Irving Ashby

One of the grand old men of jazz guitar, Ashby played in some groups that leaped over the pop music fence, but eventually saw his distinctive style overwhelmed by newer, fancier pickers. There was Django Reinhardt, whose speed and facility scared Ashby to death the first time he heard the French gypsy guitarist on the radio, followed by a wave of smarty-pants jazz guitarists such as Barney Kessel, who wound up grabbing Ashby's seat in the famed Oscar Peterson trio. Most jazz listeners have enjoyed Ashby's work on early recordings by the Nat King Cole Trio, in which he played from 1947 through 1951, replacing Oscar Moore. It was in this context that he first came to prominence on the jazz scene, and it is often this collaboration that catches the ear of new listeners. The blues revivalist Taj Mahal, for example, will drop Ashby's name when listing important early influences, sticking out among usual blues guitar suspects such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson. "Everybody else I heard was playing real tight chords when I started hearing guitar in the '40s," Mahal said in an interview. "The first person I really loved was Irving Ashby, who played with Nat King Cole. That guy was incredible. He had a certain sound." Although it is the guitarist, and not the guitar, that makes the sound, part of the Ashby tone certainly came from his unique guitar, a Stromberg created by the brilliant luthier Elmer Stromberg. This was Ashby's guitar of choice in his days with the Lionel Hampton's band, even before he began performing with the Cole group. In the latter combo he was particularly known for playing an over-sized guitar known as "the Yellow Cloud," and it was perhaps this axe that Ashby was paying tribute to in the '50s when a combo under his own name recorded the expansive single entitled "Big Guitar." Legends abound concerning the Ashby guitars, including the one in which Wes Montgomery borrowed one for an early Los Angeles recording session. While Ashby's rhythm guitar playing was almost completely overlooked in the context of Lionel Hampton's music, best described as all hell breaking loose with a swing beat, the Cole group was the perfect format for both his rhythm and soloing style, as well a group in which the leader's mesmerizing effect on an audience could hardly have hampered the sidemen's ability to communicate. After leaving Cole, Ashby concentrated on the west coast, teaming up in the early '50s with Oscar Peterson's trio. This Canadian performer was at this point getting huge attention in tours organized by promoter Norman Granz. While Peterson was certainly influenced by Cole, a much greater influence was Art Tatum, and the type of Byzantine harmonic invention fostered by Tatum and continued by Peterson and others was hardly the Ashby forte. He was replaced by Kessel, then Herb Ellis. In the mid- and late '50s Ashby was more often found in the recording studios, playing with artists such as crooner Pat Boone and surf music maestro Sandy Nelson. By the '60s Ashby was also working outside the music field, but continued playing from time to time, sometimes brought back into the limelight by various guitarists whom he had strongly influenced, such as Howard Roberts. As far as jazz was concerned, he was strictly a mainstream swing man, forever in awe of one of his early bandleaders, Lester Young. "I worship Lester Young" the guitarist was once quoted as saying, and when the interviewer responded that "Worship is a pretty strong word," Ashby said "If there was a stronger word, I would use it." As for Ashby ventures into more modern jazz, they barely exist, unless lending the guitar to Montgomery counts. The Ashby presence in the discography of modern jazz giant Charles Mingus is even a mistake, based on the mistaken assumption that a guitarist credited as Ashby De La Zooch on a tune of the same name was the famous Nat King Cole sideman. As it turns out, the name comes from a second World War English song about a seaside resort named "Ashby De La Zooch," and the recording isn't even by Mingus. It is one of several early pieces in Mingus discographies, another of which is "Love on a Greyhound Bus," that are only there because they happen to have master numbers that come directly in the same sequence as legitimate Mingus recordings. ~ Eugene Chadbourne

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