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How the harp took the lead in jazz, thanks to these innovative women

Brandee Younger, a leading modern harpist, plays a harp on a stage at Dimitrou's Jazz Alley during an exclusive session with KNKX in 2023.
Parker Miles Blohm
Brandee Younger, a leading modern harpist, plays on a stage at Dimitrou's Jazz Alley during an exclusive session with KNKX in 2023.

This feature is derived from KNKX's Tree of Jazz, taking you through the eras, from the roots to the new budding leaves, with a weekly deep dive into iconic artists, albums, and instruments.

The harp is speckled in jazz history beginning in the 1930s. The instrument served as elegant embellishment for large ensembles. Only a few harpists adapted their classical training to established swing stylings.

Then Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, two Black women from Detroit, solidified the harp’s position as a lead instrument and tool for innovative jazz sounds.

The early examples

The earliest performer on the harp in a jazz setting is Caspar Reardon. He was a classical harpist featured on recordings in the 1930s with Jack Teagarden, and Paul Whiteman.

The earliest harpist to record jazz as a leader was Ruth Berman, she recorded a handful of songs as a leader in the 1940s. The recordings of Berman from 1945-1953 were extracted from the Library of Congress and published in 2004.

The harp showed up amongst string sections and large ensembles too. Janet Soyer (née Putnam) played in ensembles led by Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, John Lewis, and Oscar Pettiford. Another harpist Betty Glamann also played with Oscar Pettiford Orchestra.

Dorothy Ashby & Alice Coltrane

It wasn’t until the 1950s and '60s that the harp became a spotlight-worthy instrument in the realm of Black American music.

Dorothy Ashby, a young pianist, began studying the harp at Cass Tech High School in Detroit. At the same time, the jazz world was on the cusp of the bebop takeover. She and her classmates Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd and other impactful Detroiters racked up credits on countless beloved sessions in the '50s and '60s.

Through that time and beyond her sound developed alongside bebop and soul, pioneering the harp as a serious instrument for jazz composition and improvisation. Her compositions grew into enthralling soulful grooves. She recorded 11 studio albums, ran a theatre company in Detroit, and was featured amongst the finest artists of the era including Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, and Minnie Riperton.

The spiritually-minded musician Alice Coltrane is another highly respected harpist. She also hailed from Detroit and was inspired by Ashby. Alice's husband, John Coltrane, bought Alice her first harp which became one of her main instruments.

With her harp, a brooding organ, and some of jazz and rock's freest musicians. She developed a deeply spiritual, and often psychedelic interpretation of sound.

Present day developments

Following in the footsteps of these two prolific harpists are Brandee Younger, and Alina Bzhezhinska; two standouts among the few harpists playing modern jazz music.

Younger writes original music inspired by Ashby, Coltrane and many genres. A decade into being a leader, Younger's background in classical music, and as a studio musician for top artists, places her at the forefront of becoming this generation's great harpist.

On her most recent album Brand New Life, she interprets compositions from Ashby that were never recorded, features some of hip-hop's finest beat makers Pete Rock, and 9th Wonder, and weaves a mix of elegant grooves that showcase her expertise and passion for the instrument. She recorded an incredible session with KNKX in 2023.

And based in London, Bzhezhinska has performed with the late saxophonist and Coltrane collaborator/protégé Pharoah Sanders; saxophonist and flute player Shabaka Hutchings; and has founded the Hip Harp Collective to further the footprint of the harp in modern music.

This story comes from the June 30, 2024 episode of the Tree of Jazz. Listen to the past two weeks of Tree of Jazz On-Demand. Hear deep dives like this each week on the Tree of Jazz, on air and online every Sunday from 3-6 p.m. PT.

Justus arrived from KBEM FM Jazz 88.5 in Minneapolis, and the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations (AMPERS), in the fall of 2023. For nine years he held many roles including Jazz Host and Production Director, producing a variety of programming highlighting new jazz artists, indigenous voices, veterans, history and beyond.