The Music Column with William Price King – Jazz Instrumentalists – Dorothy Ashby – Harpist

This week William Price King shares the life and career of Dorothy Ashby who was one of the few harpists to play jazz. Normally associated with classical music, this was not the only barrier that this talented musician broke through.

Dorothy Jeanne Thompson (August 6, 1932 – April 13, 1986), better known as Dorothy Ashby, was an American jazz harpist and composer. Hailed as one of the most “unjustly under loved jazz greats of the 1950’s” and the “most accomplished modern jazz harpist,” Ashby established the harp as an improvising jazz instrument, beyond earlier use as a novelty or background orchestral instrument, proving the harp could play bebop as adeptly as the instruments commonly associated with jazz, such as the saxophone or piano.

The Jazz Harpist is Dorothy Ashby’s debut album and was recorded in 1956 for Regent, a subsidiary of major jazz imprint Savoy, and released the following year. She was accompanied by a groovy group of session men made up of flautist Frank Wess, drummer Ed Thigpen, and alternating bassists Eddie Jones and Wendell Marshall. This recording, which features her writing skills, put her on the map. Here is Thou Swell from the album.

Dorothy Ashby had to overcome many obstacles during the pursuit of her career. As a black woman musician in a male dominated industry, she was at a disadvantage. In a 1983 interview with W. Royal Stokes for his book Living the Jazz Life, she remarked of her career, “It’s been maybe a triple burden in that not a lot of women are becoming known as jazz players. There is also the connection with black women. The audiences I was trying to reach were not interested in the harp, period—classical or otherwise—and they were certainly not interested in seeing a black woman playing the harp.” Ashby successfully navigated these disadvantages, and subsequently aided in the expansion of who was listening to harp music and what the harp was deemed capable of producing as an instrument.

Ashby’s albums were of the jazz genre, but often moved into R&B, world music, and other styles, especially her 1970 album The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, where she demonstrates her talents on another instrument, the Japanese koto, successfully integrating it into jazz.

‘Myself When Young’, from the album, was composed by Dorothy Ashby in an Eastern mode* for harp and koto* and arranged by Richard Evans. The original songs from this album were inspired by the words of Omar Khayyam. On this album and in this piece Ashby plays the koto and demonstrates her ability to successfully integrate another instrument into jazz.

  • Eastern mode – In music, the Eastern or Phrygian mode is derived from the Phrygian dominant scale which is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale, the fifth being the dominant. It is also called the altered Phrygian scale in jazz.
  • The koto is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument derived from the Chinese zheng and is the national instrument of Japan. Koto are about 180 centimetres length, and made from kiri wood.

Some of the highlights of Dorothy Ashby’s life and career.

Dorothy was born into a musical family and her father Wiley Thompson was a jazz guitarist who brought fellow musicians into their home. Dorothy would play along with them on the piano and she also played a number of other instruments including the saxaphone and string bass before discovering the harp.

She studied music at Wayne State University in Detroit, and after graduating began playing piano in jazz clubs in the city. By 1952 she was focusing on the harp and at first met resistance from her fellow musicians who associated the instrument with classical music. But Dorothy persisted and to drive home her passion she arranged for her trio to play free at shows and for dances. She went on to record with some of the top musicians at the time including Jimmy Cobb, Ed Thigpen and Richard Davis.

‘The Moving Finger’ ( from The Rubaiyat ) opens with what seems like a Buddhist chant, and quickly kicks into harp, koto, guitars, drums, and bass bump. The guitar and alto solos, along with the kalimba* rhythms, cut right into the flesh of the blues and transforms it into a soulful groove.

  • The Kalimba, or African thumb piano, is a modern member of a family of ancient African instruments called lamellaphones with a single row of keys. In Africa, each cultural group has their own type of kalimba,

Music was central to Dorothy’s life especially as her trio included her husband, John Ashby, on drums. They were on the road touring a great deal and also recorded albums for a number of labels. She played with Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, among others. In the 1960s Dorothy Ashby, together with her husband, formed a theatrical group to produce plays that would be relevant to the African-American community of Detroit, offering theatrical training and acting opportunities for young black actors..

