Archive for Women in Jazz

Album Review: Lighthouse Reverie – Jen Siukola

Posted in CD Reviews, Under The Radar, Unsung Women of Jazz with tags , , , , on October 17, 2017 by curtjazz

JEN SIUKOLALighthouse Reverie (Self Release)

JenSiukola-coverJen Siukola is an Indianapolis based trumpeter, educator and composer, currently on the faculty of the University of Indianapolis and Ball State University. On Lighthouse Reverie, her debut recording as a leader, she presents a program consisting of her original tunes, with a solid group of Indianapolis based musicians, as her sidemen. The date is produced by the veteran Indiana jazzman, Mark Buselli, who is also one of Ms. Siukola’s mentors.

Ms. Siukola is a very good composer and arranger. For a relatively young artist, she displays an impressive ear for bop and post-bop conventions. She lists Tom Harrell and Kenny Dorham as influences and some of these tunes sound like they came from the pens of those two legendary cats.

Lighthouse Reverie includes several winning performances, that show off the considerable chops of Ms. Siukola’s quintet. She is a technically solid trumpet player, especially in her middle register. When she picks up the flugelhorn, as she does on the title track, Siukola seems to be in her comfort zone; displaying a warm, buttery tone, that I could listen to all day. “The Homp Romp” is another standout, swinging in a hard bop bag, with strong solos by the leader, Steve Allee on piano and Rob Dixon on tenor. Mr. Allee is a new name to me and I was impressed with his work, throughout the album. “Bog Walking”, is a bright, melodic tune with a hummable melody, reminiscent of “Yardbird Suite”. Dixon and Allee again, are the standouts. Ms. Siukola’s best work is on “The Dawn Approaches Like Tears”, a melancholy, waltz-timed tune, straight out of Harrell, on which Jen again turns to the larger horn, for an achingly gorgeous solo, on the heels of another striking statement by Mr. Dixon; I need to explore his work, as well.

Jen Siukola is off to a very fine start with Lighthouse Reverie. I’m looking forward to seeing what her future holds.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars – A well written and well executed debut album


Unsung Women of Jazz #9 – Clora Bryant

Posted in Unsung Women of Jazz with tags , , , , on October 23, 2011 by curtjazz

Clora Bryant

“It was a Sunday afternoon…They were trying to get Charlie [Parker] to play at the club next door, the Lighthouse, but no one could get him to sit in. Then he came over to where I was playing, borrowed a new Selmer tenor from somebody, and said, ‘Well, what do you want to play Clora?’ And I said, ‘Now’s the Time.’ So I set the tempo… and everybody got really swinging.”Clora Bryant recalls playing with Charlie Parker

She has played with Bird, Diz and Satchmo. She is a legend of L.A.’s Central Avenue Jazz Scene. Yet, Clora Bryant is barely known outside of Southern California.

Clora Bryant was a “trumpetiste” (her preferred term) for over half a century. Women trumpet player/leaders are still fairly rare today. In the ’40’s and ’50’s, they were virtually unheard of.  But that didn’t stop Ms. Bryant.

Born in Texas in 1927, Clora Bryant’s originally played the piano and sang.  She did not pick up a trumpet until her junior year in high school, after her brother was drafted and went off to serve in WWII.  She wanted to be in the marching band and the trumpet was her way in.  Clora was a fast learner. So fast that she earned trumpet scholarships to Bennett College and Oberlin, only a year later.  She turned down both scholarships, opting instead to attend Prairie View College in Houston, which was closer to home.

When Clora’s father landed a job in Los Angeles, Clora transferred to UCLA.  It was there that she heard the sound of bebop, coming from the clubs on Central Avenue, the center of African-American life in L.A. at the time.  Clora was drawn to that sound like a moth to a flame. She began sitting in during late night jam sessions, where she played with other West Coast jazz players, like Howard McGhee, Frank Morgan and Teddy Edwards.  She was a good enough player to get invited to sit in when some cats would come from the east, like Bird and Diz.  The bond with Dizzy was so strong that he became Clora’s mentor, starting a friendship that would endure until Dizzy’s death.

