Born in 1932 in Detroit, Ashbury broke barriers at every angle: a Black female professional artist in a male dominated industry, Ashby established the harp as an improvising jazz instrument, cracking open both mainstream society’s notion’s of what was and was not appropriate for a Black woman to do (playing classical harp) and cracking up the counterculture’s notion of what could and could not be done (bringing “novelty” background instruments like harp and koto to center stage, bringing global cultural and musical tropes to Euro-American-centric jazz).
“It’s been maybe a triple burden in that not a lot of women are becoming known as jazz players. There is also the connection with black women. The audiences I was trying to reach were not interested in the harp, period—classical or otherwise—and they were certainly not interested in seeing a black woman playing the harp.”
But I kinda give zero shits about any of that; just listen to her music:
Don’t you dare click away from that track before you cross the 1min20sec mark! “Joyful Grass and Grape” is, like, 90% of the way to being a Wu Tang banger all by itself, just add some ODB and RZA.
This is why I love Ashbury: the deep, quiet Afro-futurism of this music that came 40 years earlier than it had any right to. She was sampling and mixing and beat juggling in her head, without the benefit of turntables and a sound system. In it’s infancy hiphop constantly justified itself by pointing to jazz—and sadly somehow missed its most obvious Matriarch. I am so delighted to have algorithmically stumbled upon Ashbury that my outrage about her erasure is itself entirely erased.
Here’s the initial track that joyfully blew my goddamned mind:
And there’s much much more out there. Listen. Listen!
(Meanwhile, if you are a scientist or someone who read the entire article, you more likely appreciate that these researchers “did not entangle a tardigrade with a qubit in any meaningful sense”—but it’s still neat that they took a tardigrade down to nearly absolute zero and successfully revived it. Hearty lil fellas, right?)
Last year, during the pandemic, I eavesdropped the most brilliant piece of classroom third-rail navigation I’ve ever seen in my life.
This was in my then-third grader’s Zoom music class (we’ll leave for another day any discussion of the crime against humanity that is “grade-school Zoom music class”).
This is always a fraught time of year for grade-school music teachers: They wanna sing Xmas songs, most of the kids wanna sing Xmas songs, but the constant Othering definitely grinds away at the Jewish kids (esp. when they try and “include” you be singing the “Dreidel Song”; that song is crap, and we know it. The Xmas songs are way better).
So in my daughter’s class, the teacher shows this slide: it’s an unremarkable middle-aged White dude, “Mitchell Parish.” Who the heck is Mitchell Parish? Well, he was born in Lithuania, and brought here by his parents, who were Jews (my daughter immediately perks up; Jews! Like us!) and he was a popular songwriter in New York in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s—and he wrote the lyrics to “Sleigh Ride”!
*advance to next slide*
*kids sing “Sleigh Ride”*
*EVERYONE IS A WINNER!*
My daughter felt seen, gentiles got their Christmas carol, and no one had to sing the goddamned “Dreidel Song.”
So there’s the trick to getting to sing Christmas carols in public school:
Start out with a brief bio of the Jews who wrote your Xmas song
Heck, you can do a whole Winter Concert—featuring “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “Run, Run Rudolph”—on just a single bio slide: All four of those classics were written by the same Jew (the inimitable Johnny Marks, whose Jewish brother-in-law was the guy who created Rudolph to begin with).