Dorothy Ashby: Jazz Harpist


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With the introduction of the 33 1/3 LP in the late 1940s and very early 1950s, harpists began appearing with greater regularity on jazz albums. At first, harpists were tag-alongs on record dates—the whipped cream on the sundae known as “with strings." But as jazz arrangers grew more and more ambitious later in the decade, and the jazz and pop markets began to overlap, harpists who had been chained to symphony orchestras found themselves being called regularly for jazz dates. Except, that is, Dorothy Ashby, who was perhaps the greatest jazz harpist of them all.

What made Ashby special is that she started out as a jazz pianist in Detroit. Her attack on the harp was different than most of her peers. Her style was more direct and commanding than the “blend in" harpists from the classical side. And as Ashby's many albums show, her technique and phrasing were first rate—strong improvisational ideas combined with a touching curiosity rather than just timidly adding a wash of angelic mist.

The harp has a long jazz history, making its first appearance on a jazz recording in 1926. The date was Art Kahn and His Orchestra, and Russ Crandall was credited as playing the instrument. Throughout the 1930s, the harp popped up on jazz recordings. Ted Lewis used a harpist in the early 1930s (Loretta McFarland) as did Jack Teagarden (Casper Reardon) [pictured], who also played extensively with with Paul Whiteman.

There was Adele Girard with Frankie Trumbauer and Joe Marsala in 1937, and Laura Newell with Artie Shaw in 1941 and Ruth Hill with Tommy Dorsey in 1942. In August 1944, Elaine Vito played behind Coleman Hawkins, while Reba Robinson replaced Hill on Dorsey dates.

After the war, Ann Mason was on Artie Shaw's Musicraft sessions and Gail Laughton played with Boyd Raeburn in1946. On the West Coast, June Weiland did many of the early Capitol dates with Peggy Lee, and in 1949 Katherine Thompson backed Billy Eckstine at MGM. Meyer Rosen was the harpist on the first Charlie Parker With Strings session in 1949, with Verley Mills appearing on the second in 1952 along with Sauter-Finegan dates the same year.

As the LP became the dominant format in the early 1950s, the first harpist to work steadily on jazz dates in New York was Janet Putnam, a first-call player with a hip, classical touch.When it came to more exotic sessions, calls went to Betty Glamann, who was the first harpist to record a jazz recording as a leader—Swinging on a Harp in 1956, with Eddie Costa (vib, celeste) Barry Galbraith (g) Rufus Smith (b) and Osie Johnson (d). Glamann also played on Oscar Pettiford's fascinating big-band dates in 1957 and a session with trumpter Kenny Dorham that same year.

Putnam and Glamann paved the way for what came next. With the release of Jazz Harpist for Regent in 1957, Dorothy Ashby transformed the harp from a florid flavor to a swinging guitar-like instrument. She made the harp a dominant solo and duo instrument with a beautiful, singing personality. On her first album followed by Hip Harp (1958) and In a Minor Groove (1958), Ashby was paired with Frank Wess on flute, which proved to be a magical combination.

Ashby's background didn't begin in the concert hall. Born in1932 in Detroit, Ashby began playing piano at age 11. Encouraged by her guitarist father, Ashby  enrolled in a high school harp class. Both father and daughter figured there would be more work opportunities for her as a harpist than as a female jazz pianist, especially in Detroit, where there seemed to be great jazz pianists by the dozen.

After high school, Ashby attended Wayne State University, where she studied piano and music education, and performed as a folk singer on the radio. After graduation, she worked as a pianist in jazz clubs but in 1952 was playing the harp extensively.

As a harpist, Ashby at first faced pressure from fellow musicians who viewed the instrument as a novelty rarely taken seriously in jazz settings. To change that perception, Ashby gave free concerts with a trio that included her husband John Ashby on drums.

After launching her recording career, Ashby and her husband began producing plays in the 1960s—with John writing the scripts and Dorothy penning the musical scores. The couple relocated to California, and Dorothy was used extensively on Hollywood pop-rock dates in the years that followed. She died in 1986 of cancer at age 53. [Portrait of Dorothy Ashby by Robert “Tres" Trujillo]

In Ashby's hands, the harp sounds like a swinging guitar played by a pianist in a ball gown. Fortunately Ashby recorded quite a few wonderful albums, ranging from jazz and pop to World music.

JazzWax note: Back in 2009, I spent a few hours at the New York apartment of Janet Putnam and David Soyer listening to Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin. Both Janet and David were on the date. My post is here.

JazzWax tracks: Many of Dorothy Ashby's albums are out of print or haven't been remastered in years. Her first album, Jazz Harpist is available at Amazon here and here. Hip Harp (1958), In a Minor Groove (1958) and Afro-Harping (1968) also are at Amazon. Her albums are available at download sites. And hopefully, Fresh Sound will release a box featuring all of her great recordings.

JazzWax clip: Here's There's a Small Hotel from Hip Harp with Frank Wess on flute...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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