Clora Bryant has always been resourceful. In addition to being a trumpet player and vocalist, she also learned to paly the drums. She was proficient enough on the skins to land a job with the Queens of Swing and tour with them for several years. In the early ’50’s Ms. Bryant returned to playing the trumpet. She backed Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker during that time. She also married and gave birth to her first two children.

In 1957 Clora Bryant recorded and released her first and only album as a leader; …Gal With a Horn, for Mode RecordsIt’s an infectious, mostly uptempo affair, with Clora singing as well as blowing on all eight tracks. She gets solid support from a strong group that includes veteran bassist Ben Tucker and tenor saxophonist Walter Benton.

Ms. Bryant spent most of the remainder of the fifties on the road, playing the hot spots in Chicago, Denver and Vegas.  During the sixties, she teamed with her vocalist brother, Mel, to create a successful song and dance act, even hosting their own TV show in Australia for a while.  Clora made international headlines in 1989, when she accepted then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s invitation to play in U.S.S.R.; becoming the first female jazz musician to do so.

A 1996 heart attack forced Clora to put down her trumpet, but she barely skipped a beat. She continues to sing and lecture across the country about her rich life experiences and what it was like to be a pioneering woman in jazz.  Within the past decade, Clora Byrant has begun to receive some long overdue recognition.  She was Honored by Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with its 2002 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Award, in 2002. And in 2007 a long-planned documentary Trumpetisically, Clora Byant,  was released.

As you can see in these recent clips, Clora Bryant is still going strong.  May she continue to do so for many more years!

Recommended Recordings:

Unsung Women of Jazz #8 – Mary Osborne

Posted in Unsung Women of Jazz with tags , , , , on October 15, 2011 by curtjazz

Mary Osborne (1921 – 1992)

“The only electric guitar I knew of was the Hawaiian guitar, I’d listen to all the jazz guitarists of the time, but they all played acoustic. But here was Charlie Christian playing Django Reinhardt’s ‘St. Louis Blues’ note for note but with an electric guitar. It was the most startling thing I’d ever heard.” – Mary Osborne

When I began this series, I only chose nine women. Because I knew that somewhere along the way, there would be a talented woman whom I had overlooked, that needed to be on this list. Well, surprise! I found not one, but two. The first, profiled here, is guitarist Mary Osborne. The second is…well, you’ll find out in the next post.

Born into a musical family in Minot, ND; Mary’s direction was set from an early age. “We had a very large family and everybody could play an instrument, but nobody intended to be a musician.” Mary said in a 1991 New York Times interview.  “They tell me that one time they found me sitting at the piano picking out tunes. I was 2 or 3 or something. My dad says ‘I think I finally got myself a musician.’ From then on he just doted on me, he brought me every string instrument.” Ms. Osborne tried the mandolin and the banjo, before settling on the guitar at age 9.  As a teenager, she played her acoustic guitar on local radio broadcasts, for which she was paid in Hershey Bars.

At 17, her life was changed when pianist Al Trent came to Bismark, ND, on a one-nite stand. Trent’s electric guitarist was a gifted young man named Charlie Christian.  The next day, Mary bought herself an electric guitar and became a devoted follower of Christian’s. And Christian, impressed by their mutual love of Django Reinhardt, took the time to mentor Mary.

In the late ’30’s Ms. Osborne moved to Pittsburgh and then to New York. Though she encountered barriers due to her sex, her talents were too good to be completely ignored.  Eventually, Mary landed a gig with legendary violinist Joe Venuti, (who considered her a replacement for his late partner Eddie Lang) which then led to work and recordings with Coleman Hawkins, Mary Lou Williams, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie and much to her chagrin, many bookings as part of gimmicky all-girl groups.  Her love though, was joining in the late night jams at the famed clubs along 52nd Street.  She was quite a sight, this pretty, petite white girl, up on the stand and more than holding her own with some of the best jazzmen of all time.

