PAS Hall of Fame

Elayne Jones

 by Lauren Vogel Weiss

Elayne JonesTimpanist of the New York City Opera. Timpanist of the American Symphony Orchestra. Timpanist of the San Francisco Symphony.  Timpanist of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Any of these positions would look impressive on a percussionist’s resume. But what if, in a field traditionally dominated by men of European-American origin, the timpanist was a woman—and a person of color? This would be considered groundbreaking. Meet Elayne Jones, the fourth female member of the PAS Hall of Fame.

Born in New York City on January 30, 1928 to parents who emigrated from Barbados in the West Indies, Elayne Jones considers herself a “New Yorker—of African origin.” Her maternal grandfather owned a rum shop in Barbados where her mother, Ometa, played piano. “Everyone loved her playing, so she was sent to New York to study music and become a concert pianist,” Jones explains. But like many other women of color in the early 20th century, she wound up working as a maid.

“My mother always said to me, ‘Laynie, you’re going to do something respectable. You’re not going to clean white people’s floors!’  So I started studying piano at the age of six,” remembers Jones. “At first, I just wanted to go outside and play ball with the boys. But soon I became so involved in the music that I didn’t want to stop practicing. I had a good ear and could retain almost anything I heard.”

Growing up, Jones sang in the choir at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, preferring to sing harmony. “Choir practice was a happy time for me,” she recalls. “After rehearsal was over on Fridays, we’d go to the ‘Rennie’ [Renaissance Ballroom] or the Savoy and listen to music and dance.” This is where Jones was introduced to the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and even Frank Sinatra. She also attended concerts by the New York Philharmonic at nearby Lewisohn Stadium, a Greco-Roman amphitheater built on the campus of City College of New York. “Since I had no brothers or sisters, I was used to going places by myself,” she explains. “As I tell other people, you can’t expect your children to learn unless you let them go out and explore. Fortunately, I had that curiosity, maybe because I was an only child.”

After attending an all-girls junior high school in Harlem, where she was in many advanced classes, Jones was accepted into the Music and Art High School thanks to her piano skills. Students from all five boroughs traveled from across New York City to attend the elite high school.

“All the piano students also had to play an orchestral instrument,” Elayne explains. “After seeing the orchestra, I was drawn to the violin. But the teacher, Isadore Russ, told me I was ‘too skinny’.”

How did she choose percussion? “Racism,” replies Jones with a wry smile. “Mr. Russ handed me a pair of drumsticks and said, ‘We all know that Negroes have rhythm.’ When my family would visit Barbados during my childhood, I loved the music and the dancing and the drummers, but it never entered my mind that I would play drums someday.”

Jones was soon playing timpani in her high school orchestra, while continuing to sing and play the piano. “I realized that my singing made me a good timpanist,” she explains. “I also realized the music I studied in school was played by white people, while the music I heard and danced to was played by Negroes.”

One day, her mother saw a notice in the paper that Duke Ellington was going to give scholarships to six outstanding students from throughout the five boroughs who would be graduating that year. “I didn’t think I was good enough, but I was one of the winners!” (Elayne was the only female, only black, and only percussion scholarship recipient.) She graduated from the High School of Music and Art, now known as the LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts (aka the Fame high school), in June 1945 with awards for both her music and athletic abilities.

Thanks to this scholarship, Jones was able to attend the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. This is where she had the opportunity to study with New York Philharmonic timpanist Saul Goodman, one of five inductees into the inaugural PAS Hall of Fame class in 1972. “I think I was his first serious female student,” Jones recalls. “I believe he realized that I might have some of the same difficulties that he had as a short Jewish man because I was a skinny black girl. The other students used to say that he favored me since I would never be a competitor. But I learned so much from him; he was a very creative and innovative person. On my copy of his timpani book, he inscribed ‘to a fine artist,’ so he must have seen some potential in me.”

Jones also remembers studying with Morris “Moe” Goldenberg, inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame two years after Goodman. “I took xylophone lessons from Moe. But it was during ensemble class where we learned to play all the percussion instruments.”

Jones graduated from Juilliard in 1949, and that summer, she attended the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, performing in the student orchestra. During her time there, she studied with Roman Szulc, then-timpanist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as other musicians such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. “The six weeks at Tanglewood were one of the happiest experiences of my life,” Elayne remembers fondly.

When she returned to New York City, it was time to find employment in her chosen field. Jones auditioned for the timpani chair of the New York City Opera, as their current timpanist, Alfred Howard, was leaving for another position. “They didn’t want to hire me because I was black and I was a woman,” she recalls, “and I wasn’t Italian! But Goodman stepped in on my behalf and reminded them that I had played the best audition. Al played the rehearsals of Strauss’s ‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ but I had to play the performance! I think they wanted me to fail. So I sat in the audience during the rehearsals while Al played timpani, and I listened to everything.” In October 1949, Jones was the first black person to play in an opera orchestra, and one of only two women in the pit that night. That performance was the beginning of an eleven-year career with NYCO.

