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Improvising Heaven: The Harp in Jazz

From Harpo Marx to Brandee Younger, the harp has a distinguished but rarely told history in the genre

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Edmar Castaneda (photo: Adrien H. Tillman)
Edmar Castaneda (photo: Adrien H. Tillman)

America’s most famous harpist is Harpo Marx: he of the curly mop of hair, sealed lips, and an overcoat full of props. When he sat down before the concert harp in the Marx Brothers movies, he usually played classical pieces, but he often improvised comic variations on the tunes. In the process, he liberated the instrument from its staid, stodgy reputation. And his anarchic spirit lives on in a new wave of harpists who are staking out a space for the instrument in modern jazz. 

Most prominent of these is Brandee Younger, whose new album Somewhere Different came out in August. But she’s just the tip of the spear in a movement that includes Edmar Castaneda, Jacqueline Kerrod, Zeena Parkins, Park Stickney, and Carol Robbins. They all point to Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane—both students of Velma Fraude, the legendary harp teacher at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School—as primary musical influences. 

But Harpo looms large in the popular imagination. He wasn’t a virtuoso by any means—he didn’t even start playing till he was in his twenties—but he did get better as he aged and even made a respectable jazz album in 1957, Harpo in Hi-Fi, with one former and one current member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet: saxophonist Buddy Collette and cellist Fred Katz. The follow-up, 1958’s Harpo at Work! was a jazz-with-strings project arranged by Harpo’s son Bill Marx, a jazz pianist and film composer. 

“Harpo comes from that era of true entertainers,” Younger says. “Today we’re like, ‘Just do one thing,’ but he did everything. He’d go to folks for lessons and end up teaching them, because what he was doing was so cool. He absolutely shook the stuffy image off the harp and showed you could do different things with it. If it wasn’t for Harpo, we would never have progressed.” 

No one seized those opportunities more effectively than Ashby. Her debut album, The Jazz Harpist, was also released in 1957 as the first of three collaborations with Count Basie’s flutist Frank Wess. As the daughter of jazz guitarist Wiley Thompson, Ashby began on piano at an early age. But when she was accepted at Cass Tech, a combination vocational school and performing-arts high school, she was so entranced by the harp that she switched instruments. The same thing would happen in the same room to future Cass Tech students Alice McLeod (later Alice Coltrane) and Zeena Parkins.

“I was assigned a room in this eight-story building in downtown Detroit,” Parkins told the Red Bull Music Academy in 2018. “In the very back of the building, a windowless room, I opened the door and there were eight concert grand harps in that room. That’s pretty mind-blowing, and there was a woman named Velma Fraude who was going to train you to play harp if you decided to stay in that room. That is the kind of miraculous way I came to the harp. I didn’t choose it—it found me, you could say. Once I sat behind the harp, I knew instantly that was my instrument.”

Dorothy Ashby (photo: James J. Kreigsmann)
Dorothy Ashby (photo: James J. Kreigsmann)

It Takes Some Pluck

The concert grand harp is a dazzling instrument both sonically and visually. The triangular frame includes a sturdy pillar to support the tension in the strings, a hollow soundboard that leans against one shoulder and a curving top that keeps all 47 strings within easy reach. Where the pillar meets the soundboard are seven pedals, one for each note in the scale. When the C pedal is in the up position, for example, it will lower all the C strings to a C-flat (B). In the middle position, all the strings are C natural, and in the down position, they’re all C-sharp. “It’s crazy,” Younger says. “The pitch goes up, but the foot goes down.”

This makes changing chords a real challenge, because it requires pushing one or more pedals instantly, an especially difficult task if the next chord has more than one flat or sharp. But Ashby conquered these challenges as no harpist ever had; soon she could play swing and bebop so well that she could solo as well as comp. The harp had been used in jazz before: Casper Reardon had played with Jack Teagarden and Paul Whiteman, Adele Girard with Frankie Trumbauer and Joe Marsala, and Betty Glamann with Oscar Pettiford and as a leader herself. But Ashby took it a step further. She wasn’t satisfied with merely providing an exotic flavor to a big-band arrangement; she wanted to be a leading voice in a combo.

“Dorothy was playing what was current to her time,” Younger points out. “She was digging into Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Little Sunflower.’ It was mind-blowing to hear her. She convinced me that I didn’t want to be in a classical orchestra. I wanted to do what she was doing. She was soulful; she was playing on all these records, and she was a woman.”