Around that same time, Mary met her husband, trumpeter Ralph Scaffidi.  They remained in New York and Mary kept working, leading her own trio, which played many NYC hotels and appearing often on radio and in this upstart new medium, television.  She also gave birth to three children, between 1955 and 1959.  While pregnant with her third child, she recorded the first of her two albums, A Girl and Her Guitar.  Despite the corny title, this was no novelty record. Mary swung hard, cool and fast, leading a group that included pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Tommy Potter and drummer “Papa” Jo Jones.

[From Cats vs. Chicks, Mary trades licks with the great Tal Farlow on “Anything You Can Do…”]

During the ’60’s, Mary Osborne continued to work on the NY scene. She even refined her skills by taking classical guitar lessons. In 1968, Mary and Ralph decided to move to Bakersfield, CA, where they started a successful company that made guitars and amplifiers. She continued to perform locally and she taught at Cal State University in Bakersfield.  She would surface occasionally for recordings and higher profile gigs. In 1977 she appeared on Marian McPartland’s album Now’s The Time, which featured an all female group that included another of our Unsung Women, Vi Redd.  in 1981, Stash Records released  Now and Then, which was split between freshly recorded trio tracks and some cuts from A Girl and Her Guitar.  The ’81 tracks proved that Mary had not lost a step over the years; in fact her sound had matured into something that was less Charlie Christian and more uniquely hers.

In 1990, she joined Lionel Hampton for a set during the Playboy Jazz Festival. By all accounts, the 69-year-old Osborne stole the show (I tried desperately to find some video or audio footage, but no luck).  This led to her coming back to New York for a week at the Village Vanguard in 1991. Sadly, it would be her last New York gig. Mary Osborne died of cancer in 1992.

When I conceived this series, this spot in the order was to be filled by Emily Remler. Though we will still touch on Ms. Remler at a later date, I find it ironic that we are instead speaking of a woman who made Emily possible. Mary Osborne was a true pioneer.

Recommended Recordings:

Unsung Women of Jazz #7 – Vi Redd

Posted in Unsung Women of Jazz with tags , , , , , on October 1, 2011 by curtjazz

Vi Redd

This record is a sterling example of what the music [jazz] lost in the name of its phallocentricity. Vi Redd demonstrates a thoughtful tone and a careful respect for those around her. Her solos are pithy and directly to the point…Quite honestly, there’s really nothing quite like her records.”From Rob Ferrier’s All Music guide Review of Vi Redd’s Lady Soul LP

Claire Daly, Tineke Postma, Tia Fuller, Virginia Mayhew are just a few of the strong women jazz saxophone players on the scene today. Rewind 40 – 50 years and you’ll find very few names.  Elvira “Vi” Redd was one of those few.  Now I know that there were many women sax players during the ’40’s – 60’s who were part of the “all girl” big bands and novelty acts. What I’m talking about are women who stepped out there on the front line with the men and recorded as leaders.  Vi Redd was a pioneer.

Ms. Redd is the daughter of Alton Redd, who was a New Orleans drummer and the co-founder of the Big Easy’s legendary Clef Club. Vi was born in Los Angeles in 1928.  With her father being a major part of the Central Avenue jazz scene, Vi was exposed to many of the greats of jazz from an early age.  Young Vi was also blessed with an aunt, Elma Hightower, who was considered one of the foremost L.A. music teachers of her time.  Ms. Hightower was instrumental in Vi’s decision to play the saxophone.

Like many sax players of her generation, Ms. Redd’s sound is heavily influenced by Charlie Parker.  So, it was no accident that the first of her two albums as a leader was titled Bird CallRecorded in 1962, it’s a good album, that features Herb Ellis on guitar; Leroy Vinnegar on bass; Carmell Jones on trumpet; Russ Freeman on piano and a young, pre-fusion Roy Ayers on vibes.  In addition to her solid work on alto, Ms. Redd also sings on a few numbers, which is not a bad thing, as she is a fine vocalist with a compelling grit to her sound.  The tunes penned by producer Leonard Feather are the only selections that miss the mark.

