Dorothy Ashby’s Harp Masterpiece

Read the Listening Notes for our June Classics Album

On May 26th 2021 » By Stephen Anderson

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From an early age, it was clear that Dorothy Ashby, born Dorothy Jeanne Thompson in Detroit in 1932, would cut a path all her own. As the young daughter of self-taught jazz guitarist Wiley Thompson, she relished sitting in on her father’s combo’s rehearsals in their home, chording along on piano. Instilling in her an understanding of jazz as not only a musical style but a way of life, these jam sessions amounted to an invaluable education. “[My father] taught me more about harmony and melodic construction than I learned in all my years of high school, college, and private study,” Ashby reflected to Sally Placksin for her book American Women in Jazz. “[He] sacrificed more time and money than the family could afford for my musical training and instruments.”

As a student at Cass Technical High School, her repertoire expanded to include violin, upright bass and saxophone — she rubbed shoulders with a teenage Donald Byrd in the marching band — but it was through the school’s pioneering harp program that she became transfixed by the elegant, towering instrument. Hands-on time with one of the school’s five harps was precious; if she was lucky, Ashby could vie for an hour’s worth of playing a day. “It took a little time, but I spent all my time wanting to do it my way,” she recalled. “There were some girls who had harps of their own, but they were very few, and none of the Black girls, of course, had harps. We hadn’t even seen a harp before we got there.”

In these treasured hours of woodshedding, she’d transpose her father’s homespun bop tutelage to an instrument naturally defiant of jazz improvisation. Unlike her familiar piano, bound harmonically only by the number of its player’s digits, the harp’s distinct lack of chromaticism — the same quality that makes possible its signature, cherubic glissandi — largely keeps the shades of jazz’s defining blue notes off its palette.

For a concert harpist, accounting for out-of-key notes requires some footwork to shift any one or two of the harp’s seven pedals at a moment’s notice. A jazz harpist, for whom the chromatic minefield is even more perilous, requires fleet-footedness in tandem with a chess master’s forethought simply to chord along with a chart. Improvising solos, on top of all of the rapid-fire calculations and physical maneuvers, would surely prove a harebrained highwire act, one which Ashby would eventually take to dizzying heights on The Rubáiyát of Dorothy Ashby. But even in her earliest explorations, the implausibility of her endeavor hardly registered.

“Nobody told me these things were not done on the harp,” she flatly explained to jazz historian W. Royal Stokes in his collected conversations, Living the Jazz Life. “I was just doing what I knew I liked.”

Though Casper Reardon and Adele Girard are often recognized as jazz’s first harpists, their playing was unabashedly staid, winking in its novelty, and wholly comfortable within the ritzy vernacular of ’30s and ’40s swing. Ashby, in a kind of reverse Pygmalion, found herself entranced in bending the tongue of the harp — an instrument with connotations of hoity-toity refinement otherwise reserved for larger-than-life ice sculptures of swans — to intone the utterly hip, and utterly Black, language of bebop, a dialect defined by inked notes in liberation from pallid page. “There’s nothing like that free time to create your own thing,” Ashby mused to Placksin. “I guess that’s the thing that just fascinated me about it when I heard my father play, when I heard the others play. I always had the hang-up on jazz. The challenge was so much greater.”

Working up genuine jazz chops on the harp was far from her sole challenge, though. For one, she still didn’t own a harp.

As a teenager in the early ’50s, Ashby gigged around the Motor City, playing piano to save up for the instrument closest to her heart — no small task, given that a full-sized harp could bear a price tag equally befitting the newest model wheeling out of General Motors’ factory door. Detroit’s club circuit wasn’t particularly lucrative, either; many of the city’s brightest players fled to New York for better opportunities once they’d outgrown their reputations around town. Those who stuck around fought for dwindling cuts, and weren’t inclined to trade licks or share tips with a female instrumentalist. Even Ashby’s father, recalling his own lean times as a working musician, gently discouraged his daughter from the pursuit. In 1952, after countless meager gigs, Ashby had scraped together enough for a harp all her own. Unfazed by her toiling, she was raring to hit the circuit anew and road-test her long-workshopped experimentations.