In addition to performing in New York, NYCO also toured around the country. “I remember my first trip to Chicago in 1950,” Jones says. “Blanche Birdsong was the harpist and the only other woman in the orchestra. She and I went over to the Chicago Opera House early to get our instruments ready. But the doorman at the stage door wouldn’t let me in because I was black. He said, ‘We don’t let Nigras in the theater. Why don’t you go to the South Side where you belong?’ Some things make me cry,” she says, after a pause, “and there are other things that I can’t do anything about. Things like this made me more sensitive. I wasn’t just playing music; I was making a statement. This would be my new objective: to try to change the way women and blacks were treated.”

This did not even take into account the difficulties Jones ran into when the musicians would arrive at a hotel. In many cities, she was not allowed to stay in the same hotel with other members of the orchestra. Sometimes she would have to stay in a “colored hotel,” or a local YWCA with a few other women from the chorus.

There were also dilemmas that today’s musicians could not fathom, especially when it came to segregation and equal rights. For example, would Jones pay her “traveling dues” to the white musicians union, which represented symphonic musicians, or to the black musicians union, which represented jazz musicians? “I was the first black musician who played opera,” she explains. “I didn’t want to pay the racist white union, but that is what I had to do.” 

What were some of her favorite performances with NYCO? “I always enjoyed playing ‘Susannah’ by Carlisle Floyd,” Jones replies. Although the opera was premiered at Florida State University in 1955, the NYCO gave its professional premiere the following year and performed it again at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium.

She also remembers playing Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” “I think it was the first staged production with a ballet, and Leopold Stokowski conducted it. He was impressed with the way I played the timpani part. I loved playing with ‘Stoki.’ A lot of people didn’t like him because he was so strict, but I felt that’s what you needed to make you listen to each other. And that’s what he did—made you listen.”

During her years with the opera orchestra, Jones freelanced around the New York metropolitan area. She played percussion in multiple shows on Broadway, including Carousel, South Pacific, and Green Willow. And she met her future husband, George Kaufman, while playing drum set at a jazz gig in the Adirondacks in 1952. (They were married for more than a decade and had three children, Stephen, Harriett, and Cheryl.)

In September 1958, Jones had a chance to perform with the New York Philharmonic. “Saul Goodman got sick,” she explains. “I was on tour with the opera in Cleveland and came straight home. I thought I might be playing timpani, but Arnie [Lang] moved over to timpani and I played cymbals and woodblock in Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony.”

Morris “Arnie” Lang, a member of the New York Philharmonic for four decades (1955–95) and also a member of the PAS Hall of Fame, remembered subbing for Jones when she had to miss a performance with the New York City Ballet Orchestra. “Years later, she called me when she was traveling through New York,” Lang recalls. “Elayne was a few years ahead of me in school, but she had a very good reputation. I invited her to teach a master class at Brooklyn College, which was very informative, covering opera techniques and repertoire.”

In June 1960, Jones left the New York City Opera and soon became involved with the newly formed American Symphony Orchestra, organized and conducted by Leopold Stokowski. She recalls the evening when she, trumpet player Robert Nagel, and bass player Stuart Sankey met with Stokowski in his Fifth Avenue penthouse. “He asked the three of us to be the nucleus of his new project—without auditioning!” Elayne joined the ASO, an ensemble intended to demystify classical music and make it accessible and affordable for all audiences, playing with them from 1961 to 1972.

In the mid-1960s, Jones was also involved in the formation of the Symphony of the New World, a training orchestra to give black musicians the opportunity to play orchestral repertoire, and the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States. Benjamin Steinberg, a violinist in the NBC Symphony Orchestra, served as its first Music Director.

Around this time, Jones was concerned that there were not more women or people of color in orchestras. She and several other people, including Alfred Brown, an African-American violinist who graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music, Harry Smyles, an African-American oboist who graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Steinberg, met at the musicians union to try to figure out a solution. “What if it was impossible to know who was auditioning?” They were instrumental in creating the concept of a “blind audition” played behind a screen, so that orchestra committees would not know if the people auditioning were black or white, or male or female, a tradition that continues to this day.

In October 1971, Jones was invited to play with the World Symphony Orchestra—over 140 musicians from 64 nations—under the direction of Arthur Fiedler. They performed at Carnegie Hall, the gala opening of Walt Disney World in Florida, and for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

In 1972, Saul Goodman retired from the New York Philharmonic after 47 years as Principal Timpanist. Dozens of potential replacements, including Elayne Jones, auditioned for the position. When no one was hired, Roland Kohloff, then timpanist with the San Francisco Symphony, and a former student of Goodman, auditioned a few weeks later and was hired by the Philharmonic, leaving the timpani chair in San Francisco available.