The next year, she recorded her second and apparently, final album, Lady SoulIt’s the more polished of the two albums, with great playing and singing by Ms. Redd and first-rate support from Dave Bailey, Bucky Pizzarelli and Ben Tucker.  Unfortunately, Lady Soul has slipped into obscurity and is extremely hard to find.

When one does research on the career of Vi Redd, the term that recurs more than any other is “under-recorded”. How true that is. For though Ms. Redd has played and toured with artists such as Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Sarah Vaughan and Max Roach, she has only two albums to her name and a scant four more with other artists.  Notable among these is Now’s The Time; an all female session led by Marian McPartland, in 1977.  Throughout the years, she gigged around the Los Angeles area and supported herself as a schoolteacher between engagements.  She finally received a bit of long overdue recognition in 2000, when she was honored at “Instrumental Women: Celebrating Women-N-Jazz“, a concert at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

As of this writing, Vi Redd is retired and living in the L.A. area. And as we can see in this heartwarming interview conducted by a family member in 2009, she is still sharp, delightful and energetic.

Recommended Recordings:

Unsung Women of Jazz #6 – Melba Liston

Posted in Unsung Women of Jazz with tags , , , , , on September 24, 2011 by curtjazz

Melba Liston (1926 – 1999)

“When I saw the trombone I thought how beautiful it looked and knew I just had to have one. No one told me that it was difficult to master. All I knew was that it was pretty and I wanted one.” – Melba Liston

Trombonist/Arranger/Composer Melba Liston was born in Kansas City, MO on January 13, 1926.  In her early years, she shuttled back and forth between the and Kansas City, KS, where her grandparents lived.  She got her first trombone at seven, when a traveling music store brought instruments to school.  By the time she was eight, she was playing solo trombone on local radio shows. 

When Melba was eleven, her family moved to Los Angeles.  There she was mentored by a local music teacher, who ran a big band made up of neighborhood children.  That relationship ended after four years, when Melba decided to join the musicians union, against the teacher’s wishes. Nevertheless, Liston joined the pit band at Los Angeles’ Lincoln Theatre at age sixteen. 

When the Lincoln discontinued live shows in 1943, Liston joined the new band being formed by Gerald Wilson.  She also recorded in a group with old school pal Dexter Gordon.  Melba stayed with Wilson for five years, until his group disbanded.  She then joined Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, along with Wilson. That lasted about a year, until Dizzy’s band also broke up. 

After joining Wilson again in a Bebop band that backed Billie Holiday on an ill-fated tour of the South, Ms. Liston gave up music for a few years. She took a job with the Los Angeles Board of Education. Music, however, was not completely out of her blood, as she continued to compose and arrange on the side.  She even tried her hand at acting for a while, landing bit parts in The Prodigal, alongside Lana Turner and in The Ten Commandments, as a harp player. 

But the music was never far away from Melba’s heart, so when the State Department asked Diz to form a big band for a Middle East/Asia tour, he coaxed Liston into joining him. Though she rarely soloed during that time, she did a considerable amount of arranging.  Including “Stella by Starlight”, “My Reverie” and “Wonder Why”. These arrangements (and more by Melba) were recorded and can be heard on the Birks Works compilation, on Verve.

Diz wasn’t the only one who dug Melba’s arranging.  Quincy Jones, who played trumpet in the Gillespie band at the time, was forming a band to tour Europe. he asked Ms. Liston to join him and she agreed. In 1958, Melba Liston recorded her sole album as a leader; Melba Liston and Her BonesOn this date, Liston and an array of trombonists, including Slide Hampton, Al Grey and Bennie Green, were front and center, with solid support from Kenny Burrell, Ray Bryant, Charlie Persip and others. Co-produced by Leonard Feather, it’s a shame that this fine album drifted into obscurity.

