Feature ~ Dorothy Ashby: Pioneering Jazz Harpist

FJR founder, Jordannah Elizabeth’s feature for uDiscover Music’s editorial series, Black Music Reframed.

The harp has long been a part of classical music. Mozart used it, memorably, in his Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, and the composers of the Romantic Era in Europe featured it heavily. The instrument invokes images of the gentry in music salons or angels among clouds. It wasn’t until centuries later that the harp would be transformed from a solely orchestral instrument to an elegant fixture in the world of jazz. The woman responsible for this innovation is Detroit-born jazz composer, Dorothy Ashby, who released her groundbreaking debut album, The Jazz Harpist in 1957, introducing the world to an entirely new sound and use of the stringed instrument.

Ashby was already well versed in jazz composition and performance before she became a recording artist. Her father, guitarist Wiley Thompson, hosted jam sessions at their house in Detroit with local jazz musicians. Ashby earned her chops by sitting in and playing piano. She continued to study the piano at Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s historical magnet high school that boasts graduates like Donald Byrd, Regina Carter, Zeena Parkins, and Geri Allen. In Cass Tech’s music program she had the opportunity to explore many instruments, one of which was the harp. The school’s Harp and Vocal program was – and still is – esteemed throughout the music world, and Ashby’s eventual teacher was one of the best, a woman named Velma Fraude. “[Velma] was a bit of a pill, but she was a really amazing teacher,” remembered Zeena Parkins in an interview with Pitchfork in 2010. “You had to fall into line, but if you decided to go with her, you really learned how to play the instrument.” Continue reading “Feature ~ Dorothy Ashby: Pioneering Jazz Harpist”

Letter From the Editor: The Future of FJR

Dear readers, writers and artists,

Thanks so much for engaging with Feminist Jazz Review in its very early stages. During this Spring and unprecedented time of COVID-19, I felt that it was important to begin taking steps to create a platform and support system for people who I think have been underrepresented throughout music history: women in jazz.

Right now, we are preparing to officially launch in Summer/Fall 2020.

We will be publishing new articles and writing before our official launch, so please check the site frequently and feel free to send your music, pitch ideas and share your thoughts about what you’d like to see on this site.

I am here to listen and give as much energy as I can to sharing and uplifting the voices of women, femme and female identified jazz musicians, composers and producers.

I’m excited to go on this journey with you.

Thanks for reading.


Jordannah Elizabeth

Founder and Executive Editor

Feminist Jazz Review

Amirtha Kidambi Talks Gender and Composition

Amirtha Kidambi is a composer, there’s no denying that at this point in time. But there was a time where this talented musician and intellectual had to break through gender stigmas and discouragement when it came to her studying composition as a young woman. She and I talked for nearly an hour, so this interview is a small portion of the ground we covered, but it is an important subject where we talk about the reality of the subconscious lack of inclusiveness in jazz and classical education.

Feminist Jazz Review does not exist to be divisive, but there are stories to tell about the reality of women and female-identified beings experiences. In retrospect, Kidambi happens to have noticed the nuances of gender roles in music education when she tried to double-major in vocals and composition.

Kidambi’s work as the bandleader of Elder Ones and leader of the vocal quartet Lines of Light along with many other successes that allow Amirtha to enjoy a respected career came with diligence, perseverance and self-education to become the composer and educator that she is today. Feminist Jazz Review supports and encourages music education. We also support and encourage women in jazz to open up and tell their truths so that we can make more inclusive spaces for the next generation.

Let’s start from the beginning. As a young person, when did you first find yourself wanting to be a composer?

Composition did not happen when I was young. There are reasons for that. I wasn’t trained in Western music when I was young because there was no money [to pay for them]. I got all my training in public school. I was in choir and play in concert band in high school, I took every music class that was available. So, I did learn how to basically read music.

I went to college and double majored in vocal performance and composition initially and was sort of discouraged from studying composition because my theory wasn’t that great study later than other composers because there wasn’t much money coming from an immigrant family that took time to build up [financially] to where they are now, the middle class lifestyle.

Do you think that it’s common for women to be discouraged from focusing on composition?

Yeah, I think [in my experience], it was subconscious. I had a pretty awesome theory teach, but I there’s an idea that theory and analysis are the be all and end all of being a composer. Continue reading “Amirtha Kidambi Talks Gender and Composition”

Jeanne Lee with Ran Blake – The Newest Sound You Never Heard 1966-67

The first time I learned about “new jazz” singer, Ms. Jeanne Lee, was in 2015. I was given the opportunity to research and write a piece for Bitch Media about African American Women composers. The piece was entitled, Black Women Composers to Discover (re-published in Bitch Media’s online outlet in March, 2018). The blurb from the piece reads:

“Jeanne Lee was a choreographer, composer, and jazz singer who was born in New York City in 1939. While attending Bard College, she met pianist Ran Blake. Together, they won an Apollo Theater Amateur Night in 1962, recorded an album for RCA Victor, and went on European tour. In Europe, Ran Blake remembers, “She created such a sensation—they called her the heir of Billie Holiday.” In 1977, Jeanne Lee collaborated with John Cage for his piece “Apartment House 1776,”  a musical commemoration of the United States Bicentennial. From that piece, she composed the extended work “Prayer for Our Time,” a jazz oratorio.”

Today, after much ground has been broken by women in jazz, Ms. Lee shouldn’t be an artist to “discover.” She should be celebrated by people around the world, young and old. Her longtime collaborator, pianist Ran Blake, made a collection of music and performed in America and different countries often in the 1960s, starting with their debut album, “The Newest Sound Around,” released in 1961. To understand their significance, it helps to consider the time in which these recordings took place. In a time of racial unrest, with the civil rights movement at full strength, Blake and Lee were cutting edge for their time, performing as an African American and white, gender mixed duo. They composed music quite freely, which comes across in their music, elegantly fitting into the free jazz genre, improvising original songs, but also holding true to standards “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “My Favorite Things. Continue reading “Jeanne Lee with Ran Blake – The Newest Sound You Never Heard 1966-67”

Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and Linda Sharrock: A Jazz Trifecta

I was sitting in a coffee shop in Baltimore City with experimental artist and founder of the nonprofit TECHNE, Bonnie Jones, listening to her talk about the lack of attention, coverage and general acknowledgement of women in jazz and experimental music. Bonnie who is Korean American and has gracefully surpassed her 20s, calmly expressed that women who play jazz get attention when they are very young, and then music critics leave them virtually unnoticed until they hit their “golden years” in their 60s and 70s when they make their last battle cries – their last tours and final albums.

I have to confess that I am no less guilty of this, and am only able to explain my unintended “late” coverage of women in jazz with the excuse that I was too young to critique some of jazz’s best female stars whose heydays were in the 1960s. If I’d been actively writing then, I would have written about these women with ferocious fervor and commitment. Nonetheless, in 2017, there is no danger in paying tribute to women in jazz who were unapologetic, shone bright with wisdom, and gave themselves fully to their music. I can say that being a bit younger, I can appreciate the later works of jazz artists, being naturally bonded with the modern era they were gracefully adjusting to.

In contemplating jazz, women, and the effect that the active metamorphosis aging can bring on music, its tone and creative process – the question may be if anyone is aware of musicians Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and Linda Sharrock’s reality of survival. Continue reading “Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and Linda Sharrock: A Jazz Trifecta”