Dorothy Ashby: Jazz Harpist - JazzWax

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January 09, 2012


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Harpists are at a disadvantage to pianists and guitarists in that it's much harder to play chromatically. Playing in the style of, say, Herbie Hancock would involve some very frantic pedal work. Ashby manages to bypass any awkwardness largely by playing in a harmonically conservative style.
A harpist not mentioned above was Harpo Marx who recorded two albums, one of them featuring musicians like Buddy Collette, Paul Horn, Fred Katz, Jim Hall, and Carson Smith. Harpo seems to have had no concept of rhythm, but otherwise plays quite well. He also contributes a bit of whistling.

Jan Stevens

Once again, Marc, you exhibit some very fine research on a very obscure jazz topic (the use of harp in jazz). Dorothy Ashby is about the only name I recall in jazz liner notes and credits. I believe she did a number of dates with the great Quincy Jones, if memory serves, as well as some of the CTI stuff Creed Taylor produced too.

Bill Kirchner

Great job of research! There was also an improvising British jazz harpist named David Snell who was active in the 1960s. He appears on John Dankworth's THE ZODIAC VARIATIONS (Fontana) and Zoot Sims' WAITING GAME (Impulse).

Devra Hall Levy

John Levy was her manager for awhile tho we were never able to pinpoint the exact years. Excerpted from pg 184 of "Men, Women and Girl Singers":
"Dorothy was petite and attractive with a winning smile. At four-feet eleven inches, you couldn’t help but wonder how she could manage a 72-pound harp that stood taller than she did. She was one of the nicest people I ever met, and her personality, along with her versatility, helped her career survive. In addition to being an incredible harpist, she was also a talented pianist, composer and singer, with a warm contralto voice.
"Dorothy and [her husband] John were a good team, and The Ashby Players was one of their creative brainstorms. With John as the writer/director, they produced a couple of original musical plays about black life. And because they focused on being entertaining and were careful not to preach, these productions were well received. Everything Dorothy did was well received. Critics wrote glowing reviews and she won lots of jazz polls—yet she still remained largely unknown outside the world of musicians and serious jazz aficionados."


Jonny Teupen did some interesting classical crossover recordings, can't find any samples of that unfortunately, but here's some funkier stuff he did later....

Jery Rowan

A square peg in a round hole; a tuxedo with argyle sox; an elephant with the Lipizzaner Stallions; a harp as a jazz instrument...

Sorry folks, none of it works. I find this topic to be such a stretch that I want to burn my Miles Davis “Sketches of Kazoo” album.

Red Sullivan

Gloria Agostini!
(And a resounding "No!" to Jerry Rowan, above. This is a great topic.)
(I also second David Snell, mentioned above, who also recorded at least one trio record, with bass & drums, and worked into the '80s).

Dustin Keeler

Revisionist harp historian. A history of the jazz harp that doesn't mention the word Alice Coltrane? Are those recordings too wierd to fit in your category of jazz. Also not to mention any of Dorothy Ashby's Cadet recordings and classifying them under the throwaway term rock-pop is ridiculous. Those are some wierd psychedelic jazz recordings. I don't think she was going for the hollywood pop market when she recorded an entire album on the rubaiyat. Besides that I found your research to be very interesting.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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