In that same year, Melba met pianist composer Randy Weston. Weston admitted that at the time, he had never met a woman trombonist before.  Their meeting sparked a creative partnership that lasted almost 40 years.  Weston initially hired Melba to put some meat on the bones of his compositions. They realized quickly that musically, they were two halves of the same coin. Said Weston; “Melba is incredible; she hears what I do and then expands it. She will create a melody that sounds like I created it. She’s just a great, great arranger.”  All in all Weston and Liston worked on 10 albums together, including Little Niles, Earth Birth and Volcano Blues.

Melba Liston with Dizzy’s ‘Dream Band’ in 1982 on “Manteca” [Melba solos starting at 3:35]

Besides her work with Weston, Melba continued to freelance, working often with Clark Terry and briefly with Charles Mingus. Upon her return to Los Angeles in the late ’60’s, the pop music world took note of her talents and she arranged sessions for stars including Marvin Gaye and the Supremes.

Ms. Liston was very active until 1986, when she suffered the first of several strokes.  She had to give up playing and was confined to a wheelchair, but Melba continued to compose and arrange, until her death in 1999.

Melba Liston – most of her career was spent behind the scenes, but her work was always headliner quality.

Recommended Recordings:

  • Melba Liston and Her Bones (Fresh Sound) – CD in print; mp3 available
  • Volcano Blues  [w/ Randy Weston] (Verve – Gitanes) – CD OOP but available
  • Little Niles [Randy Weston] (Jazz Track [Import]) – CD in print [her first recording with Weston]
  • Khepera [Randy Weston] – (Verve) CD in print, mp3 available  [her final recording with Weston]

Unsung Women of Jazz # 4 – Gloria Coleman

Posted in Unsung Women of Jazz with tags , , , , on July 4, 2011 by curtjazz

Gloria Coleman (1931 – 2010)

“It was told that there was a version of this tune that had driven this man to tears, beyond his trivial dogma to a true understanding of the music.” – Jazz critic Eugene Chadbourne discussing Gloria Coleman’s rendition of Blue Bossa (on her Sings and Swings Organ album)

For many, the history of women on the jazz organ begins and ends with Shirley Scott. Though no other woman matched Ms. Scott’s prominence, there were others who deserved a piece of that small spotlight. One such woman was Gloria Coleman.

Ms. Coleman was a New York native, who as a child studied the piano, violin and bass.  In fact, she began her career in 1952 as a bassist, playing with pianists in the Philadelphia and Chicago areas.  As her interest in the piano and organ grew, her work as a bassist decreased. She got tips from organ legends “Wild Bill” Davis and Jimmy Smith, which helped her develop her foot pedal technique, allowing her to work without a bassist; something Ms. Scott rarely did.   

Like Shirley Scott, Gloria Coleman married a well-known tenor saxophonist: in Ms. Coleman’s case it was George Coleman, a strong player in his own right, who gained most fame for being the “transitional tenor” between Coltrane and Shorter in Miles Davis’ quintet. Their union was musically fruitful, as they would work together, on and off, for the rest of Ms. Coleman’s life.

[From Soul Sisters – Gloria Coleman’s “My Lady’s Waltz”]

Like most of the women in our series, Gloria Coleman recorded sporadically.  Her most well-known recording is her first as a leader; Soul Sisters which she made for Impulse in 1963, with Grant Green on guitar, Leo Wright on alto sax and a female drummer named Pola Roberts, who slipped back into obscurity right after this record, in spite of her capable performance.  Critics have called Soul Sisters an “underappreciated gem”. It certainly holds its own alongside the work that Scott, Smith, McDuff and others were doing at that time in the soul jazz idiom.  Green and Wright sound inspired on their solos and Ms. Coleman’s compositions are catchy. She also recorded a gem of an album in 1971, called Sings and Swings Organ, with trumpeter Ray Copeland, guitarist Ted Dunbar and others. 

[From Sings and Swings Organ – Gloria sings “Love Nest”]

Gloria returned the favor to Wright, sitting in on his Soul Talk album and composing the minor hit, “State Trooper”.  In more recent years, she recorded some memorable sides with Bobbi Humphrey (City Beat), Nat Simpkins (Cookin’ with Some Barbeque) and Hank Crawford (Groove Master).