In the late 1960s, the Ashbys gave up touring and settled in California, where Dorothy broke into the studio recording system as a harpist through the help of the soul singer Bill Withers, who recommended her to Stevie Wonder. As a result, she was called upon for a number of studio sessions playing for more pop-oriented acts.

Afro Harping, written by Dorothy Ashby and Phil Upchurch and arranged by producer Richard Evans was recorded in 1968 and released on the Cadet label. This sublime blend of African percussion and soulful orchestrations highlights how Ashby turned the harp into a lead instrument with solos as tough and memorable as those played by any reed, brass or percussion player.

Dorothy Ashby died from cancer on April 13, 1986, in Santa Monica, California. Her recordings have proven influential in various genres. The High Llamas recorded a song entitled “Dorothy Ashby” on their 2007 album Can Cladders.


Buy music by Dorothy Ashby:

About William Price King

William Price King is an American jazz singer, crooner, and composer.

His interest in music began at an early age when he studied piano and clarinet in high school. At Morehouse College in Atlanta where he grew up, he sang in the Glee Club and studied classical music. After graduation he went off to the Yale School of Music where he earned a Masters degree. From there he journeyed to New York where he created a jazz trio ‘Au Naturel’ which performed in some of the hottest venues in Manhattan including gigs on Broadway and the famous ‘Rainbow Room.’ These gigs opened doors for performances in Montreal and a European tour.

While touring Europe he met a lovely French lady, Jeanne Maïstre, who, a year later became his wife. King left the group ‘Au Naturel’ and settled in the south of France where he started a new life on the French Riviera, opening his own music school – the “Price King Ecole Internationale de Chant.” He has had the pleasure over the years of seeing many of his students excel as singers on a professional level, and some going on to become national celebrities. He continues to coach young singers today, in his spare time.

His debut jazz album was entitled “Home,” and was a collection of contemporary compositions he composed, with lyrics written by his wife Jeanne King. His second album was a Duo (Voice and Guitar) with Eric Sempé on the guitar. This album included original songs as well as well known standards from contemporary jazz and pop artists. The “King-Sempé” duo toured France and thrilled audiences for more than three years before going their separate ways. King has formed a new duo with French/Greek guitarist Manolis, and is now exploring new ideas, in a smooth jazz/soul/folk direction.

In addition to singing and composing, King has been collaborating with author Sally Cronin over the past few years on her blog “Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life,” with the series “A Man And His Music – Jazz, Contemporary, Classical, and Legends” and now, the “William Price King Music Column.” Working with author Sally Cronin has been an exhilarating experience in many ways and has brought a new dimension to King’s creative life. King has also created a micro blog, “Improvisation,” which features and introduces mostly jazz artists from across the jazz spectrum who have made considerable contributions in the world of jazz; and also artwork from painters who have made their mark in the world of art. This micro blog can be found on Tumblr.

His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé. King has a distinctive wide-ranging voice which displays a remarkable technical facility and emotional depth.

William Price King on Tumblr – IMPROVISATION

Connect with William

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You can find all of the Music Column series in this directory:

Thank you for dropping in and hope you will tune in again in two weeks for another post in the series Jazz instrumentalists.

17 thoughts on “The Music Column with William Price King – Jazz Instrumentalists – Dorothy Ashby – Harpist

  1. Believe it or not… because my dad is such a HUGE jazz fan and we are from Detroit, I have heard of this talented lady’s works. Thank you for giving her music fresh wings. Sad to realize how many years she has been gone but what a joy that her music lives on!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, this was fantastic. I’d never heard of Dorothy, and I’d have to imagine how tough it was for her to become so accomplished in the early days before civil rights. I thoroughly enjoyed listening, especially to the Moving Finger video. Fantastic. Thanks William and Sal. Hugs! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Weekly Round Up – Halloween Party, Harp in Jazz, Garlic and Book Gifts for a Daughter (everyone) | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

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