“Afro-Harping” - The Lasting Impact of Black Women in the Jazz Harp Realm by Victoria Waltz

When most people think of jazz, the first things that come to mind are the “quintessential” instruments like trumpet, alto or tenor saxophone, piano, upright bass and drums. And, of course, the voice. Seldom are people aware of the presence of more “untraditional” instruments that have made their way into the genre. The harp is one of these once overlooked, yet now increasingly visible instruments. The harp itself is by no means a new invention, rather, its origins are in Ancient Mesopotamia. It has evolved and been improved vastly from the Biblically referenced harps that many people have become familiar with. The modern, double-action pedal harp, by way of those who have learned how to unlock this challenging instrument, is making itself an unwavering presence in jazz music.

The harp first appeared on a jazz recording in 1926, played by Russ Crandall, with Art Kahn & His Orchestra. Throughout the swing era, harpists continued to be featured on jazz records with such artists as Jack Teagarden, Artie Shaw, and Charlie Parker. The 1950s saw the first harpist releasing a jazz record as a leader: Betty Glamann’s 1956 LP Swinging on a Harp. Even up until this point, most harpists were classically trained, and that training was heavily reflected in their style of playing. But one harpist in particular was able to unlock the harp’s potential and take it from a pretty, embellishing instrument to a functional, respected part of jazz: Dorothy Ashby.

Dorothy Ashby was born and raised in Detroit, MI in 1932. A graduate of Cass Technical High School -- alma mater of several other well-known artists -- and Wayne State University, she began her career as a jazz pianist in the Detroit jazz clubs. However, jazz pianists were in abundance in Detroit, so in 1952 she made the harp her primary instrument. She was able to change the way the harp was utilized in jazz, thereby changing other musicians’ perception of the harp. No longer was its purpose to add a colorful glissando or a few ethereal arpeggios; Dorothy made the harp a vital part of her jazz trio, as well as a strong solo jazz instrument. To convince her contemporaries of the harps’ abilities, she and her trio, including her husband John, traveled the country playing free concerts. While touring, they managed to record several albums, including her debut The Jazz Harpist (1957).  She also translated her abilities into other genres -- mainly R&B -- but also into world music. Her 1970 LP The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby displayed her talent on the harp, as well as the Japanese koto. Possibly her most notable feature is Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” from Songs in the Key of Life (1976). Today, Dorothy Ashby’s name has become almost synonymous with jazz harp, because she was the first to truly realize the harp’s potential as a serious jazz instrument. But she wouldn’t be the last to experiment with its possibilities.

John Coltrane is probably the most famous Coltrane to have graced the world with his musical talent. However, his second wife, Alice, made a name for herself as well. Like Dorothy Ashby, she was born in Detroit, and started her musical career as a jazz pianist. She played as the intermission pianist at the Blue Note Jazz Club in Paris, and then moved back to Detroit to play there as well. She met John in New York City in 1960 and by 1965 they were married. Alice played with her husband’s group until his death in 1967, but continued to lead her own band on both piano and harp. Alice became increasingly spiritual and started following the teachings of Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba, at which point her music became more meditative and free. One of her most well-known records is Journey in Satchidinanada (1970). Like many of her compositions, it has a heavy influence from India, featuring the tamboura, but remains undoubtedly jazzy. She pushed the envelope and ushered in a new era of jazz harp, one that would allow future harpists to continue to expand their horizons and not be limited by their instruments.

One such harpist who is drawing on the influences of these two women, while maintaining her own distinct sound, is Brandee Younger, a harpist from New York. Brandee is also classically trained, but was inspired by Ashby and Coltrane to move into jazz and other contemporary genres. She is a graduate of the Hartt School of Music at Hartford University (Bachelor of Music) and New York University (Master of Arts). While at Hartford, she was encouraged by the faculty of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz to become more innovative with her music. Brandee was also able to glean from Kenny Garrett’s wisdom and expertise on improvisation and playing in ensembles. She spent a few years playing under various other musicians, but released her first record as a leader, Prelude, in 2011.  One of her most notable projects was the series of concerts she performed in collaboration with Ravi Coltrane, son of John and Alice, to honor the rich legacy that Alice’s music left. Her mastery of the harp itself allows her to effortlessly switch between genres, from classical to jazz to hip-hop, and back again. She has performed/worked/recorded with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony, Soulful Symphony, Rashied Ali, Kenny Garrett, Common, Ryan Leslie, and new artist Mack Wilds (better known to some as Tristan Wilds of The Wire and Red Tails). She also recorded a song with poet Joshua Bennett, entitled He Has A Name, to honor the memory of and bring light to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin. Brandee is committed to “making harp a relevant force in today’s music,” and serves as a more current influence to harpists looking to become more versatile musicians. 

The three women profiled here are by no means the end-all, be-all of jazz harp, but they have undoubtedly set the standard and left their mark. They have pioneered the use of an instrument that was once (and sometimes still is) regarded as something angelic and fleeting, but not something to be taken seriously in the complex arena of jazz music. As a harpist myself, I look to these three women as a source of inspiration and a reminder to not limit myself, especially in today’s ever-changing music industry. Dorothy proved that the harp can be jazzy. Alice showed us how to expand the framework of our composition. And Brandee continues to show us how truly mastering our craft can allow us to make the smooth transition between varying, yet equally complex and demanding, genres of music. The harp is such a beautiful and majestic instrument, and my hope is that one day it will truly become a force to be reckoned with in jazz.

History of the Harp

Sebastien Erard

Dorothy Ashby

Alice Coltrane


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