Her finest album IMO, also proved to be her last. 2008’s Sweet Missy was a sort of family affair, with George Coleman featured on tenor and her son, George Jr. on drums.  “Dr.” Lonnie Smith also makes a memorable guest appearance, playing piano alongside Gloria’s organ, on “Put ‘em in a Box, Tie ‘em with a Ribbon”.  It’s a very relaxed, but joyous album. The soloists are universally terrific (especially Ms. Coleman, who had grown exponentially over the years) and the band is tight and swinging. Her vocals on the album are frayed but ingratiating with a quality reminiscent of the great Etta Jones. 

Gloria Coleman died on February 10, 2010. She left us a musical legacy that is definitely worth exploring.

Recommended Recordings:

Unsung Women of Jazz #3 – Valerie Capers

Posted in Unsung Women of Jazz with tags , , on April 25, 2011 by curtjazz

Valerie Capers

 “With jazz, you’re not interpreting; you’re composing on the spot. You have to develop your technique to the highest level so you are able to respond to a flow of creative ideas immediately. You should listen to everything — I listen to Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Beethoven — so all that will go into your creative soul. Then you can call upon all kinds of music during performances. That’s the thrill. That’s the challenge and that’s the beauty of jazz.” – Valerie Capers

How Dr. Valerie Capers has managed to remain obscure is a mystery. The good news though is that this brilliant pianist/composer/singer/educator is still with us and a vibrant part of the scene. So we can all make up for lost time.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Valerie Capers was picking out tunes on the piano at an early age. She lost her sight at the age of six.  While blindness may have been a deterrent to some, it was not for young Valerie.  She learned to read music by braille and received her early schooling at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind.   She then went on to obtain both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Julliard School of Music, the first blind person to graduate from the famed arts school.  She was a classical player at the time, but jazz had always been a part of her life.  Her father was a musical associate of Fats Waller and her brother Bobby, played sax and flute in Mongo Santamaria’s band. For a brief time in the early ‘60’s, Valerie joined her brother in Mongo’s group, composing and arranging a few tracks for the legendary percussionist, including the minor hit “El Pussycat”.  

 [Sony will not allow me to embed a clip of “El Pussycat” in my blog. Click HERE to view it on YouTube.]

In 1965, Dr. Capers recorded her first album, Portrait in Soul, for Atlantic Records.  It was a very good jazz sextet date, with a strong soul influence; not atypical of the era.  Saxophonist Robin Kenyatta was the most notable member of the group.  Though Dr. Capers would not record again as a leader until Affirmation in 1982, she was still very active; working with Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente and James Moody, among others. She wrote major jazz based works, such as Sing About Love, a Christmas Cantata, that was produced by George Wein at Carnegie Hall and Sojourner, an “operatorio” based on the life of Sojourner Truth. 

From her first album Portrait in Soul, Valerie Capers plays “Little David Swing”

Capers served on the faculty at Manhattan School of Music and then for many years, at Bronx Community College, where she became chair of the music and arts department, in 1987.  Also in 1987, Valerie Capers became the first recipient of Essence magazine’s first Women of Essence Award, for music.

Dr. Capers made her best known recording, Come on Home, in 1995.  It was part of Columbia Records’ “Legendary Pioneers of Jazz” series, but as Scott Yanow points out on, “ Valerie Capers is much too obscure and under-recorded to be a legend, and not old enough to be a pioneer. “ Nevertheless, Come on Home is an excellent album, mixing well-known jazz and pop standards with a couple of Capers’ originals.  Jazz luminaries Bob Cranshaw, Paquito D’Rivera, Mongo Santamaria and Wynton Marsalis, take things to an even higher level on their guest appearances.  

