April 22: Remembering Irving Ashby
Guitarist Irving Ashby died on April 22, 1987, in Perris, CA, just a few miles south of San Bernardino, a town mentioned in a tune Ashby played countless times.
Irving Ashby was born in Somerville December 29, 1920 and started with the guitar at age 9. He either did or did not study at the New England Conservatory; some biographies have him attending, while others say he was granted a scholarship but declined it. He was, however, working with pianist Eddie Watson and bassist Ed Plunkett in a trio at Alpini’s in Boston in 1939-40, and that’s where Lionel Hampton heard and hired him. Ashby and Ray Perry went on the Hampton band together in 1940.
Ashby stayed with Hampton until late 1942, when he moved to Los Angeles. He worked in a wartime defense plant and kept his hand in studio work, for example playing in a few of the musical numbers in the 1943 film, Stormy Weather. He also wrote a column, “Guitar & Guitarists,” for Down Beat. After the war he became very active on the LA scene, working with Gerald Wilson, Wardell Gray, Lester Young, and others, as well as Jazz at the Philharmonic.
His highest profile jobs were with a pair of celebrated trios. In September 1947 he joined the King Cole Trio, staying until March 1951. He joined the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1952. Then Ashby got off the road and settled into a career of teaching and studio work. In 1973 he recorded with Count Basie for Norman Granz’s Pablo label, and under his own name recorded Memoirs, an obscure 1976 LP on Accent (SCS-5091). Long bothered by heart ailments, he died of a heart attack.
Ashby played Stromberg guitars, the big 19-inch archtops made in Boston that were favored by mid-century jazz players. The Stromberg Ashby is holding in this publicity shot is now in the the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Ashby’s sister Phyllis also had a taste of jazz, singing with Sabby Lewis in the late 1940s, and her Boston-born son Kenneth Kamal Scott has had a rather remarkable career in the arts, from dancing with Alvin Ailey to playing the lead in The Wiz on Broadway.
Here is video of Ashby taking a nice solo turn on “Route 66” with the King Cole Trio, a setting that was just right for Ashby’s Charlie Christian-inspired lines.