Basses Loaded

Conservatory athlete Ian Ashby ’22 divides his days between music and the mound

April 21, 2021

Erich Burnett

Oberlin baseball player Ian Ashby throwing a pitch.
Photo credit: courtesy Oberlin College Athletics

At first, Ian Ashby needed music days and baseball days.

A jazz bass major at Oberlin Conservatory and a pitcher on the Oberlin baseball team, Ashby gleefully pursues both disciplines pretty much all the time. Initially, that required more brain space than he could muster.

“I viewed them as two separate worlds,” he recalls today. “I would have a day devoted to music, then a day devoted to baseball. Even though I would have both on the same day, my mind would be with the other.”

Now completing his third year at Oberlin, Ashby has developed the focus to fully commit to either effort at a moment’s notice. “As I get older, I feel like I have this ability to flip the switch. It just comes with experience, and with feeling more confident and more prepared in all aspects of your life.”

It’s a discipline born of routine and of dedication to his twin passions. Most mornings begin with an hour or two of warmup on his instrument, followed by a lesson on days when he studies with his mentor, bass professor Gerald Cannon. Then he’s off to class, followed by a lifting session at the gym and work in the batting cages. Once winter weather turns to spring, the baseball team takes to the field and to the road, playing across Ohio and neighboring states, as well as the annual Tucson Invitational in Arizona.

It’s a packed schedule, but one that Ashby saw coming for years. The son of Oberlin jazz professor Jay Ashby, he relocated with his family to Oberlin from his native Pittsburgh when he was in seventh grade. His first memories include Dad gigging with legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon, and Mom—vocalist Kim Nazarian—singing with New York Voices, the jazz quartet she co-founded in 1987 and with which she still performs.

Ashby’s fondness for Oberlin took hold early.

“I was inspired to attend Oberlin by a particular concert: a recital by a student pianist named Jake Silverman,” he says, referring to the 2014 graduate who went on to complete a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music and a DMA at the University of Southern California. “I had never seen college musicians play at that high of a level—and I had been to colleges all over the world by that time. I was so inspired by their communication, their visual cues to each other, their laughter, and the support from the other students who were there. It was just a moment when I knew that I was in a special place.”

In the years that followed, Ashby played music and baseball in the shadow of Oberlin’s campus. In high school, his summer ball coach was Adrian Abrahamowicz, the longtime coach of the Oberlin baseball team.

“He would have guys coming up to him and asking about me," Ashby says of the college scouts who followed the summer team's exploits. "After a certain point, he would start telling them I think the best choice for him is to go to Oberlin.”

A sidearming right-hander, Ashby started the Yeomen’s first game of the 2021 season, a 14-5 win over Hilbert in which he pitched five innings, reached base three times, and drove in four runs. Between starts, he plays both corner infield positions and remains an option out of the bullpen.

If his versatility leads to no shortage of playing time, the same can be said across campus in the conservatory. He was selected through audition for membership in the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble—the student group launched through the support of the legendary saxophone player—and in the conservatory’s Performance and Improvisation (PI) ensembles, which unite classical and jazz players through the study of global music. Like all jazz performance majors, Ashby also plays with the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble, the conservatory’s big band. (See videos below, featuring Ashby in action with the Sonny Ensemble and in a PI master class.)

During a rare glimpse of downtime, he performed on a recent studio collaboration between New York Voices and Manhattan Transfer—the Voices’ friendly rival in the world of Big Apple jazz vocal groups.

Cannon, Ashby’s Oberlin mentor, admires the intensity he brings to all he does.

“When you’re an athlete, you have to really focus and work hard to get to a certain level, and especially the level Ian is at in baseball,” says Cannon, himself a former athlete. “As a pitcher, he’s really had to work on technique to be able to throw a slider or to throw a consistent curveball, and even to read the catcher’s signs. And a lot of that is really the same with the bass: We’re in the middle of everything. We have this huge responsibility to read signals. We’re the ones who put it all together.”

In recent months, Cannon has helped Ashby fine tune his approach, including adjustments to his right-hand placement and fingering technique.

“He’s really starting to understand how the bass works mechanically,” says Cannon. “I think it was a big breakthrough for him, learning how to create a warm sound, how to let the bass do the work that it’s supposed to do, and how he doesn’t have to work as much as he thought he did. His sound has changed immensely in the last two semesters.”

Like Jake Silverman before him, Ashby left a lasting impression with his junior recital in March, held in Oberlin’s iconic Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse. Complemented by four fellow jazz students, he deftly ran through music by Chick Corea, Stevie Wonder, Benny Green, and others.

“It was like going to a club and watching a mature-sounding concert,” says Cannon. “Everything was timed just right. I was very proud of Ian and the fact that he was relaxed and in control. He’s extremely mature for his age.”

In spring 2022, Ashby will complete his Oberlin studies with an eye toward graduate school—and with two years of NCAA eligibility remaining. He knows he’ll continue down a musical path, and maybe down the basepaths too.

“It’s a big decision for me if I want to pursue baseball at a higher level,” he says, noting that he’s still considering programs with and without baseball teams. “I have thoughts in both directions, and I have people expressing interest in both directions—though definitely more people on the music side right now.”

For the moment, he’ll content himself through a final year of Oberlin bass and baseball.

“I’m really glad I came here,” he says. “I know I couldn’t have pursued my passions this deeply at any other school.”

Ian Ashby performs with the Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble

Ian Ashby performs in a Performance and Improvisation master class

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