Elayne Jones, pioneering percussionist, is dead at 94

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Elayne Jones, pioneering percussionist, is dead at 94
The timpanist Elayne Jones in 1965. Jones, a timpanist who was said to be the first Black principal player in a major American orchestra when she joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1972, and who mounted a legal battle over racial and sexual discrimination when she was denied tenure two years later, died on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022, at her home in Walnut Creek, Calif. She was 94. (Sam Falk/The New York Times)

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- Elayne Jones, a timpanist who was said to be the first Black principal player in a major American orchestra when she joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1972, and who mounted a legal battle over racial and sexual discrimination when she was denied tenure two years later, died Saturday at her home in Walnut Creek, California. She was 94.

Her daughter Cheryl Stanley said the cause was dementia.

The charismatic, Juilliard-trained Jones was not only a rare woman among the orchestral percussionists of her time; she also helped lead a generation of Black musicians in confronting the pervasive — and enduring — racism of the classical music industry. Her appointment in San Francisco, under that ensemble’s modish music director, Seiji Ozawa, “projected a forward-looking vision of classical music,” scholar Grace Wang has written.

Admired for her lyricism and finesse, Jones was an instant hit in San Francisco. “Her playing is so outlandish in quality, one gets the titters just thinking of it,” critic Heuwell Tircuit wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle of her debut. Arthur Bloomfield of The San Francisco Examiner wrote that her work in a seemingly straightforward passage of “Norma,” at the San Francisco Opera, was “so rounded and suave I just about fell out of my seat.”

Once described in a headline as “the groovy tympanist,” Jones had seen the San Francisco auditions as a last chance to win a permanent post, a success that had been denied her during the two decades she spent toiling to challenge the color line as a freelancer in New York City.

“I had to prove that music could be played by anyone who loves it,” she said in 1973. “It’s been a terrible burden because I always felt I had to do better, that I wouldn’t be allowed the lapses other musicians have. It’s true even now.”

Orchestral musicians typically serve probationary periods before being granted tenure. Approval seemed a formality in Jones’ case, but a seven-man committee of the San Francisco players voted against her — and a bassoonist, Ryohei Nakagawa — in May 1974, despite Ozawa’s advice to the contrary; two rated her competence at 1 out of 100.

As audience members launched pickets and petitions, many white critics portrayed the incident primarily as a challenge to Ozawa’s authority; though the conductor denied any link, he soon quit. Jones saw things differently.

“I’ve had good vibes everywhere. Now I wonder what the hell is wrong and what do I do that’s so wrong?” she said that June, announcing her intention to sue the orchestra and the musicians’ union. “Was it because I was a woman or a Black? Or both?”

Jones played on for a season while her lawsuit made its way through the courts. But when a judge ordered a second, supervised vote in August 1975, a new committee of players turned her down again, citing concerns about her intonation. Although she performed, tenured, in the pit of the San Francisco Opera until 1998, her effective firing at the symphony stayed with her.

“It has been quite difficult,” she said in a television interview in 1977, “not only playing but trying to live through all this, and living with myself, too, which is kind of hard because you begin to question, well, am I really a good performer, am I worthy person?”

But, she went on, “I listen to other people, and I have more confidence in myself.”

Elayne Viola Jones was born Jan. 30, 1928, in New York City, the only child of immigrants from Barbados. Her father, Cecil, was a porter and then a subway conductor; her mother, Ometa, dreamed of becoming a professional pianist, but had to enter domestic service. They had a piano in their apartment, and Elayne used it to play along with the big-band jazz she heard on the radio. She was 6 when her mother introduced her to classical music.

“At first, I thought it was strange to have music that people didn’t dance to, because we all loved dancing to swing music,” Jones wrote in her autobiography, “Little Lady With a Big Drum” (2019). “However, I didn’t reject this different kind of music and practiced it every day, growing to enjoy its irregularities.”

She qualified for the High School of Music & Arts (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts), and she hoped to add the violin to her studies on the piano; she was given drumsticks instead. “We all know that Negroes have rhythm,” she recalled a teacher saying.

Jones was sufficiently talented to win a scholarship to the Juilliard School in 1945, under the sponsorship of Duke Ellington. Her tutor was Saul Goodman, the storied timpanist of the New York Philharmonic, and after she graduated, in 1949, he persuaded New York City Opera to hire her as its timpanist.

But the City Opera season was limited, and she had to scrounge for jobs for much of the year; on tour with the company, she was forced to sleep in separate hotels from the other musicians, stopped at stage doors as white colleagues walked through, and told to perform hidden from view.

Politically a leftist, Jones became an insistent activist. When critic Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times in 1956 that “if there are capable Negro musicians” they would deserve major-ensemble jobs, she visited him to demonstrate that such musicians did, in fact, exist. She worked on an Urban League report about racism in the music world; within weeks of its publication in 1958, she found herself filling in at the New York Philharmonic. Although the Philharmonic’s records of substitute players are sparse, archival documents name her as the first Black musician to perform as part of the orchestra.

Jones left City Opera in 1960 at the request of her husband, George Kaufman, a doctor and civil rights activist, who asked that she spend more evenings with him and their three children. But Leopold Stokowski, long a fan, quickly tapped her for his American Symphony Orchestra, for which she performed until 1972. She was one of the driving forces behind the founding of the integrated Symphony of the New World in 1965, and she joined other Black musicians to urge that the initial rounds of auditions be held blind, with the musicians behind a screen, to reduce bias. The San Francisco Symphony was an early adopter of that approach.

“I wouldn’t have gotten the job if the screen wasn’t in play,” she later told Wang. “I’m the recipient of a thing that I worked on.”

Jones’ marriage to Kaufman ended in divorce in 1964. In addition to her daughter Cheryl Stanley, she is survived by her son, Stephen Kaufman, a violinist and performance artist also known as Thoth; another daughter, Harriet Kaufman Douglas; and three grandchildren.

As a single mother, Jones often had to take her children to rehearsals, she told the Times in 1965. She hoped, she said, that she offered them an example.

“All youngsters need an image to project to, Negro youngsters even more than white,” she said. “When they can see Negroes playing in the orchestra, they may feel that they can get there someday, too.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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