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Home » Member Profiles » For Jack Ashford and His Funk Brothers, Jazz Roots Ran Deep

For Jack Ashford and His Funk Brothers, Jazz Roots Ran Deep


While gigging around Boston in the late 1950s trying to establish himself as a jazz player, vibraphonist Jack Ashford met music producer Harvey Fuqua and his future brother-in-law Marvin Gaye. “Harvey asked me, ‘You know who Marvin Gaye is?’ I said, ‘Nah, never heard of him. If they don’t play jazz, I don’t know ’em.’ I was cocky. Everybody wanted to be like Miles Davis. Marvin said he was starting a band and would I like to come to Detroit.”

Months later, Ashford of Local 368 (Reno, NV) arrived at Motown Studios during a session for a teenager named Stevie Wonder. The studio, which was in the basement of record producer Berry Gordy’s home, was jammed, Ashford recalls. “It was full of people—mobbed. I saw Marvin [Gaye] back there; he waved at me. I saw James Jamerson and Earl Van Dyke. I recognized Earl, an organ player, through the circuit, in Camden, in Atlantic City, and New Jersey,” he says. “I was looking at the Funk Brothers and I didn’t even know it.”

Though largely unknown session musicians during the Motown era, the Funk Brothers were no ordinary sidemen but elite jazz musicians and seasoned blues players. Tapping into their formal training, they created dazzling rhythms on hundreds of records. From 1958 to 1972, they cut seven days a week and played on more No. 1 hits than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, and Elvis.

The award-winning 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown shows just how integral the Funk Brothers were to Motown’s success. The band was often presented with only a few chords and the musicians did the rest, creating hooks and grooves, and sophisticated melodies. Motown music was nurtured by their virtuosity and their roots in jazz clubs, where they got their start, and where they would return.

jack ashford

In the Funk Brothers, Ashford found his soulmates. Studio work supplemented their love of jazz. They would play outside dates at clubs around Detroit, including the Twenty Grand and the Chit Chat. Like the rest of the band members, Ashford considered himself a working jazz musician with little interest in pop and R&B. But, he says, “I knew we were making history.”

“They used to take the Record World and Billboard charts and post them on the community board. We would have six and seven records on the charts. Everybody else had one,” he says.

On his 1971 classic What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye made good use of the band’s jazz talent, and he was the first one to credit the musicians on a record. “But Marvin was a renegade—and a jazz musician himself,” Ashford says. “He proved that with ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘Trouble Man.’”

In the 1950s, Ashford’s hometown of Philadelphia was fertile ground for jazz, with no shortage of great players: Red Garland, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Smith, and Philly “Joe” Jones. Fans crammed jazz clubs and music education was affordable. Ashford attended Granoff School of Music, whose distinguished alumni included John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie.

At a live theater intermission show, Ashford saw Lionel Hampton. Ashford, who often describes his musical growth as a series of divine episodes, says, “The curtain opened up and there was a set of gold vibes. It was like the Arc of the Covenant sitting up on stage. Lionel Hampton came out and started playing. I was transfixed.” Ashford credits his uncle Gordon “Bass” Ashford for cultivating his interest in jazz and in the vibes.

Ashford’s brother signed for his first Wurlitzer, a model 513 T traveler. “I got those vibes and I started practicing,” he says.

He was exposed to Philly’s greatest musicians, including the famous Heath Brothers who lived in the neighborhood. He says, “I’m going to music school, I’m studying, I’m practicing. The guys, when they would be playing touch football on the street, I’m … up in the bedroom with my vibes by the window, practicing scales.”

Ashford started gigging with his Uncle “Bass.” Before long, he was playing clubs on the circuit with hard bop organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith and guitarist Eddie McFadden. One night in Boston, bandleader Charles Harris presented Ashford with a tambourine he found in a pawn shop. Ashford remembers Harris saying, “When you’re not soloing or playing a melody on the song, pick up the tambourine.”

On Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” which Ashford always played on vibes, he grudgingly picked up the tambourine. “I don’t know what happened, but the rhythm just seemed to just go right on into my hands as I was playing,” he says. “I was looking at it like I was looking at somebody else playing it, and people stopped dancing because they’re not used to hearing a tambourine in a jazz band. They started crowding around the stage. By the time that show was over that night, man, the owner came and extended our stay.”

Ashford’s music studies paid off. In Detroit, he says, “All these cats could read and play. Oh man, they were big.” Joe Messina (the only other surviving Funk Brother) was in great demand for his fluent guitar lines; experimental bassist James Jamerson is widely regarded as one of the most influential players in music history; Robert White was famous for his guitar hooks. Some, like pianists Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, and Earl Van Dyke, had classical influences and held dual degrees. 

Ashford was guesting on vibes one night at the Chit Chat with some of the Funk Brothers, when Jamerson casually announced to a packed house after an AFM Local 5-sponsored live show that the vibraphonist Jack Ashford was officially hired as a member of the Funk Brothers. As Ashford says, “the rest is history.”

He brought a varied repertoire of instruments to hits like Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby, Baby” (vibes), Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (bells), and The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” (marimba). 

Ashford helped launch the Detroit soul imprint Pied Piper in the mid-’60s. When it closed, he opened his own production company called Just Productions. In 1972, Berry Gordy abruptly moved Motown to Los Angeles, shuttering Detroit headquarters—and with it the dissolution of the Funk Brothers.

Band members followed, but were never booked together again. In 1978, the Funk Brothers reunited to record a film score written by Ashford and arranged by guitarist Robert White. James Jamerson played bass, Earl Van Dyke was on piano, Eddie Bongo was on congas, with Ashford presiding over vibes and percussion. “That’s the last time these guys played together, since Motown. And the last time Jamerson recorded,” he says.

“The hits we did were hits forever because it was the time for that sound. It’s not the notes, it’s the sound that these guys got when we played together.” In the intervening years, there have been musicians who lay claim to the title, but Ashford is quick to point out that there were only ever 12 original Funk Brothers.

Still playing at 85, Ashford draws on those glory days of Detroit and the Funk Brothers to generate rare and in-demand soul music.

He’s won two Grammy Awards and has several gold records to his credit. Known as the “tambourine man,” Ashford has spent the last decade working with producer and Oscar winner T-Bone Burnett of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and performing with artists like Elton John of Local 47. In 2013, he and his Funk Brothers received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

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