After the Frank Wess trilogy in the later 1950s, Ashby made three more records as a leader before signing with Cadet Records, a jazz subsidiary of Chess. With producer/arranger Richard Evans, Ashby made her three most memorable albums: 1968’s Afro-Harping, 1969’s Dorothy’s Harp and 1970’s The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby. Combining vocals, jazz solos, psychedelic soul, and Middle Eastern exotica, these are dizzying examples of virtuosity and boundary-breaking. They’re a reissue project just crying out to happen.

“Dorothy is the jazz harpist,” Castaneda declares. “Most bands used harp as a color, but Dorothy could solo like a pianist. It’s difficult to improvise freely on bebop like Dorothy did, but she made the harp a full instrument that you play, not just an effect.”

Ashby had a second career as an in-demand session musician. She appeared on Bill Withers’ 1974 album, +’Justments; Withers recommended her to Stevie Wonder, who used Ashby on “If It’s Magic” from the 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life. Ashby played on records by Freddie Hubbard, Gene Harris, and Bobby Womack and led two more albums of her own before she died at age 53 in 1986. 

Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane

Just Ask Alice

Though she studied harp at Cass Tech, Alice McLeod worked as a jazz pianist in Detroit and Paris in the ’50s. She made her recording debut on 1963’s Terry Gibbs Plays Jewish Melodies in Jazztime. Five months after she married John Coltrane in Mexico in 1965, she replaced McCoy Tyner as the pianist in her new husband’s band and remained in that role until John died in 1967. 

Her most important harp playing came right after John’s death. It was on her first solo album, 1968’s The Monastic Trio, that Alice first stepped forward as a harpist. Three of the five tracks featured her on harp backed by drummer Rashied Ali and bassist Jimmy Garrison. Relying heavily on glissandos, she generated a cascade of notes over the prodding bottom. Her 1970 album Ptah, the El Daoud features only one harp track, “Blue Nile,” but it boasts a more defined melody, developed brilliantly by the flute solos of Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders. This was the recording that changed Younger’s life.

“I was already Alice Coltrane-obsessed before I went to college,” Younger remembers. “My parents got me the album with ‘Blue Nile,’ and I thought it was so cool. She was playing a blues with glissandos, and I said, ‘This is so awesome. How do you do that?’ I would write her letters—nerd alert—about how much I loved her music.”

Younger wound up playing the harp because someone told her parents it was a good way to get a college scholarship; there was less competition on the instrument. When Younger was younger, she worked out a deal with her teacher: The student would learn all the classical pieces her teacher suggested, if the teacher would help her learn to play her favorite R&B songs off the radio on the harp. 

“I was teaching myself songs by Babyface, Bette Midler, Toni Braxton, and he who should not be named because he was canceled,” Younger recalls. [We’ll name him anyway: R. Kelly. —Ed.]“When I tried to learn Stevie Wonder’s ‘Ribbon in the Sky,’ I wanted to play it just the way he did it. That’s when I learned how hard it is to modulate on a concert harp. I couldn’t do that, but I could add arpeggios in the second pass, so I could play Stevie Wonder my own way. That was a valuable lesson.”

At Uniondale High School on “Lon Guyland,” as she still pronounces it, Younger played flute, trombone, and harp at different times for the concert band, marching band, and jazz band. The jazz band director Cedric Lemmie was a college roommate of Tim Warfield, and he got his students fired up over Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and contemporary players. Haneef Nelson, an older trumpeter from Uniondale, convinced Younger to follow him to Hartford’s Hartt School of Music, where the jazz teachers were Jackie McLean, Nat Reeves, and Steve Davis. 

Younger was ostensibly a classical and music business student, but she audited all the jazz classes, soaking up as much information as she could. She soon started dating jazz bass student Dezron Douglas, and they’ve been a couple since 2002. Younger was still shy about playing jazz on the harp in public, but she would meet up with Douglas and his pals in a practice room to try out her first improvisations. After graduation, she moved with Douglas to New York City, where the latter’s friend Antoine Roney took her under his wing. 

“Antoine told me, ‘Listen to Trane and McCoy when they’re playing modally,’” Younger remembers. “‘You can play what they’re playing without your pedals.’ That sounded like a music-school assignment, and I could deal with that. That’s why you hear so many harpists playing ‘So What.’”

“Dorothy Ashby convinced me that I didn’t want to be in a classical orchestra. I wanted to do what she was doing.”—Brandee Younger

The Evolution of Brandee

When Alice Coltrane died in 2007, her son Ravi Coltrane asked Younger to play the harp in a memorial service for his mom. Also participating were Charlie Haden, Rashied Ali, Reggie Workman, Geri Allen, and Jack DeJohnette. When Younger asked Ravi what he wanted from her on the harp, he said, “Elements of my mother, that spiritual sound; elements of Dorothy Ashby, who my mother loved; and elements of Carlos Salzedo, who my dad loved.” Salzedo was a legendary classical harpist, and those three figures gave Younger a triangulated target to aim for. 

