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A good beat and a bad rap. Heavenly harp gets down to jazz business

By Laura Van TuylStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 1988


SAY the word ``harpist'' to most people, and they think of a colossal stringed beauty cradled by an angelic woman in an evening gown. But when harpist Deborah Henson-Conant thinks of a harp - she thinks jazz. She digs ``Take Five,'' ``I Got Rhythm,'' and ``Swingin' Shepherd Blues.'' She sports black harem pants and bare shoulders above a metallic-gold top. And she takes to the stage with a spunkiness that says ``Let's jam!'' to her bass and drum player.

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Wait a minute. Jazz - on a harp?

That's what a competition judge said to her once: ``Dear, you really shouldn't try to play those tunes.''

But Ms. Henson-Conant contends that the harp is an ``uncharted'' instrument with ``such variation of colors.'' She tells of the time John McLaughlin, a noted jazz guitarist, walked over to her harp as it was lying on its side. ``He began playing it like a guitar - and it was amazing. What he did was inspiring to me,'' she said in a recent interview.

Classical harpists are rare enough (about 2,800 in the United States), but of the few jazz harpists around, Henson-Conant is the only one who plays regularly in a jazz trio.

In an intimate nightclub or theater, the sheer physical stature and beauty of her 65-pound instrument transfixes the eye. With its painted smokestack column, gracefully curving brass neck, and red and green strings, it looks more like a museum piece - some ancient Greek treasure - than anything of practical value.

Henson-Conant admits the harp has a ``bad rap'' for being - well, gaudy. All the other orchestral instruments are so ``businesslike,'' she said, ``and look at the harp - it's gold, it's painted. No wonder people think it's kind of dumb.''

So she was surprised at the positive response to her musical act. ``People have been very intrigued to hear what the harp can do.''

Indeed, Henson-Conant has been called ``a local musical treasure'' by the press here. The city's top jazz clubs and radio stations have welcomed her as one of their own for years. Today she embarks upon her first international tour, to Edinburgh and to Landshut, West Germany, where she'll be performing and giving workshops to classical and folk harpists.

Henson-Conant used to play harp with the San Jos'e and Oakland Symphonies back in her native state of California.

``I would never be an orchestral harpist now - it's terrifying,'' she says, referring to the times she's had to count 450 measures to herself, hoping to come in on time. ``My greatest claim to fame as an orchestral harpist is that I can count!''

So jazz is now her beat, a logical choice, since she's loved to improvise all her life - even in classical pieces (``to make the mistakes make sense'').

``One reason that a lot of harpists don't go into jazz is, there's so much modulation - moving from one key to another key.'' To get the ``blue'' notes of jazz, Henson-Conant uses the harp's foot pedals to ``bend'' the pitches - a taboo in classical harp playing. ``I put more wear and tear on the [pedal mechanism] in a week than most harpists would in two months.''