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Although not the first jazz harpist, Dorothy Ashby was clearly the most successful, and contributed some choice recordings in the hard bop and jazz-funk styles. She grew up around music in Detroit, where her father, guitarist Wiley Thompson, often brought fellow jazz musicians home to jazz while Dorothy comped in the background on their piano.
She came to the harp only after a short detour through saxaphone and bass in the band of Cass Technical High School, where she attended alongside future jazz greats Donald Byrd, Gerald Wilson, and Kenny Burrell. She had to share five harps with fourteen other students, however, so she must have quickly discovered an affinity, because she was left with a goal of owning her own harp. As she later commented, "This isn't just a novelty, though that is what you expect. The harp has a clean jazz voice with a resonance and syncopation that turn familiar jazz phrasing inside out."
She attended Wayne State University, studying piano and music education, and after graduation, went to work in the small but lively jazz scene in Detroit. Although she could get hired as a pianist, she wanted to play harp more, and bought one in 1952. She overcame initial resistance to the concept by organizing free shows and playing to dances with her trio.
Ashby's trio, including her husband John Ashby on drums, toured the country and appeared on a variety of jazz labels through the late 1960s. She played with Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, and other acts, and in 1962, was selected in down beat's annual poll of best jazz performers. She also worked with her husband on a theater company, the Ashby Players, he founded in Detroit.
In the late 1960s, they tired of touring and moved to California, where she broke into the studio system (which already had enough harpists for its needs) with the help of soul singer Bill Withers. Withers recommended her to Stevie Wonder and she ended up with a steady series of session gigs, playing behind such singers as Dionne Warwicke, Diana Ross, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Barry Manilow.
Ashby's Cadet albums have come to be viewed as among the best early examples of acid jazz, and now fetch eye-watering prices among collectors. Breaks and rhythm tracks from the superb Richard Evans arrangements have become favorites for sampling and remix artists.
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