Breaking down barriers
By Gercine Carter | Mon, May 07, 2012 - 12:00 AM
Elayne Jones has been retired from the San Francisco Opera for 14 years, but this woman recognized throughout the world as the only black and only female to play the percussion instrument, cannot resist the urge to launch into the rhythm of tapping or singing whenever the urge takes her.
Now in her 80s, Jones who was born of Barbadian parentage in the United States looks back on more than a half century of breaking down barriers, registering firsts, and remarks: “I hear all these stories from women here in Barbados and I say to myself I should talk to them and tell them you don’t let those things stop you. Follow your heart and you will succeed because you will be able to open the doors. You will be able to break through.”
And she can teach them a lot. Jones was born to a mother from Black Rock who went to the United States with hopes of becoming a concert pianist, but ended up working as a maid. Jones’ father, a linotypist also went to the land of opportunity with his sights set on a similar job only to find himself working as a porter. They lived in a racist America in which they determined their daughter would shine.
Elayne’s mother taught her to play the piano at age six, and insisted that she devoted her attention to academic studies and piano practice rather than play with the neighbourhood children. They made sure she was exposed to a certain standard of education.
Jones told EASY Magazine “the schools that we went to in Harlem were the worse in New York City . . . there were white teachers and the schools were all black. If there was any discipline problem the teachers would say ‘you are not going to amount to anything but maids and porters anyhow.’ ”
“Because my parents made me study, there was a school in New York called La Guardia Music and Art High School (now La Guardia School of the Arts) and I went there from 1942 to 1945."
Standing under five feet, this unassuming woman spent her life breaking down barrier after barrier and she observes “the US is still very racist. We have a black president. That doesn’t mean anything because basically it is still a white country and anything that you do is in keeping with what the white traditions are.”
As a promising young musician she was one of six winners of the Duke Ellington scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York – five white men and one black woman, Elayne Jones being the only percussionist in the group.
“Nobody expected me to succeed because by then I had been playing the timpani in the school orchestra and there was no such thing as a woman and black playing in the orchestra. They thought ‘well you know she will graduate and she will get married and have children like everybody else’.”
They were so wrong. “I fooled them in High School because they thought that’s what I would do, and when I got to Juilliard they felt that’s what I would do.” Juilliard offered her a follow-up scholarship after she successfully completed her three-year scholarship.
Jones was the first black to play with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in New York. When she left Tanglewood she went to the New York City Opera and she muses: “They did not want to hire me for the opera because I wasn’t white, I wasn’t a male and I wasn’t Italian."
Leopold Stokowski one of world’s finest conductors was forming an orchestra and invited her to be his timpanist. She played with him in the American Symphony Orchestra for 11 years. Throughout her career she had the opportunity to play under other great conductors like Leon Berstein.
When she failed to land the job as timpanist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Jones made the bold decision to fly to San Francisco and compete with 14 men auditioning for timpanist with the San Francisco Symphony. She was hired and played with that Symphony for two years touring the world, attracting rave reviews for her playing everywhere they went.
But the idea of a female lead timpanist did not sit well with the men in the men in the San Francisco Symphony and they voted her out of the orchestra after two years when it was time to get tenure.
The timpani is the principal instrument of the percussion section of an orchestra and the timpanist is the second highest paid member of the orchestra after the conductor. No wonder according to Jones, fellow musicians often objected to her presence in the orchestra.
However, her reputation saw the San Francisco Opera director snapping up the fine musicians, and she stayed retired.
There is no mistaking Jones’ love for the timpani as she expresses the satisfaction derived, to the extent she went into labour with her three children each time, while playing in the orchestra. She takes the credit for opening doors for “the amount of white women you see today playing in orchestras, because you don’t see any black women to any degree.”
Jones explains: “A lot of these guys they didn’t want to play second to some black girl and they would do all kinds of things to upset me. When you are playing the timpani every note that you play is heard by everybody so seeing that I was black, that I was a woman, everybody would be focussing and waiting for me to make a mistake. Then I walk out of the stage door and there were all these people around always wanting to touch me."
“Sometimes I just think how much I loved playing that music with all the problems that I had – racism . . . guys would walk out on me.”
But Elayne caught the eyes of a handsome Jewish doctor George Kaufman who swept her off her feet after seeing her play at an upscale country club, marrying her after only five months of courtship and making a life for her and their three children.
The marriage however ended in heartbreak for Jones after 12 years, with Kaufman being rejected at the beginning by his Jewish parents for his choice of wife. In addition Elayn points to some professional jealously displayed by her husband whose name she did not carry in her profession as an acclaimed musician.
Kaufman was not amused the night he picked up his wife from Carnegie Hall where her orchestra had played Sibelius’ Second Symphony and still elated by her performance she remarked to him “that was so beautiful . . . it felt as though I had 1 000 orgasms.”
Now 14 years retired, the timpanist who blazed trails, spends most of the year at her condo in the upscale Rossmoor retirement home in California, busy with several activities related to her widespread interests.
When she takes her annual Barbados break, she never misses an opportunity to participate in whatever cultural activity is happening and finds time to willingly share her knowledge with musicians here. Students at the Barbados Community College and the drummers of the Royal Barbados Police Force Band recently benefitted. So great is her passion for music she says she would like to address Barbadians “in a big hall”, to share her experiences.
Retirement for the octogenarian with the trendy two-toned hairstyle does not mean the rocking chair existence.
“One of the things that upsets me about people who meet me is they will say ‘you are not playing anymore?' . . . and that’s very painful because I want to be playing, but I am retired and that [timpani] is an instrument you have to play with a big orchestra.”
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