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The Dirty Dog brings together the musicians and guests in a way that creates a lasting impression and desire to come back.
August 16, 2019


This week we celebrate the music artistry of Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane.


Harpists are quite rare in most musical circles, much less, Jazz. And yet, two Detroit-born musicians not only became known as the top harpists in Jazz, they received world-wide attention as virtuosos in their field.



DorothyAshby Print shirt:Harp


Dorothy Ashby / Photo Last.FM



Jazz harpist, Dorothy Jeanne Thompson, known as Dorothy Ashby (August 6, 1930-April 13, 1986) both popularized and legitimized the use of the harp in Jazz. She was quite an innovator in several ways.



She had a sound all her own and as early as the 1950’s and 1960’s, was one of the first Jazz artists to blend traditional Jazz with R&B, world and other music.



She not only used compositional elements from these genres, but utilized instruments from various cultures such as the ancient Japanese harp-type instrument, the Koto.  This could be heard on her commercially successful 1970 release “The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby”.



Born in Detroit, she attended the world renowned Cass Technical High School along side other emerging Detroit Jazz giants such as Donald Byrd, Gerald Wilson, Alice McLeod Coltrane and Kenny Burrell.



She went on to study at Detroit’s Wayne State University where she studied piano and music education. After graduating, she began playing the piano, as well as the harp, in Detroit’s vibrant Jazz scene, though by 1952 she had made the harp her main instrument.



At first her fellow jazz musicians were resistant to the idea of adding the harp, which they perceived as an instrument of classical music and somewhat ethereal in sound for Jazz performances. So Ashby overcame their initial resistance and built support for the harp as a Jazz instrument by organizing free shows and playing at dances and weddings with her trio.



She recorded with Ed Thigpen, Richard Davis, Frank Wess and others in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During the 1960s, she also had her own radio show in Detroit.



dorothy ashby : afro harpin'


Dorothy Ashby’s Afro-Harping album on Cadet records /



She definitely paved the way for Alice Coltrane (second wife of innovative Jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane) who also went to Cass Tech and played harp, piano, harmonium and other instruments as she also fused music from various cultures, especially Indian folk themes and other Asian elements.   Ashby died on April 13, 1986 in Santa Monica, California.






Alice Coltrane, “Silk Potrait”,  photo: Word



Alice Coltrane, (August 27, 1937 – January 12, 2007) was a Detroit born pianist, organist, harpist, and composer, and was married to the iconic Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Her first husband was Detroit Jazz vocalist Kenny “Poncho” Hagood. In the 1960’s she studied Jazz with the great Bud Powell in Paris.





Alice Coltrane / Universal Consciousness (Improvised Solo)  album /


Like so many other great Jazz artists from Detroit, she also attended Cass Tech High School and became one of the few harpists in Jazz. Her knowledge and love for music from many cultures had a major influence on John Coltrane who learned a lot about music from her during their marriage.



She recorded many albums as a bandleader, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of her works were very spiritual, containing motifs and instrumentation from Africa and Asia. One of her most revered albums was “Journey in Satchidananda” (1971 Impulse) with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, bassist Charlie Haden, Vishnu Wood on oud and others.



Stay tuned for Part Two of our Detroit Birthdays  for August which includes profiles of Benny Maupin and Regina Carter.





Detroit Public Radio mainstay, Judy Adams, is a pianist, composer and musicologist who hosts a Jazz and contemporary music show on CJAM 99.1FM and guest hosts on WRCJ 90.9FM. She made her mark at WDET 101.9FM where she was program director and daily on-air music host for more than 30 years.





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