Presenting the Queen of Jazz Harp.
Dorothy Ashby is often hailed as the most underappreciated jazz musician of the 50's...I would further that statement by saying that she may very well be the most underloved jazz musician of the 20th century. Throughout her 30 year career she recorded 11 albums and collaborated with legends such as Louis Armstrong, Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder & Bobby Womack; however her legacy remains as arguably the greatest jazz harpist of all time.
Dorothy Jeanne Thompson otherwise known as 'Dorothy Ashby' was born in Detroit, Michigan (USA) on August 6, 1932. In her school years she gained an education in music and learned to play bass, strings, saxophone and piano at Cass Tech, a legendary school also attended by Alice Coltrane. In 1952 aged 20, Dorothy Ashby purchased her first harp and built up her reputations performing at night clubs in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Her debut album The Jazz Harpist was released in 1957, featuring a vibrant majestic sound that would help define the evolving 50's jazz movement ~
In 1958 she released the album Hip Harp, that some go as far as to claim was Ashby planting the seeds for the term Hip Hop. In the same year she released another album In A Minor Groove, ending the decade in her own unique style, having established herself as a respected musician amongst peers and 3 major albums under her belt; the first steps toward greatness.
The next decade from 1960 - 1970 would see Dorothy Ashby at her most prolific and genius best, releasing 6 albums; Dorothy Ashby (1961), Soft Winds (1961), The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby (1965), Afro-Harping (1968), and Dorothy’s Harp (1969), channeling the spiritual sound of the 60's into her music, a match made in heaven; blissful & revolutionary.
In 1968 the album Afro-Harping would highlight Ashby's involvement in the black power civil rights movement, a proud statement on her cultural identity.
The reason for some of our prowess in improvisation, for example, might stem from the fact that we've always had to improvise. We learned how to make do with the food left over from the plantation house-to make chitterlings, maws, and brains. When the season demanded it, we put cardboard in our shoes. We wore long hair before the style was called Afro, because we couldn't afford haircuts, and then that became the style of the jazz musician. - Dorothy Ashby (Interview, 1970)
In 1970 Dorothy Ashby released her iconic album The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, "inspired by the words of Omar Khayyam", a wise Persian poet-astronomer known for the book of poems "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam". Ashby plays the Japanese musical instrument; Koto, demonstrating her abilities to successfully integrate another instrument into jazz culture, whilst also blending poetry into the composition of the music, a rare technique.
This project would present Dorothy Ashby's most powerful vocals of her career, with a timeless voice to match her divine harp, truly a masterpiece ~
It would be another 14 years later until Dorothy Ashby returned in 1984 with two albums; Django/Misty & Concierto De Aranjuez, 2 years before her death at the age of 53, cementing her legacy as a jazz legend forever.
Dorothy Ashby is one of those rare musicians you can listen to their entire discography and not skip a track. She is responsible for some of the most sampled and influential jazz music of her era, and never fails to relax the listener with the genius of her execution. We remember her as one of the great jazz artists of the 20th century & a symbol of black female excellence.
Check out this selection below of more Dorothy Ashby music ~
- PSYCHIC GARDEN