Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Song A Day: Dorothy Ashby, "Heaven and Hell"

JULY 15, 2017




Sometimes you run into a record for which there is really no reference point. The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby is one such record.

Dorothy Ashby, born in 1930, was among the rarest of musicians—the jazz harpist. Dextrous and utterly musical, she worked for a long time to find her niche, cutting six albums for six different labels from 1957 through 1965. Perhaps her first true success as a recording artist came with the 1969 Afro-Harping LP on Cadet, a subsidiary of the Chess label.

By the late 1960s, even the fustier corners of jazz were being swept with new thoughts and approaches, and Cadet producer Richard Evans blended Ashby’s harp with a handful of great Chicago-based soul/jazz musicians to create a strong, rich, lovely blend of once disparate musics. While fully structured, it had the feel of freeform music due to its unusual conceit. The Rubaiyat is funky and rich with the tonality of a classical instrument completely at home in a contemporary setting.

That’s mostly because Dorothy Ashby was a great musician. She not only could play the harp, but also the piano and the Japanese koto, a stringed instrument plucked or strummed while sitting or kneeling. And she sang. You can hear her soul, her classical training, and her love of the stage in her playing, which could quickly veer from hushed to dramatic.

She was backed on the album by consummate pros like Cash McCall, Fred Katz, Lenny Druss, and Clifford Davis, all seasoned in jazz and blues but—like the Memphis cats on Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis—up for the challenge of less familiar rhythms and chords.

Ashby played harp, koto, and piano on her next release, The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby. Originally, she had intended to provide music for just one or two of Omar Khayyam’s poems, but Richard Evans asked Ashby to flesh the concept out over an entire album.

Khayyam, an Iranian renaissance man—poet, scientist, philosopher—lived from 1048 to 1131. Some of his poetic phrases have remained part of our language (e.g., “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou”).  He wrote of the brevity of life, the need to embrace pleasure as it came, and the ultimate futility of trying to ‘figure things out.’ His verses include such lines and couplets as:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, moves on.

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before the Tavern shouted—“Open then the Door!
You know how little time we have to stay, and once departed, may return no more.”

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou,
Beside me singing in the Wilderness, and oh, Wilderness is Paradise enow [enough]

Ashby took pieces of Khayyam’s poetry and wrote songs around them. Sometimes the words fit perfectly, working with Ashby’s music and Evans’ orchestrations to form songs sublime and beautiful. At times, the poetic meter was odd and distorted, bringing Ashby’s performance toward the realm of free jazz. She wasn’t the first or last to adapt Khayyam’s work, but it would be hard to imagine it done better.

For the album’s penultimate track, “Heaven and Hell,” Ashby wrote music that feels like a progressive Latin-jazz show tune. The lyrics are adapted from Khayyam’s verse, which seems to be trying to understand what lies ahead:

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav'n and Hell.”

It’s a sad song, one that acknowledges that no matter your spiritual path, death is at least some sort of end. We can hope for some sort of grace, but we know that it’s not really in our power to understand. “The flower that once has bloomed forever dies,” Ashby notes in the final line, the arrangement spinning to an echoing halt. But it’s also an acknowledgement, as the Temptations (and Undisputed Truth) would soon sing, “you make your own heaven and hell right here on earth.”

Dorothy Ashby doesn’t get enough credit for her singing, but her tuneful, distinctive voice feels utterly confident here, even when singing difficult lyrics. Her vocal is lush, her harping characteristically lyrical. And in Stu Katz’ superb vibraphone solo, his strong jazz phrasing fits in perfectly with the bossa nova tempo and minor-key setting.
This album is full of gems, many of which relate to the simple pleasure of intoxicants in the face of doom and oblivion. It was a perfect message in Khayyam’s time and a perfect message for the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There was little chance this album could be a hit when Cadet issued it in spring 1970. What bag could it fit in? There wasn’t an obvious single; the funkiest, hardest track (“The Moving Finger”) was almost completely instrumental and lasted more than five and a half minutes. Ashby wasn’t particularly young or blessed with “star quality,” and experimental jazz was a tough sell even for the jazz audience.

Sadly, this was the final of her three albums on Cadet, and Ashby's last recorded work until 1984. She kept busy as a side musician for artists like Stevie Wonder, Minnie Riperton, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, much of these jobs intended to support community theater projects in her native Detroit. Ashby and her husband, John (who drummed on some of her albums) devoted most of their time to these community endeavors, and she wrote music and parodic lyrics and sometimes performed in the shows. Ashby also was a radio host and performer in Detroit during the 1960s.

Sadly she passed away in 1986 from cancer; she was just 56. Nobody has ever reached the strange beauty on The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby. It was an album brimming with the wisdom of the ages, the zeitgeist of its time, some of the best backing musicians an artist could ask for, and a stellar artist in Dorothy Ashby. I wish I could have met her.


  1. Absolutely beautiful! Never heard of her. WLSClark

  2. This is fantastic from beginning to end - every moment is great. The production is also amazing. Thanks!

  3. She's spectacular, and I am in the process of learning much more about her.