From Come on Home, Valerie Capers plays “In a Mellow Tone”

She followed-up, four years later, with the critically acclaimed Wagner Takes the “A” Train; which is highlighted by the title track, a slightly Wagnerian interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s classic; and by her version of “‘Round Midnight” which explores several  variations on the famous Monk theme in a little over eight minutes. 

Although Valerie Capers retired from the Bronx Community College faculty in 1995, her educational endeavors have hardly skipped a beat.  At 75, she is still based in her beloved Bronx; performing, recording and touring the U.S. and the world, never missing an opportunity to spread the gospel of jazz, leavened with her uniquely informative perspective.  Her website includes a great deal of information on what Dr. Capers is up to. Check out the site and catch her live if she’s in your area. You’ll be in for a real treat.

Dr. Valerie Capers tells an anecdote about Dizzy Gillespie, then plays “A Night in Tunisia” [Special Thanks to Dawn Russell’s Bongodawn Productions for this clip]

Recommended Recordings:

Unsung Women of Jazz #1 – Dorothy Ashby

Posted in Unsung Women of Jazz with tags , , , , on April 1, 2011 by curtjazz

Dorothy Ashby (1932 – 1986)

“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.” – Dorothy Ashby

The harp is not an instrument that easily gives itself over to free swing and quick improvisations. That’s one of the reasons why there have been very few credible jazz harpists. In fact, I can only think of four working today: Lori Andrews, Edmar Castaneda, Deborah Henson-Conant and Brandee Younger.

Dorothy Ashby was a pioneer. She was the first to play credible bebop on the harp.  She showed that this unwieldy instrument could actually swing.

She was born Dorothy Jeanne Thompson in Detroit, in 1932. Her father was a jazz guitarist, who would often bring home fellow musicians to jam.  Young Dorothy would be a part of some of these sessions, sitting in on piano.  She attended Detroit’s famed Cass Technical High School, where her classmates included jazz luminaries Kenny Burrell and Donald Byrd.  Her early instruments were the sax and the bass before turning to the harp.  She studied piano and music education at Wayne State University. 

In 1952, Dorothy set out to make a living on the competitive Detroit jazz scene.  She easily could have found work as a pianist, but she made the gutsy decision to concentrate on her beloved harp.  The cats in Detroit weren’t too keen on making the harp and its perceived ethereal, effete sound part of a jazz combo. To overcome this resistance, Dorothy organized free shows and played at dances and weddings with her harp-led combo, which included her husband, John Ashby, on drums.  Eventually she won doubters over and the gigs and recordings began to come with some regularity.

(“Thou Swell” from – Dorothy Ashby’s The Jazz Harpist)

Her first full jazz LP, The Jazz Harpist, was recorded for Savoy in 1957, with Frank Wess on flute, Eddie Jones and Wendell Marshall on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums.  The album was a mix of standards, such as “Thou Swell” and “Stella by Starlight”, and Ms. Ashby’s originals. It was critically well received, but the record buying public ignored it. Her next album Hip Harp, (1958) on Prestige, was one her best, with Wess, Dave Brubeck’s bassist Gene Wright and Art Taylor on drums.  In all Dorothy led ten sessions between 1957 and 1970 Atlantic, Cadet and many other labels.

(From Hip Harp, this is “There’s A Small Hotel”)

She was fearless in her musical choices as she played not just bop, but soul, Brazilian, African, Middle Eastern and like her contemporary (and other great jazz harpist) Alice Coltrane, free jazz.  Ms. Ashby pioneered the use of the Japanese koto in jazz on her 1970 album The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, which was somewhat maligned in its time, but has become appreciated as an iconoclastic  marriage of soul, world music and free jazz. 

