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Harold Ashby Dies

Saxophonist Harold Ashby, a Ben Webster acolyte who was long associated with Duke Ellington, died Friday, June 13 at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. No cause of death was specified, though Ashby had had a heart attack in late May. He was 78.

Born in 1925 in Kansas City, Mo., Ashby began on clarinet and alto saxophone in his teens. He gave up playing music altogether while serving in the Navy during World War II, but returned to music in 1946, this time on tenor, working in his hometown with blues reed player Tommy Douglas and singer Walter Brown. Ashby left home for Chicago in the early ’50s and made it to New York City in 1957.

Ashby met Duke Ellington in New York, through Ben Webster, who Ashby had performed with. Ashby didn’t join Ellington’s band as a regular member until 1968, however, and in the meantime recorded with Webster, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Lawrence Brown. He also played in a band led by Ellington’s son, Mercer.

Once installed as a full-time member of the Duke’s orchestra, Ashby was both its primary tenor soloist and one of its clarinet players (he had replaced clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton). Ellington records from this period featuring Ashby include The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse and the excellent live album Eastbourne Performance.

Remaining with the Ellington orchestra after Duke’s death in 1974, when the band went under the direction of Mercer, Ashby left in 1975 and pursued freelance work in New York. His own leader discography, which at that point was comprised of just one disc, 1959’s Born to Swing, began to grow. He left us with eight titles in his name, on various labels and including What Am I Here For?, an Ellington tribute of sorts.

Ashby has no immediate survivors.

Originally Published