“I’ll never forget that audition in California,” Jones says. “I played Stravinsky’s ‘Sacre du Printemps’ by memory—and from behind a screen. [Conductor] Seiji Ozawa was impressed with my playing and offered me the job.” So Elayne and her three children moved to San Francisco in 1972.

When she accepted the job on the West Coast, Jones received a very special note from her former conductor: “Dear friend, For you I am glad that you will go to San Francisco and for us and me, I am sorry. I am sure San Francisco will enjoy your great Tympani playing.” The note was signed by Leopold Stokowski.

“I remember touring Russia with the San Francisco Symphony,” Jones reminisces. “After almost every concert, people would wait for me by the stage door. I never knew if they enjoyed my playing or had never seen a black face in the orchestra.”

One of the members of the percussion section during that time was another former Goodman student, PAS Hall of Famer Tony Cirone. “I performed alongside Elayne during her years with the San Francisco Symphony, and although I had not met Elayne in New York, we did become friends in San Francisco,” states Cirone, who was a member of the SFS for 26 years, retiring in 2001. “Particularly of merit was the number of patrons of the arts who enjoyed her performances playing timpani with the orchestra.”

After two seasons with the symphony, Jones was not given tenure. She sued the symphony for racial discrimination, playing her third (and last) season with them while the case went through the court system.

In 1975, Kurt Herbert Adler was in charge of the San Francisco Opera, and although the symphony was the de facto opera orchestra, he decided to keep Jones as the timpanist for the opera, a position she would hold for the next 23 years. And in 1980, when Davies Symphony Hall opened, the SFO hired its own orchestra, including new Principal Percussionist and Associate Timpanist, Rick Kvistad, who is in his 40th season with the Opera.

“I loved working with Elayne,” Kvistad remembers. “She was as solid as you could possibly be and never missed an entrance. And she was a really fun hang! We both loved jazz, and every time the situation presented itself, we would simultaneously come up with exactly the same song title at the same time! I also learned her amazing history, especially the things she suffered through being an African-American woman.”

Patti Niemi joined the San Francisco Opera as a percussionist in 1992. “Elayne and I spent six wonderful years together in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra,” Niemi says. “As those were my first six years on the job, there were many times I leaned my head in Elayne’s direction—code for, ‘Where are we?’ Elayne knew the operas as well as the conductors and the singers did! She was always ready for me with a smile and a stick pointing at our place in the music.”

In 1998, at age 70, Jones retired from the SFO to spend more time with her family. She also gave hundreds of lectures at schools, in the Bay Area, Barbados, and all around the country. “I used to hear from both the black and the white kids,” she recalls. “They would always ask why I played ‘white men’s’ music!”

Jones also taught a few private timpani students over the years. “They used to say how challenging it was to study with me,” she says with a grin. “I thought of myself as this little ol’ black woman, but these guys told me that it was very difficult to do everything I expected. I just wanted to teach musicianship.” Jones also served on the faculty of Bronx Community College in the late 1960s and early 1970s, teaching music history.

What advice would she give to young percussionists today? “Practice!” Jones replies with a laugh. “You have to train to play the timpani and study music. That’s why a lot of kids won’t even play the timpani. It’s important not to ‘bang’ the drum, but to bring the sound out of it. You first have to be a musician, then you play timpani, or snare drum, or xylophone. Listen to everybody, and enjoy what you’re doing!”

Another “retirement project” was her 310-page autobiography, Little Lady With a Big Drum (Advanced Publishing LLC), which was released this past summer. The book is described as “the story of one woman’s remarkable life and career in her own words; a journey from meager beginnings as a self-described ‘skinny little girl from Harlem,’ to the highest echelons of classical music; with a musical talent and personal drive that enabled her to transcend racial and gender barriers.”

“I think her greatest contribution to percussion was that she paved the way for women and non-white players in the mostly-white world of classical music,” summarizes Rick Kvistad. “Also, her strength as a player and as a survivor. Plus she was so much fun to watch! I think she probably influenced many potential percussionists, timpanists, and musicians in general.”

How would this 91-years-young timpanist like to be remembered? “As a musical percussionist,” she says with a giggle, “because some people don’t think of us as musicians! But I loved every minute of it. I was lucky; music came easy for me, and I would like everybody to feel and love the music the same way that I feel and love it.”

Elayne Jones’s career began in an opera pit in New York City in 1949 and ended in an opera pit in San Francisco in 1998, spanning nearly a half-century of music-making. Along the way, she opened doors and broke down barriers for countless musicians. She was (and is) a musical percussionist who never backed away from a challenge. From one female percussionist to another, “Thank you, Elayne”—and let’s leave the doors open for many generations to come. 

Photo courtesy Mark Constantini/ San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris

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