The circuit was quick to hit back; clubs that had held Ashby the pianist at arm’s length turned their backs completely to Ashby the harpist. Guarding marquees that illuminated names like Byrd, Burrell, Lateef and Jones, talent bookers considered her a curiosity, if they paid her mind at all. “The word harp seemed to just scare people,” Ashby later recalled to Placksin. “Club owners could not believe that they were gonna get anything less than chamber music.”

The harder she fought for legitimacy, the more she realized how great and complex the resistance to her recognition was. Relaying to Stokes decades later, she described her undertaking as a “triple burden,” even in the rare instances when she had made it past a booker’s gatekeeping: “The audiences I was trying to reach were not interested in harp, period — classical or otherwise — and they were certainly not interested in seeing a Black woman playing the harp. I think I had to pave my own way in terms of that area.”

Her self-determination begat self-sufficiency; she initially circumvented the circuit, building her reputation — and an increasingly persuasive case for the jazz harp — with a raft of café gigs, youth dances, college parties and even a stint or two for Detroit’s Parks and Recreation Department. Eventually icy club owners began to thaw; bookers heard her name from others’ lips, and were willing to give her group a night here and there. After five years of paying her dues — however disproportionately taxed — under and around the Motor City scene, the effort she’d exerted to make “Ashby” mean “harp,” and to make “harp” mean “jazz,” finally accrued enough interest: She inked her first record deal.

Ashby’s debut LP, 1957’s The Jazz Harpist, would typify her output for the next decade, for better or worse. Heard for the first time outside of her hard-fought Detroit, Ashby’s style scanned as remarkably measured, mostly eschewing octave-leaping flourishes in favor of nimble, lyrical licks; producer Orrin Keepnews aptly likened her playing to that of guitarist Wes Montgomery. The following year, DownBeat carved a new category for harpists in its Readers Poll; the magazine’s editors would join in shortly after, handing her their coveted Critics Poll award to recognize her as an outstanding performer. Ashby struggled to parlay critical acceptance into record sales, though; she spent the late ’50s and early ’60s bouncing from one label to the next, cutting agreeable records that undercut her deft talent with cloyingly on-the-nose titles like Hip Harp, The Swinging Harp of Dorothy Ashby and The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby. With half a dozen such albums to her name by 1965, an underwhelmed Ashby sought fulfillment, creative and otherwise, closer to home.

For several years already, Dorothy and her husband, John Ashby, had been close collaborators: Under the pseudonym John Tooley, he’d backed up her namesake trio on drums since the early ’60s, and the two took to Detroit’s airwaves on a twice-weekly, four-hour radio show during which they played new jazz records and discussed the state of the modern musician from their lived vantage. As the decade progressed, their shared creative output took on an increasingly socially minded edge. In 1965, the Dorothy Ashby Trio headlined an event that featured both Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, in one of his final speaking appearances before his assassination. By 1967, the perils of Black life were at their door, quite literally — the Ashbys’ home was situated in the heart of the infamously violent riots that raged through the summer in Detroit.

Inspired by the enveloping strife, John packed away his drumsticks, opting instead for the percussiveness of the typewriter as he paved a new way as a playwright, recruiting Dorothy to pen original music and lyrics for his works. The couple founded the all-Black troupe the Ashby Players to perform their works, which centered around the hot-button debates of the day: abortion, the pill, welfare, the ghetto. “We’re trying to show Negro life as it is,” remarked John to the Detroit Free Press. “The stuff that you see on TV, the soap operas, the family shows, they just haven’t got anything to do with Negro life. They’re unbelievable.” Just as unbelievable was the Ashbys’ success in their endeavor: They and their Players went from cleaning and hand-painting the bullet-ridden, burned-out walls of Detroit’s Dexter Theater to packed houses, standing ovations, extended runs and even a tour in Canada.

Far from Dorothy Ashby to keep just one iron in the fire, however brightly it may have burned — the harp was still her truest love. One night after a set at a restaurant in Detroit, she was approached by Richard Evans, then the go-to producer and de facto label head for Chess Records’ jazz imprint Cadet. Evans had encountered Ashby once before at a gig of hers in New York in 1962; while negotiating a deal with John Hammond before heading to see a performance by Ella Fitzgerald, he happened to catch her playing at the bar next door. Several years on, his awe hadn’t waned. Upon discovering that Ashby was without a record deal, Evans offered her one on the spot. For Ashby, whose creative life had been one long road less traveled, the deal would precipitate a creative partnership that would push her writing and playing into strange, exciting territory across three increasingly ambitious albums for Cadet.