“Every time I had a doubt about sticking with the harp,” she confesses, “I’d get another sign. It’s one thing after another in the evolution of Brandee, who thought she was going to music school to become someone’s manager. I went from writing letters to Alice Coltrane and never sending them to playing her memorial. I accepted early on that this was going to be an uphill battle until I die. Learning under fire is embarrassing, but it’s invigorating. When you play one chorus of a solo and think you’re done, but Ravi Coltrane walks away, you have no choice but to keep playing.”

All that work has paid off in two impressive 2021 albums. Force Majeure is a collection of unaccompanied duets by Younger and Douglass from “Force Majeure: Brunch in the Crib with Brandee & Dezron,” a weekly Friday-morning live stream from the couple’s Harlem home during the pandemic. The repertoire ranges from Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders to the Jackson 5 and the Stylistics, and the atmosphere is loose and casual. But the informality turns out to provide much of the appeal.

The other album is Somewhere Different, a studio recording that features Younger without horns on six of the eight tracks. Douglas produced but only plays on two tracks, allowing Ron Carter and Rashaan Carter to handle the bass otherwise. In the absence of horns and keyboards, Younger’s playing stands out more than ever on both of these projects. She still uses glissandos and arpeggios, but sparingly, allowing her single-note lines and punctuated chording to reveal another side of the harp’s potential. But she hasn’t forgotten where jazz harp came from.

“Dorothy and Alice never got their due,” she laments. “That’s why I’ve busted my behind since 2007, to give them credit. Every set I play, I try to do an Alice Coltrane tune and a Dorothy Ashby tune. Why are diehard jazz fans and cool hip-hop producers the only ones who know about them? People ask if I mind being compared to them. I always say, ‘No, I’m honored.’”

Brandee Younger
Brandee Younger (photo: Erin Patrice O’Brien)

High Plains Glisser

Edmar Castaneda’s primary instrument is not the concert harp; it’s the arpa llanera, the “harp of the plains” from Colombia and Venezuela. Smaller and with fewer strings than the concert harp, this folk instrument is similar to the Celtic harp that Derek Bell played for decades with the Chieftains and to the Scottish clarsach played today by Maeve Gilchrist. The Colombian instrument boasts a huge sound box, which helps the rhythmic riffing for the traditional joropo dances. In fact, it was during dance lessons in Bogotá that Castaneda first encountered the arpa llanera.

“When I heard it for the first time at seven years old,” he recalls, “I knew I was meant to play the arpa llanera. I knew it was my mission to find a new place for this instrument. With its ringing harmonics and its flamenco-like drive, it had a sound that would be difficult to get on a piano. It was an angelic resonance that makes you feel peace in your heart.”

He was 16 when his family moved to New York. There he discovered Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Jaco Pastorius and started playing the trumpet in his high-school and college bands. But during all those years, he played solo harp every night of the week in a different Meson Ole Restaurant on Long Island.

“That was where I developed my ideas,” he reveals. “It was a way to pay the rent, sure, but it also gave me a way to apply all the things I was learning about jazz in school to the harp. I was figuring out how to make the harp sound like a piano, like a guitar, like a bass. I had a lot of freedom. As long as I played the theme to ‘Besame Mucho,’ the diners were happy. Then I would improvise like crazy, which made me happy.”

When Castaneda dragged his instrument to Latin and straight-ahead jam sessions, the session leaders were often dubious. “Just give me one chance,” he would tell them, “and I’ll show you I can do it.” That was all it took, and he became a regular at such affairs as Noches de Rumba in Union City, New Jersey, and the Django Reinhardt NY Festival at Birdland. For his 2005 debut album, Cuarto de Colores, Castaneda was joined by Paquito D’Rivera, Mike Rodriguez, and Pedrito Martinez.

“For that first album,” he remembers, “the main trio was Dave Silliman on percussion and Marshall Gilkes on trombone. Between takes we started jamming, and I realized they had so many colors that would add to what I was doing. Marshall can do things on the trombone that I’ve never heard anyone else do; whatever you play, he makes it work.”

Castaneda’s 2012 album, Double Portion, was so titled because he played both the arpa llanera and the concert harp. He played two duets apiece with pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón that are the highlights of his discography. His latest album, this year’s Family, draws its title from the interaction between Castaneda’s harp and the vocals of his wife Andrea Tierra.