(Here’s “The Moving Finger” from The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby)

Music was not Dorothy Ashby’s only love. In the ‘60’s Dorothy and her husband formed a theatrical group in Detroit that produced plays with theme’s relevant to the Motor City’s black community.  The group went by several names, the most common being “The Ashby Players”. Many of these productions were musical, with John writing the scripts and Dorothy the music and lyrics, as well as playing harp, piano and leading the musicians.  In the late ‘60’s the Ashbys moved to California and continued their theatrical endeavors. Among the actors in their early California troupe was Ernie Hudson, of Ghostbusters fame.(

Dorothy also sought work as a harpist in the Los Angeles area recording studios in the early ‘70’s, which was no small feat considering that there were quite a few harpists out there already. However, she had made the acquaintance of singer Bill Withers, who used her on his classic + ‘Justments album. Bill introduced Dorothy to Stevie Wonder, who happened to be working on the sessions that would become Songs in the Key of Life.  He had written a tune that was meant to be a duet between himself and a harpist. Stevie had Alice Coltrane in mind, but she was unavailable at the time of the recording session. So instead, he called Dorothy Ashby. Those who don’t know another thing about Ms. Ashby’s music know her unforgettable performance on “If it’s Magic”.

(I had hoped to insert a clip of “If It’s Magic”, but EMI’s corporate blockers made it impossible. You can hear the clip on YouTube. Sorry! – CD)

That performance opened studio doors for Dorothy. Jazz was struggling in the late ‘70’s but Dorothy was very busy, recording with artist such as Earth, Wind and Fire (All ‘n All), The Emotions, Rick James and The Gap Band.  Though she would not record another album as a leader, she continued to work steadily until her death from cancer in 1986.

Though Dorothy Ashby is still far from well-known, young musicians with a respect for history such as the aforementioned Brandee Younger are thankfully, doing their part to keep Dorothy Ashby’s legacy alive. 

Check out Dorothy Ashby.  She may not have been the first, but she was truly an original.

(Brandee Younger Trio performs “Blue Nile”)

Recommended Recordings:

Unsung Women of Jazz – The Introduction

Posted in Unsung Women of Jazz with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2011 by curtjazz

Our newest Obscure Jazz Masters series will deal not with an instrument, but with gender. 

I’ve seen many articles and musical compilations that deal with “Women in Jazz” but most seem to overwhelmingly favor singers. The reason is kind of understandable. For so long, “vocalist” has been the dominant role of women in jazz. And yes, the list of great female jazz singers could fill many a book and blog and start many unwinnable arguments. 

However, the list of legendary female instrumentalists is much smaller. If asked to name ten great jazzwomen who didn’t sing, many people will start with the great pianist Mary Lou Williams, perhaps follow with organist Shirley Scott and  then begin to mumble and stare at their shoes. 

It’s not the fault of the artists. From its roots, jazz has been a male dominated genre, except for the singers. Women on an instrument have often been viewed unfortunately, as a novelty act; especially if they play anything but the piano. And even then, many fine women pianists have been pushed toward singing, in order to make themselves more “palatable” to mainstream audiences (as if a woman displaying instrumental virtuosity would frighten children or something!).

Thankfully, times have begun to change, albeit at a glacial pace.  Though there is still a considerable amount of chauvinism in many corners of the jazz world, I’ve been encouraged of late by the number of very good female instrumentalists that I see on the regularly on the jazz scene; Ingrid Jensen,  Anat Cohen, Sherrie Maricle and the indomitable DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Geri Allen, Cindy Blackman, Tia Fuller and of course, Grammy Winner Esperanza Spalding are just a few of the women who are kicking down the boys club door. These artists (and more) offer uncompromising musicianship at a level of excellence that makes their gender irrelevant.

So this next series of undeservedly obscure jazz masters will consist of ten women instrumentalists. Most of them are not active today, but all of them had a lot to say with their axes.

Some of them will be familiar names to those well versed in the idiom, but that’s cool. My objective with these series is not to stump the cognoscenti, but to bring someone new to the attention of the casual to moderate jazz listener.

I’ve tried to provide a few available recordings and musical samples by each of the artists; so if you dig them, you can buy their music… better late than never.

They will be listed in alphabetical order; one per post; starting with the next post, tomorrow, April 1.

Please feel free to leave comments. I love reading them, I will post them all (unless they are obscene or spam) and I try to respond to as many as possible.