Harold Ashby

Tenor sax with Duke Ellington
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The Independent Online

Harold Kenneth Ashby, saxophone player: born Kansas City, Missouri 27 March 1925; died New York 13 June 2003.

" 'Smilin' Jack' Harold Ashby?" said the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges of his acolyte in the Duke Ellington band. Ashby blushed and looked embarrassed. "He's a gambler," Hodges went on. "He plays the old Chinese game 'Chuck-a-Luck'. The more you put down the less you pick up. And he's been putting down a lot lately. . ."

When he became a regular member of the Ellington band in 1958, Ashby took the seat next to Hodges that had been occupied until 1943 by Ben Webster, another tenor-playing friend of the altoist. Webster had been Ashby's idol, and he first modelled his style on Webster's warm and lush sound.

But not for long, because Ashby soon developed a sound of his own - hard swinging, with long lines of ideas broken by swift flurries of notes. He originally joined the band as a replacement for Jimmy Hamilton, a man who played mostly clarinet. As a result the Ellington band was over-endowed with tenor players, for the main soloist on the instrument, Paul Gonsalves, was still a potent force in the band and Norris Turney also played tenor sax amongst his other instruments. Gonsalves and Ellington died in May 1974 and Ashby became the main soloist in the band when it was taken over by Ellington's son Mercer.

Ashby had begun playing alto and clarinet as a teenager but gave up music while he was in the US Navy from 1943 to 1945. On return to his native Kansas City in 1946, he was soon playing again and backed the singer Walter Brown, making his first recording with Brown in 1949. He spent most of the Fifties in Chicago playing in blues bands before moving to New York in 1957 to work in the bands of Milt Larkin and Mercer Ellington.

He then found the fringes of Duke Ellington's band and began deputising for some of the sax players. Accepted as a friend and colleague by Ellington's sidemen, he recorded with Webster (1958), Hodges (1960), Gonsalves (1961) and Lawrence Brown in 1965. Once he joined the band permanently he became a regular in all the small groups that came from the band to record. He was given more prominent roles as the band played across Europe and the Far East and won many fans across the world.

After Ellington's death, Ashby worked with Sy Oliver in 1976 and made brief tours with Benny Goodman in 1977 and 1982. Ashby was always welcomed back to Europe where most of his fans were. He toured there with the Ellington Alumni in 1978 and returned the following year with the Kansas City pianist Jay McShann.

Another European tour paired Ashby with the pianist Junior Mance, and he was also one of the stars of the 1985 Nice Festival. He recorded often under his own name in the late Eighties and early Nineties, but illness curtailed his activities and he confined his work to the New York area.

He made an exception for one of his last appearances at the 2001 Duke Ellington Conference in Ottawa when Ashby played one of Ellington's compositions written to feature him, "Chinoiserie". Happily he was able to regain his top form, but it was his final appearance before an audience of any size.

Steve Voce

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