In Evans, Ashby found the perfect musical foil: His arrangements were heady, propulsively rhythmic and doused in an unabashed Black urbanity that simmered with pan-African textures, providing a rich framework atop which Ashby could hang her featherweight melodies and stretch her gritty do-it-your-damn-self ethos to its highest aspiration. Had they expected anything akin to her charming previous records, purchasers of 1968’s Afro-Harping must’ve had their hair blown back to hear Evans-penned opener “Soul Vibrations,” its incessant groove strutting ever upward as far-out theremin lines snaked around her cool-handed leads. On Dorothy’s Harp the following year, Evans, his ear just as dialed in to George Martin’s handiwork as he was Gil Evans’, would experiment with tape delay and the newly invented wah-wah pedal, sonically slathering everything from Ashby’s harp to entire string sections with flamboyance. Ashby, for her part, broke new ground to offer a glint of what was to come, softly debuting her syrupy voice on “Toronado” and exploring pitch-bending on the harp to distinctly Eastern ends, as on the barnstorming “Truth Spoken Here.”

But for all their outward expansion, Afro-Harping and Dorothy’s Harp could at times be frustratingly imbalanced; with Ashby increasingly yoked to pop fare, her writing credits shrunk at a time when she was composing as feverishly as ever. Wittingly or not, Cadet marketed them both with reductive, no-shit titles, just as Prestige, Jazzland and Atlantic had done previously to middling returns before cutting Ashby loose. Evans, sensing greater depths yet to plumb, signed her for a third record. Even he, for all his arranging audacity, couldn’t have fathomed what she’d turn in.

“The audiences I was trying to reach were not interested in harp, period — classical or otherwise — and they were certainly not interested in seeing a Black woman playing the harp. I think I had to pave my own way in terms of that area.”

Dorothy Ashby

By the time she entered Ter-Mar Studios to record her third and final album for Cadet in late 1969, Dorothy Ashby had spent the better part of two decades convincing the world that she was a jazz harpist. But if The Rubáiyát of Dorothy Ashby makes anything clear, it is this: The harp was but one of her many means, and jazz was far from her only end.

The first minute of opener “Myself When Young” is as exemplary of Ashby’s reinvention as any of Rubáiyát’s remaining 38-and-a-half: A christening cascade of harp glissandi ripple before the curtain pulls back to reveal a serpentine march, evoking the hum and haze of a Middle Eastern bazaar. As quickly as it’s established, the scene is struck — the drums fall fully in, backbeat in the front seat, as the string section swirls around Ashby’s mesmerizing arpeggio for 10 breathtaking seconds that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the most sample-friendly flashes of David Axelrod’s catalog. But it’s what that miniature movement gives way to that’s truly staggering: Ashby’s voice — previously elusive, here moonlit and sterling — melodizing the first of the album’s 16 selections from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám with a fitting agelessness.

Farsi for “quatrains,” that Rubáiyát, a loosely translated anthology published more than a century previous by fledgling English poet Edward FitzGerald, would serve as winsome inspiration and peculiar parallel to Ashby’s. FitzGerald hadn’t merely rendered the stanzas of the Persian “astronomer-poet” into English-friendly meter; he took generous liberties to preserve the mystic essence of the original writings, mashing verses from one rubai into another with abandon. More importantly, he linked the rubáiyát — a disparate menagerie of ruminations on the joys of life and inescapability of fate — into a meaningful, singular work marked with a distinctly Epicurean flavor of carpe diem. The collection would exist in relative obscurity for the better part of two decades — not a single one of the 250 copies initially printed was sold in its first two years of publication — but over time, The Rubáiyát’s word-of-mouth popularity among the literary circles of England spread to the masses of Europe and America, inspiring rabid, Bible-rivalling readership, eventually settling into a vaunted entry in the global literary canon.

Much in the way that she had fashioned the harp into a bona fide jazz instrument, it’s Ashby’s earnestness that steers the high concept away from pedantry or, worse yet, novelty. Taking a cue from FitzGerald, she liberally recast the rubáiyát as motifs to bookend each of the album’s 10 songs — all Ashby-composed, a feat in and of itself — and serve as thematic platforms from which she, Evans and a wrecking crew of Cadet’s finest could venture. And, man, they had a hell of a lot of ground to cover.