“I still see amazingly talented harpists who have somehow practiced themselves into a corner. Fortunately, it’s never too late to realize that we can make our own music.”—Park Stickney

The Importance of Play

One of Castaneda’s favorite contemporary harpists is Park Stickney, who now splits his time between Brooklyn and Switzerland. “Because classically trained harpists like myself spend so much time gaining specific skills,” he admits, “it can be easy for us to forget to be free, to just play. Luckily for me, I’ve always fooled around on the harp, as if it were the best toy ever. I still see amazingly talented harpists who have somehow practiced themselves into a corner. Fortunately, it’s never too late to realize that we can make our own music, no matter how many—or few—lessons we’ve had.” 

Stickney demonstrated the broad spectrum of his interests on his 2015 album All Harp Globe Live, which includes repertoire from Debussy and Jobim to Queen. When he tackles Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” he shows off his evolving jazz improvisation chops. “One of the luxuries of playing alone,” he says, “is following the inspiration of the moment—to suddenly turn left without first looking.”

His journey into jazz takes a bigger step with the new GFI Trio, named after the middle names of bassist Björn Gustav Meyer, Paul Frederick Stickney, and saxophonist Araxi Isabella Karnusian. Their as-yet-unreleased album showcases a propulsive music, where the harp holds its own with the electric bass and piercing soprano sax.

“That’s because I play an electro-acoustic harp,” Stickney explains. “A lot of the harp’s difficulties in the past can be linked to problems of amplification. I feel lucky to be playing in a time when the harp can be easily amplified.”

Jacqueline Kerrod (photo: Leo Mascaro)
Jacqueline Kerrod (photo: Leo Mascaro)

Harp into the Future

With the exception of Castaneda and Harpo Marx, most of the harpists in this story began with classical training and had to make the leap into jazz improvisation at some point. For Jacqueline Kerrod, that jump came when Anthony Braxton invited her to join the immense orchestra for the 2014 recording of his opera Trillium J. Kerrod had spent most of her career playing classical gigs with the New York City Opera, the American Ballet Theater, and the like, or else as half of the indie-rock duo Addi & Jacq. But she had done a one-off date with trumpeter Nate Wooley, who recommended her to Taylor Ho Bynum, who hired her for the Braxton opera.

“When I met Anthony and started playing with him,” Kerrod recalls, “it was so intoxicating. It allowed me to reconnect with my instrument in a very different way. There was a moment in the opera when I was asked to do a six-to-eight-minute solo improvisation for dancers. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t have to follow what’s on the page; I can follow my feelings.’ It’s terrifying, nerve-racking, because you don’t know what’s going to come out. But Anthony encourages you, and with practice it gets better; you get bolder and push through it by staying open.”

Braxton was so pleased that he invited Kerrod to join the Zim Music Ensemble, a sextet that contributed to the nearly 11-hour-long 2017 album 12 Comp (ZIM). That led in turn to an unaccompanied, live duo performance that was released in 2020 as Duo (Bologna) 2018. It’s a lovely recording that finds Braxton introducing understated, seductive themes on alto, soprano, and sopranino saxophones, leading into improvised dialogues with Kerrod’s pointillist harp.

“I have a lot of reverence for classical music,” Kerrod adds, “but you’re always scared of messing up. The thing about Anthony was I never felt judged; I was always accepted. I really grew in the duo, because there was no one else to step up; I had to do it myself. You don’t get stuck in one place; you can always go in a different direction. It was the biggest gift anyone could have given me.”

During the pandemic, with nowhere to go, Kerrod challenged herself to apply everything she’d learned with Braxton to an unaccompanied free improvisation on the harp each day for two-and-a-half weeks last winter. She originally thought she’d rework the results, but she was so struck by the spontaneity of the music that she decided to release selected but unaltered sections from the improvs as her first solo album, this year’s 17 Days in December: Solo Improvisations for Acoustic & Electric Harp. She mixes the conventional “angelic” sounds of the harp with more unconventional distortion and dissonance in ways that are startlingly fresh.

“I’ve discovered some tricks to make those sounds purposefully,” she explains. “I like those sounds because they sound raw and vibrant. I want to explore the full spectrum of my feelings, and to do that I wanted to pull sound from the full range of the instrument, from down on the bottom and up to the top.”

It’s one more piece of evidence that the harp, so long underused in jazz, still has lots of untapped potential. “I’m always amazed at how the harp, which has been around basically forever, is still evolving,” Stickney says, “and this seems to be truer than ever in the last 20 years. I’m curious to see where it goes next.” 

Talking Harp With Brandee Younger Originally Published

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.