of the beat, or in that minute metronomical difference which could distinguish heavy funk from light rock funk. Those who have had experience in playing and writing jazz, who knew the recordings and the players, would be in a position to develop definitions for communication in teaching. ... One summer, my husband and I taught some young people without any prior musical training. In just a few weeks, they could recognize the colors between major and minor chords, they knew what augmented chords sounded like, and they could play basic triads and had begun to learn improvisation."
More information:
The Dorothy Ashby Legacy Photograph Collection
Who's That Girl? Dorothy Ashby Special Episode from London's NTS Radio
Dorothy Ashby Discography
posted by nightrecordings (11 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
beautiful Thank You!
posted by robbyrobs at 5:15 PM on October 26, 2019

Dorothy Ashby, a musical homage by the band The High Llamas
posted by Panthalassa at 6:37 PM on October 26, 2019

Thanks for posting this - I'd never heard of her. What a career!
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:07 PM on October 26, 2019

When I was 12 or so I had a friend who owned a book of horoscopes specific to all 365 days of the year. I was so disappointed when mine said that my ideal instrument was a harp. I thought it was so stuffy, and such a bum deal. Dorothy Ashby has single handedly undone 18 years of that distaste. I discovered her music this year and it’s been my go to music ever since. Thanks for compiling these links!
posted by seemoorglass at 7:07 PM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yesssssss! I commented on her work one, but she is more than deserving of her own FPP. Thank you nightrecordings for that.

Ever since I heard her absolutely re-invent the track Windmills of your Mind on WeFunk radio ~15 years ago, I've been an acolyte. When I first moved to Chicago, I stumbled upon her self-titled album (1962), which I quickly snapped up without a second thought. I haven't audited the matter lately, but I'd say it's on the Mount Rushmore of my vinyl collection.

In the photograph collection linked in the post, it's worth looking through the programs from the Ashby Players. In my early days in Chicago, aside from toting my new vinyl, I taught at Malcolm X College. I recall stumbling upon those photos of the programs from Ashby's theatre productions -- one of which was staged at Malcolm X. I asked one of the performing arts professors if she knew of this play -- she didn't -- but it must have been staged about when the college opened (1969). During my time at Malcolm X, the place felt oversized, largely lifeless (not in the math department office, hat-tip Ms. Walker!), and dominated by an architecture of bricks and concrete, empty corridors and drab colors. But thinking about the significance of a college, named after Malcolm X, in Chicago, in 1969 (history primer for why that's significant given racial tensions in this city)... viewing Ashby's flyers give me a sense of that campus being a determined, a proud, an aspirational institution. For three years, possibly the only other time I felt that was walking through the fire doors. What I would give to see her plays staged once again! (cf: Scott Joplin and his play Treemonisha, written in the 1910s, not reaching wider audiences until the 70s)

Lastly, mentioned in my linked comment above: my single favorite Ashby moment -- skilled enough so that she can put an exclamation point on James Brown.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 7:33 PM on October 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

And of course, if you're into hip-hop:

- The Pharcyde's Drop uses Ashby's Django (hear Drop backwards here).
- Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth's For Pete's Sake uses Come Live With Me.
- Common's Start The Show uses By The Time I Get to Phoenix.
posted by solarion at 3:40 PM on October 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is great. These tracks are excellent - thanks for posting this!!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:15 PM on October 27, 2019

I’d be surprised if there are any hip hop harp samples that aren’t Dorothy Ashby.
posted by jonp72 at 7:31 AM on October 28, 2019

"The Moving Finger" is one of those tracks that stopped me dead in my tracks with a "what the hell is that?" It has also been sampled quite a few times.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:42 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’d be surprised if there are any hip hop harp samples that aren’t Dorothy Ashby.

If there are, it's almost certainly David Snell, the premiere session harpist for decades in the UK. No examples here, but he's played on dozens of easy listening records and soundtracks which are both prime sample fodder.
posted by solarion at 3:38 PM on October 28, 2019

I didn't think jazz harp was something I needed more of in my life, but thanks to this post I've set up a whole Dorothy Ashby jazz harp playlist and I've been dipping into her stuff for the last several days. Thanks for this.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:20 PM on November 1, 2019

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