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Undaunted Perseverance: Harpist Brandee Younger on the legacy of Dorothy Ashby

Harpist Dorothy Ashby
Harpist Dorothy Ashby

It’s often said that jazz musicians of today are standing on the shoulders of giants of the past. In the case of harpist Brandee Younger, she is standing on two sets of shoulders – those of Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby – two women who created a remarkable legacy for the harp as a jazz instrument. Over the years, Younger has performed numerous concerts with Ravi Coltrane in celebrating the music of his mother. And recently Younger wrote the foreword for Strings Attached 1957-1965, a box set of six LPs by Dorothy Ashby, released by New Land Records.

In the foreword to this sumptuous box set, Younger writes: “Dorothy Ashby was truly dedicated to music and culture. Her creations not only generated a deep appreciation for the harp in jazz, but her sound laid the foundation of so much music that we grew up on and listen to today. Growing up, I heard her distinct sound on classic recordings that my parents listened to in the house. Outside my home, with my friends, I was listening to ‘Fakin Jax’ by INI, featuring Pete Rock. These experiences completely contradicted what I was taught: that a harp’s place is in the orchestra. Through her diverse work, Dorothy Ashby taught me that the harp has no limits.” The set also includes extensive liner notes by Shannon Effinger, who thoroughly conveys the unique impact of Ms. Ashby’s life and music.

Like many people, Younger first heard Ashby on Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” but she readily admits that even though she listened to it over and over, she didn’t know who was playing on that memorable hit. Further complicating her initial exposure to the legendary harpist, Younger also heard her being sampled on hip-hop tracks by Pete Rock, CL Smooth and others. That sort of cross-genre presence was a hallmark of Ashby’s career. “She was incredibly flexible. I think that one of the things maybe we don't think about now is that she was actually just playing the music of her time. So even though those, first records were really more straight ahead jazz. As she progressed, you hear that she's playing, pop tunes that were out at the time. She's playing soundtracks of movies that had just come out. So it was less a genre specific thing and more playing the music of the time, which is old to us now, but it wasn't old then.” That versatility is yet another trait that Younger shares with Ashby, because she has become a first-call studio musician for hip-hop artists who want the special sound and textures of the harp.

If It's Magic

Ashby was certainly shaped by her upbringing in the music-rich city of Detroit. A New York native herself, Younger has a deep regard for the jazz musicians who came (and still come) out of Detroit. “The musical heritage and culture in Detroit is just Insane,” she explains. “I always say if I wasn't from New York, I would have wanted to be from Detroit. You don't know a bad musician out of Detroit.” Ashby was yet another product of the Cass Tech music program that has produced so many jazz greats – from Ron Carter to Geri Allen to Regina Carter. Donald Byrd, Gerald Wilson and Kenny Burrell were classmates of the young harpist.

Younger learned that it was the program director’s insistence that every instrument was represented that led to the opportunity for Ashby to learn the harp, though her journey was also influenced by different instruments. “She played piano and her dad was a guitar player, Wiley Thompson, and so she did continue to play piano. But, of course, people would notice the harp more than the piano. I think that she eventually just really committed to the instrument. It was very different. And she, unlike so many harpists, was able to transfer the stuff that she played on piano and the stuff that her dad taught her to the instrument. You could really hear that in her playing. You could hear the guitar-like voicings that worked really well on the harp.”

In trying to characterize Ashby’s unique sound and approach to the instrument, Younger initially points to those guitar voicings. “She plays lower, closer to the soundboard where there is less resonance. And so you get less bleed from chord to chord, notes that aren't in the chord bleeding into the next chord and so forth.” Younger also learned that Ashby would put stuff in her harp to keep it from resonating. “A family friend of mine from home owns one of Dorothy Ashby's harps. And when you look inside of it, you can see where the technician has pulled out all this stuff. I don't know if it was foam, but there are still remnants of it in there. So that straight away contributes to her sound as we hear it.”

In addition, Younger says that her solos were often doubled. “Which is something that's brilliant because when you're playing with a drummer, and you're competing with drums and bass, you need to be heard. So instead of playing chords and playing lines, if you can double some lines, that's going to bring it out.” Those lines distinguish Ashby from her contemporary Alice Coltrane. “When we listen to Alice Coltrane, we're really getting a soundscape, whereas with Dorothy Ashby's playing, you're getting a lot of lines.”

Of course, as Younger says herself, there is an almost gimmicky aspect to the harp as an instrument. “I'm not knocking our instrument, but there is a hokey factor that comes along with harp,” she explains. “I'll be doing some interviews and people will ask me, ‘How do you stay so humble?’ I say, ‘I play the harp.’ I've got this instrument that has its technical challenges, but also it has this hokey factor that it's really difficult to get through, so that it's not sounding super cheesy. And that's something that Ashby was able to do. That's also something that Alice Coltrane was able to do because there is this soulful element in their playing.”

