Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Two lives converge for CASA director, Zasu Pitts musician

Steve Ashman, executive director of CASA of Stanislaus County, formed the Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra in 1983 and still runs the band today. He's pictured in 2007 playing at Golden Gate Park in a concert commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love. He and his old musician friends will perform Oct. 4 at the SOS Club in the “A Day on the Green” concert benefiting CASA of Stanislaus County, which represents foster kids in court.
Steve Ashman, executive director of CASA of Stanislaus County, formed the Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra in 1983 and still runs the band today. He's pictured in 2007 playing at Golden Gate Park in a concert commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love. He and his old musician friends will perform Oct. 4 at the SOS Club in the “A Day on the Green” concert benefiting CASA of Stanislaus County, which represents foster kids in court. Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra

Steve Ashman’s friends from his previous (and occasionally current) life simply can’t see him as an expert in special-education law, training superior court judges in the nuances.

“To all my old musician friends,” he said, “I’m just a bass player.”

Likewise, many of the people he works with as executive director of CASA of Stanislaus County, including the foster children the agency represents, have a difficult time envisioning Ashman, shaved head and still fit at 60, up on stage playing rhythm-and-blues over the past three decades with the Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra he founded in San Francisco in 1983. He named the band for Zasu Pitts, an actress who portrayed airheaded characters in film and on TV for more than 40 years. The 15-member band has no true string section (violins, cellos, etc.), but boasts horn and rhythm sections, and multiple vocalists.

In 2007, the orchestra played for 200,000 people in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love.

It also performed in Modesto’s State Theatre in 2010 and continues to play. But the band’s schedule isn’t like that of its first two decades, when the band averaged 280 shows a year, playing all over the world.

“We still do gigs,” Ashman said. “But we don’t play nearly as much as we did.”

His worlds will collide Saturday afternoon. Some of his old music cronies will join him to perform at “A Day on the Green,” a concert fundraiser at the SOS Club benefiting CASA, the acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocates. The lineup includes the band Big Brother & The Holding Company; Barry Melton of Country Joe & The Fish; Barry McGuire of the New Christy Minstrels; Stevie Gurr, who played with Elvin Bishop; Darby Gould of Jefferson Starship; and others.

All are friends Ashman made during the Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra’s heyday.

“Lots of them were fans of the band, and all of them have joined us on stage at one time or another,” Ashman said.

The band at times featured Larry Bastiste, who now leads the orchestra that plays each year during the Grammy Awards. It also has showcased longtime Bay Area vocalist Fred Ross. He’s now with Family Stone Experience, which includes musicians originally with Sly & The Family Stone.

Country Joe & The Fish – with guitarist Melton being The Fish – played at Woodstock in 1969. Wanting to spend more time with his family, Melton took correspondence law courses and became an attorney and a public defender in Lake County. He continues to play music, though, forming The Barry Melton Band.

During a Zasu Pitts show years ago, Ashman asked Melton if he would sit in with the band that night.

“He said, ‘I don’t play rhythm-and-blues,’ ” Ashman said. “And I said, ‘I don’t care.’ He came up and played with us.”

Just as Melton turned to law, Ashman decided he, too, would find a day job.

“I went back to college when I was 40 to play baseball,” he said. He enrolled at California State University, Stanislaus, and tried to join the team.

“But I didn’t play,” he said. “I had long hair, and the coach (Jim Bowen) didn’t want any hippies on his team. I ended up doing four years (of coursework) in two, and as an undergraduate, I taught a class in American government methodology. I loved it. I was still playing music the whole time, but I got really interested in kids’ issues.”

He went to work in a school district and found that children with disabilities were getting shortchanged.

“I became an education advocate for child welfare,” Ashman said. “I was recruited to run CASA, which I’ve been doing for seven years. I love doing it. I love advocating for kids who don’t have anybody to stand up for them, kids who are the victims of the system or their own families.”

Saturday night’s show will bring Ashman’s past and present together to promote the agency’s future.

His musical skills and background no doubt will surprise the kids he now helps. His expertise in helping the kids will hit a high note with his old friends on stage.

Tickets are $40 and available at the door, online at http://green.casaofstanco.org or through the CASA office at (209) 548-6320. Doors open at 2 p.m.. Concert begins at 3 p.m. at the SOS Club, 819 Sunset Ave., Modesto.

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