A Classical Instrument Embraced by the Black Woman: Dorothy Ashby and Ann Hobson Pilot

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.



African Americans have been the topic of musical discussion for decades. Their musical talents have been mentioned and pointed out since before the days of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, when musicologists and ethnographers ventured to Africa and visited various African tribes noting on their unique musical and dance performances. However, when it comes to music and musical instruments, African Americans are not widely known for their presence in the genre of classical music or using instruments that are often associated with classical music, such as the harp. While there have been African American harpists prior to Dorothy Ashby, Dorothy Ashby is more widely known for incorporating the harp into the musical genre of jazz. To look at a more contemporary musician, Ann Hobson Pilot, just recently retired from playing the harp in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

On 6 August 1932 in Detroit, Michigan, Dorothy Ashby was born as Dorothy Jeanne Thompson. Almost a decade later, Ann Hobson Pilot was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 6 November 1943. Ironically, both women lived parallel lives. As children, both women were introduced to music at a young age. Pilot’s mother, whose name is not mentioned, was a concert pianist. As a result, Pilot grew an infatuation with classical music and musical instruments, and at the age of fourteen, she began studying the harp. By her senior year of high school, she reached her concert caliber; however, being a woman of African descent became an obstacle for her journey as an African American harpist. On the other hand, Ashby was influenced by jazz artists who had regularly frequented her house. Ashby’s father is Wiley Thompson who was a guitarist. Growing up surrounded by music and musical influences, Ashby learned to play the piano, saxophone, string bass, the harp, and many more instruments. She attended Cass Technical High School, which is a high school known for having a few well-accomplished musicians and other artistic individuals. It was in high school, that Ashby first became acquainted with the harp, and it was not until later in life that she made the harp her main instrument.

dorothy ashbyCoincidentally, both Ann Hobson Pilot and Dorothy Ashby chose to attend colleges in northern-central region of the United States of America. Ashby enrolled at Wayne State University, located in Detroit, Michigan. She undertook piano and music education as her degree of concentration. Close by, Pilot attended college at the Cleveland Institute of Music and received guidance under the nurturing care of Alice Chalifoux. Chalifoux is Caucasian American and was principal harpist with the Cleveland Orchestra from 1931-1974. Just like Ashby and Pilot, Chalifoux had musical influences during the course of her upbringing and continued to embrace her musical spirit until her passing in 2008. While there had been jazz harpist prior to the emergence of Dorothy Ashby, like Adele Girard who incorporated the harp into the genre of swing, “no one else had adapted the harp to jazz so successfully nor had integrated into such a broad array of musical styles” (Jazz Harp Foundation). Her influence certainly opened up doors for other artists to come.

In order to delve deeper into the musical career lives of each musician, I will devote individual paragraphs to them. While both women are African Americans, they each incorporate the harp into their musical interests differently. Fortunately both also excel in their musical careers becoming notable African Americans in history, who, sadly, are not well recognized. Being that I am an African American and grew up right outside of Boston, Massachusetts, I am astonished and also disappointed that I had never heard of Ann Hobson Pilot. Though she recently retired in 2009 at the end of Tanglewood, it would have been nice to have at least heard her perform.

In 1969, a little after the end of the Civil Rights Movement, Ann Hobson Pilot joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Prior to joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she was the substitute second harpist with the Pittsburgh Symphony and principal harpist of the Washington National Symphony. She had also performed with many American orchestras as soloist and performed in exotic countries such as: Europe, Haiti, New Zealand, and South Africa. Being that Pilot was trying to establish a musical career in a white dominated musical setting during the era of Jim Crow and segregation, it is no surprise that her race became a hindrance during her early stages. Even with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Pilot was the only African American. It was not until 1980, when Ann Hobson Pilot was promoted to being the principal harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After years of diligence and dedication, in 1988, Pilot received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Bridgewater State University, located in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. After performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for about forty years, Ann Hobson Pilot retired moving down to Osprey, Florida with her husband, Prentice Pilot. She continues today, to live out her days in Florida, probably reminiscing on all of her success and great achievements.

boston harpAble to play incredible bebop on her instrument, Dorothy Ashby traveled around the world, building up “support for the harp as a jazz instrument by organizing free shows and playing at dances and weddings with her trio” (Jazz Harp Foundation). Aside from Dorothy Ashby, the trio also consisted of her husband, John Ashby, who played the drums. They recorded with notable musicians like Ed Thigpen, Richard Davis, Jimmy Cob, Frank Wess, and others in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition, they owned their own radio show, and the trio regularly toured around the country. They recorded numerous albums for a variety of different recording labels. By 1962, the annual polls had marked Dorothy Ashby as one of the best jazz performers. She had played her harp for well-renowned artists such as: Dionne Warwick; Diana Ross; Earth, Wind, & Fire; and Barry Manilow. She performed in the song Come Live With Me, which was the 1967 movie soundtrack for Valley of the Dolls. More commonly known is her harp playing in Stevie Wonder’s 1967 song, If Its Magic. Unfortunately, the soulful, upbeat music that Dorothy Ashby played would no longer be updated after 13 April 1986, when she passed away in Sana Monica, California due to cancer. When Pilot is just reaching the pique of her career, Ashby has met her end.

While neither artist continues to play the luscious sounds of the harp, their music lives on. People who are interested can now go online and find songs that feature Dorothy Ashby and her harp, or go on websites like Youtube and watch and listen to Ann Hobson Pilot and her peaceful playing of the harp. Both women took a white dominated musical instrument and claimed it as their own, adding a unique Black element to both jazz and classical music genres.

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