Brandee Younger performing with her trio at SummerStage in New York City
Andrew James
Brandee Younger performing with her trio at SummerStage in New York City

Yet another challenge of this unique and beautiful instrument is its incredible size and weight. How do you go on the road with such a thing and if you don’t take it with you, then what do you play? How did Ms. Ashby manage it? “Back in the day, clearly well before I was born, I know a lot of the great harpists traveled by train,” Younger says. “They would put it in the big trunk and take it on a train, but we can't do that now. We can't bring a harp on Amtrak. She had to manage that. There's this recording I heard of her playing, toward the end of her life, and during the concert she did thank the harpist that loaned the harp. Anytime you travel, you've got to use something local, so it's important that you have good relationships with other harpists, and that's why the American Harp Society was formed, because we had no connects when we traveled.”

Looking back now, Ms. Ashby had more than one barrier to overcome. She was a woman instrumentalist, a Black woman, and she played the harp, not a universally accepted instrument in jazz, or even in popular music for that matter. “It's like this triple whammy of red flags,” Younger concurs. “Then the time period, because if you look at the box set’s era of 1957 to 1965, that is not what we would call an enlightened ‘period.’ Beyond racism and sexism, she had to deal with the indifference to the instrument within the Black community. “She would often talk about how, ‘Black folks don't want to hear the harp.’ So that’s difficult—cultivating an audience that might be interested in the harp, and then the other end of it is that the audience that does like the harp, they're used to classical harp, not jazz.”

Fortunately for Ashby, she was able to break through in the studio scene in Los Angeles, thanks in no small part to the singer-songwriter Bill Withers, with whom she had a strong personal and professional relationship. “I think they had a wonderful friendship,” Younger explains. “She actually produced a Bill Withers album, but they ended up using the more commercially produced version to release. Bill was also helpful with introducing her to Stevie Wonder.” Ashby’s iconic solo on Wonder’s song “If It’s Magic” gave both her and the harp visibility that hadn’t been seen since the days of Harpo Max.

Now an experienced studio session player herself, having played on albums by Lauryn Hill, The Roots and Common, to name just a few of many, Younger learned early that Ashby brought her sizable chops and ear to those recording sessions in Los Angeles. “When I was in graduate school, one of the film score professors came by the harp room and he said, ‘Young lady, have you ever heard of Dorothy Ashby?’ And of course I said, “Yeah.” He said that he was working on a film score and none of them could nail the part and then they called her at the last minute and she nailed it out on the first try.”

Before her studio work in L.A., Ms. Ashby along with her husband John Ashby established a theater company in Detroit. Mr. Ashby was a drummer as well as a writer. “He would write the plays, she would do the music, and the topics of all of these plays represented life in Detroit, black life in Detroit, life in the ghetto.” Noted actor Ernie Hudson was one of many in the troupe. After they moved to L.A., her husband did some writing for sitcoms and such. For Younger, it was the perseverance and commitment that most impressed her about Ashby. “The culture was important to her. And a lot of the music that she wrote for the plays, she actually recycled for records. She was resourceful, she was innovative, she was creative. It’s like she really knew that she had something special and it didn't matter whether people picked it up or not.”

Dorothy Ashby - With Strings Attached, 1957 - 1965 [6-LP Box Set]

Indeed, Ashby has been a formative influence on Younger, musically, professionally, personally. “What is the word for when you keep trying something and trying something and trying something and you do not let anything stop you?” Persistence? Perseverance? “Yes, that’s it, because all of the proposals and demos that she would send to labels and they would just reject her. And it’s like ‘Okay, on to the next, on to the next and the next.’ She seems she never really got stuck in her feelings and like us younger folks who would be like, ‘Oh, please return my call.’ I’m sure it affected her and there were some things I'll read of hers where you could tell that she was maybe bothered by something. But it seemed like she never let grass grow underneath her feet. It's like she lived as if she knew she wasn't going to live for a long time and knew and she held on to everything. It's like she knew she would have this legacy, this rich legacy, but was so ahead of her time. It's as if she wasn't worried about people not latching on at that moment.” Indeed, Ms. Ashby died in 1986 at the relatively young age of 53, leaving behind a legacy of more than 10 recordings as a leader, as well as countless appearances on albums, films and television shows.

Younger has always acknowledged her debt to Ashby who in her dedication to the harp as an instrument and her dogged approach to her career provided a veritable professional roadmap for the younger harpist. “Looking back at that time, there just weren't women instrumentalists in jazz. Now it's just kind of accepted, but then she was definitely a rarity on so many levels,” Younger says. “That’s why it's really kind of magnificent that she was able to put out so much in her short lifespan.”

Younger will be appearing at the Winter JazzFest as part of the Manhattan Marathon in a concert at Le Poisson Rouge on Friday, January 12.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”