Dorothy Jeanne Thompson (August 6, 1932 – April 13, 1986), better known as Dorothy Ashby, was an American jazz harpist and composer. Hailed as one of the most “unjustly under loved jazz greats of the 1950s” and the “most accomplished modern jazz harpist,” Ashby established the harp as an improvising jazz instrument, beyond earlier use as a novelty or background orchestral instrument, proving the harp could play bebop as adeptly as the instruments commonly associated with jazz, such as the saxophone or piano.
Ashby had to overcome many obstacles during the pursuit of her career. As an African American female musician in a male dominated industry, she was at a disadvantage. In a 1983 interview with W. Royal Stokes for his book Living the Jazz Life, she remarked of her career, “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. Ashby successfully navigated these disadvantages, and subsequently aided in the expansion of who was listening to harp music and what the harp was deemed capable of producing as an instrument.
Ashby’s albums were of the jazz genre, but often moved into R&B, world music, and other styles, especially her 1970 album The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, where she demonstrates her talents on another instrument, the Japanese koto, successfully integrating it into jazz.