When we think of Detroit’s rich musical legacy — from Motown’s soulful artists to jazz greats including Ron Carter, Barry Harris, Alice Coltrane, Kenny Garrett and Geri Allen — we should not forget the harpist, pianist, composer, theatrical producer and radio host, Dorothy Ashby. Born on this day, August 6, 1932, during the Great Depression, she was a part of a generation of artists who came out of Detroit and became fixtures on the global music scene. Choosing the harp as her primary instrument, she was dedicated to giving the traditionally classical instrument a clear voice in jazz and popular genres.
I wonder if she had any idea of the influence she’d have within just a decade of her death. My take is that she did. You may have heard her first on Stevie Wonder’s album Songs in the Key of Life, accompanying Stevie Wonder on his song “If It’s Magic.” Or, maybe you heard her groove on some of Bill Withers’ soulful albums. If you’re a jazz fan, you may have heard her swinging accompaniment with Frank Wess’ lyrical soloing or with Freddie Hubbard playing “Portrait of Jenny.” However, if you are of the hip-hop generation, she may have been brought to your consciousness on Pete Rock’s “Fakin Jax,” Common’s “Start the Show,” or on the remix to Jay Z’s “A Million and one Questions,” to name just a few. Having released 11 albums during her career, spanning from straight ahead jazz to big band to funk, she knew she had something special, whether the labels and producers of the time caught on to it or not.
Dorothy Ashby’s first album, The Jazz Harpist, came out in 1957 and featured Frank Wess on flute. I was particularly surprised when Wess told me he was responsible for getting her that recording date. Over the next 10 years she would continue to perform and record with her jazz quartet until she moved to LA and became one of the premiere studio session harpists. Actually, there is An Ongoing Attempt to List Every Record and CD that Dorothy Played On, because every day it seems as though another song with her playing surfaces. I could attempt to mention each identified recording thus far, but space and time are limited. Just know that Earth, Wind & Fire, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, The Gap Band, Bobby Womack, The Emotions, Minnie Riperton, Stanley Turrentine, Bobbi Humphrey and Gary Bartz were some of the incredible artists whose music was enhanced by Ashby’s harp playing. In fact, the day I met Gary Bartz he talked about challenging her to play John Coltrane’s composition “Giant Steps” on Bartz’ album, Love Affair. If you’re a musician, you know that “Giant Steps” is a challenging piece of music, but if you know anything about the harp, you know that playing it is quite the initiation with all of the pedals!
In 1968, Ashby released the funk heavy album Afro-Harping on the Cadet label. Often described as “ground breaking,” Afro-Harping showcased the harp in a way that it hadn’t before been heard: within thick, heavy grooves. Simply describing it as soulful and funky would be understatements. Ashby took songs of the time as well as original compositions, laid African and Afro-Latin grooves underneath, and played creative, soulful lines on top, placing the harp at the forefront. Her subsequent albums, especially Dorothy’s Harp and The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, would continue to stretch the limits of the instrument beyond genres and styles.
Enter the Golden Age of hip-hop, and we hear a moment of the song “Come Live With Me” from Afro-Harping on the track “For Pete’s Sake” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth. This was in 1992! Since then, “Come Live With Me” has been sampled by at least 11 different artists with the latest being the single “Blessed” by Jill Scott. Ashby’s music has been used in multiple genres and has influenced artists like ?uest Love and The High Llamas. Producers and artists including J Dilla, Jay Z, Kanye West, Pete Rock, The GZA, Phife Dawg, Flying Lotus, Madlib, Jurassic 5, Angie Stone and Ghostface Killah have all sampled Ashby’s recordings in their music.
As a harpist, whenever I go into the studio with any hip-hop producer, they say “I want that Ashby vibe on this.” I always joke and insist that in order to get her sound, we must record analog, on tape, in a big room with a ceiling mic. However, quite seriously her style of playing and sound is very distinct. Her melodic approach is that of a horn player, and harmonically, one may be fooled into thinking they hear a guitar playing instead. Her impact on artists today across different genres is evident on recent recordings that either mimic her style or sample her unique playing. The example she set as a professional musician and of lending her support to political causes is one that artists today can aspire to in hopes of leaving behind such a strong legacy. More on that in Part 2.
“Miss Ashby deserves a place in the sun…because of her ability to offer the world a sound that is a clear voice in the wilderness of bland commercialism.” – Del Shields, 1968
Words by Brandee Younger (@harpista)