If the assembled ensemble were nipping at the edges of what constituted “jazz” with Ashby’s enchanting, globe-trotting charts, they went for the jugular with stupefying weapons of choice. Making good on the promise of Rubáiyát’s cover, here the fantastic jazz harpist just as often — just as convincingly — presides over the koto, a 13-stringed zither of arguable Japanese origin, to lay down slinky solos as she does in commandeering the light funk of “Joyful Grass and Grape.” At times it feels as if Ashby, so long an outsider herself, is pulling the misfits of the bandstand up for their own overdue time to shine: On what other jazz record — or any slice of wax, for that matter — does a soloing harp tag out to a bass flute, in turn to a vibraphone? A koto to an oboe? Where else does the kalimba, here drenched in watery wah-wah, outnumber saxophone solo outings three-to-one? All the while in the spotlight’s shadows, there’s Evans, bringing out the full flavor of his soulful string arrangements with flecks of Latin percussion staples like the guiro and cuica with just as much panache as he does peppering in the Harry Partch-devised boobam. Heck, even the straight numbers were Trojan horses in their own way, as on the swinging “Wine” — that’s Ashby twinkling away in a rare recorded appearance at the piano, her Midas touch for tuneful improvisation on full display.

But, again, these are only the means; the medium is not the message. It’s nothing short of hair-raising to hear Ashby mark the beginning of Rubáiyát’s end, “The Moving Finger,” with a hypnotic web of her own intricate incantations. But icing alone does not a cake make, and The Rubáiyát of Dorothy Ashby would be exquisite fluff if not for the kind of sweat-breaking interplay that follows that overdubbed overture: Five swaggering minutes of streetwise funk, ground upon which all instruments, all players share equal footing to pluck, plink and honk. It’s as fitting a finale for the album as it is for Ashby’s career as a bandleader; having writ their greatest work, her moving fingers moved on.

“Much in the way that she had fashioned the harp into a bona fide jazz instrument, it’s Ashby’s earnestness that steers the high concept away from pedantry or, worse yet, novelty. Taking a cue from FitzGerald, she liberally recast the rubáiyát as motifs to bookend each of the album’s 10 songs — all Ashby-composed, a feat in and of itself — and serve as thematic platforms from which she, Evans and a wrecking crew of Cadet’s finest could venture. And, man, they had a hell of a lot of ground to cover.”

However inspired its muse, however brilliantly executed its conceit, The Rubáiyát of Dorothy Ashby was, unsurprisingly, met with near-silence upon release in 1970. “It was very artistic,” recalled Richard Evans in an interview for Wax Poetics published in 2009. With a laugh, he added, “I thought it was gonna sell five copies.”

It would be another four years until Ashby would turn up on record again, as support on Bill Withers’ moody +’Justments. The collaboration was a welcome return to the studio; she’d rack up credits for the next dozen years as a session player for the likes of Minnie Riperton, Earth, Wind & Fire and — on Withers’ personal recommendation — Stevie Wonder, for the fluttering Songs in the Key of Life ballad “If It’s Magic.” She’d release two fully solo ventures, the standards-heavy and, curiously, Japan-only Concierto De Aranjuez and Django / Misty in 1983 and 1984, respectively, before cancer took her life in 1986.

The internet age has looked upon Dorothy Ashby with remarkable favor; crate-digging bloggers have championed her luminous body of work for as long as there’s existed bandwidth enough to shout (and share) from the digital rooftops. Accelerated by the 21st century’s streaming boom and the proliferation of playlist plundering, her pioneering legacy has grown considerably in the wake of her passing. If the long-gestating success of Edward FitzGerald and his unwitting writing partner, Omar Khayyám, is any indication, the bird of time will be kind to The Rubáiyát of Dorothy Ashby.

Stephen Anderson

Stephen Anderson is a musician, writer and filmmaker based in Denver, Colorado. As VMP’s Music Operations Coordinator, he has co-produced several installments of their Anthology series, including The Story of the Grateful Dead and The Story of Herbie Hancock.

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