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By Larry Blumenfeld
Celebrated with a new boxed set, Dorothy Ashby’s legacy resonates more clearly than ever.
“If It’s Magic” is the gentlest of tracks on Stevie Wonder’s 1976 opus Songs in the Key of Life. Back in high school, when this expansive and propulsive album first took hold of me, I didn’t know what to make of that brief, calm duet — just Stevie singing and playing a tiny bit of harmonica, accompanied solely by harp.
In the decades since, I’ve come to adore the song for its undiluted beauty and gentle sway. Along the way, I learned the name of that harpist, whose strums begin the track; whose glissandos elevate Wonder’s musings about small and deep pleasures; whose pizzicato notes punctuate his phrases; whose subtle shifts of emphasis and color underscore his warning: “If it’s special/Then with it why aren’t we more careful?”
Dorothy Ashby, who was born in Detroit in 1930, was a musician of staggering ambition and virtuosity. Partly due to the racism that would have denied a Black woman a place in a symphony orchestra at the time, but mostly due to her own inclinations — “The only thing I was interested in doing was playing jazz on the harp,” she told one interviewer — Ashby essentially carved out not just her own place in jazz, but a place for her chosen instrument. It’s worth noting that in the mid-20th century, female instrumentalists were less than welcome in jazz circles, and that the harp — with its seven pedals for sharps and flats, and its free-standing strings whose tones ring until silenced by the player’s hands — is hardly tailor-made for the speed and agility required by the bebop world she first entered.
In the truest jazz spirit, Ashby was a bold original. In 1983, she told a Washington Post reporter, “When I first started playing, the audiences I was trying to reach were not interested in harp, period, classically or otherwise, and they were certainly not interested in seeing a Black woman play the harp. I think I had to pave my own way.” That she did.
Her first release, 1957’s The Jazz Harpist, was recorded at the invitation of Count Basie sideman Frank Wess; he became Ashby’s frequent collaborator. Despite the brilliance of that release, and the 10 that followed — notwithstanding her work with other distinguished jazz musicians, including drummers Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes and Art Taylor; or her later appearances on albums by Minnie Riperton, Stanley Turrentine and Bill Withers; and regardless of her high-profile appearances (opening for Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman at Detroit’s Masonic Temple; playing on The Tonight Show decades later) — Ashby sank mostly into obscurity after her death, at 55, in 1986.
Paradoxically, her influence somehow increased in the decades that followed. In an essay for The Guardian, Brandee Younger — a fast-rising jazz star who, last year, became the first Black woman ever nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition — recalled how, as a teenager growing up in a hop-hop inflected world, she “heard an amazing harp sample on a Pete Rock track and realized I could improvise and incorporate these other types of music on the instrument, too.” It would be a few years before she realized it was Ashby playing that harp. (Hip-hop and rap artists including GZA, Kanye West, Flying Lotus, J Dilla, Ghostface Killah and Jay-Z have all incorporated Ashby’s music into their music.) Younger recalled the first time she saw a picture of Ashby: “Here was a Black woman photographed playing my instrument,” she wrote. “I had an immediate desire to dig deeper into her life.”
That digging led her to recordings that were, for her, revelations. Soon, Younger was performing Ashby’s songs at each of her concerts. On her most recent album, Brand New Life, Younger arranges and performs previously unrecorded songs from Ashby’s archives, highlighting what an accomplished, ahead-of-her-time composer the harpist was. “What makes Dorothy’s music special is that she was always pushing forward,” she wrote. “She could play almost anything on the instrument and make it sound good.”
Dorothy Ashby: With Strings Attached 1957-1965 (New Land), a lovingly produced and packaged, six-disc boxed set, should go a long way in reviving interest in Ashby’s career and in placing her within the proper context. It contains six albums from the first half of Ashby’s career: The Jazz Harpist, Hip Harp and In a Minor Groove (1958), each co-led by Wess, and Soft Winds: The Swinging Harp of Dorothy Ashby (1961), Dorothy Ashby (1962) and The Fantastic Harp of Dorothy Ashby (1965).
On those first three releases, Ashby’s musical rapport is notably tight and conversational; playing two instruments that were then serious outliers in jazz, harp and flute, they sound like top-rank insiders. On “Aeolian Groove,” one of Ashby’s stirring compositions, she displays a facility, grace and tone that evokes guitarist Wes Montgomery. On other albums, she sounds, at various times, like a pianist or even a horn player. Her mastery is evident throughout this catalog; her style and ambition consistently progress.
With Strings Attached comes with a 44-page book by arts journalist Shannon Effinger, and includes a foreword by Younger. Here, through extensive research and interviews, Effinger traces Ashby’s remarkable story. She begins in Detroit, with a young Ashby on her first instrument, piano, as she “plunked out chords and sang” while her father, a working musician, played guitar, and follows her to Cass Technical High School, where she fell in love with harp, and where her classmates included trumpeter Donald Byrd and bassist Paul Chambers. (A few years later, Cass Tech would produce another renowned female musician, Alice Coltrane, who, along with her playing on piano and organ, further innovated the harp’s place in jazz.)
“Dorothy Ashby taught me that the harp has no limits,” Younger writes in her foreword. Yet in her Guardian piece, Younger noted, “Dorothy died in 1986 and was never appreciated in the way she should have been when she was alive. She was almost silenced by her circumstances.” Through this new boxed set, the samples of her sounds on so many tracks, and Effinger’s detailed account of her life and work, Younger’s music resonates more powerfully now than ever.
Featured photo courtesy of New Land Records.