Grace Wang

In a hand-written letter addressed to the personnel manager of San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in January 1972, Elayne Jones expressed interest in auditioning for the orchestra’s upcoming timpani opening. She was confident in her talent and ability, noting how her sterling musical reputation had established her as “first call for just about every freelance job which requires tympani.”[1] “This fact,” as she wrote, “is considered quite remarkable given that I am neither a male or white” in a field overwhelmingly dominated by both. Indeed, as an African American woman navigating a field of culture perceived and elevated through segregationist practices as “white man’s music,” she defied assumptions about who should play Western classical music; moreover, she played timpani, an orchestral percussion instrument typically understood in her profession as “male.” Jones was accustomed to performing under extraordinary scrutiny and skepticism — to being the only and often the first in the orchestral spaces she entered. Still, she had no interest in pursuing an audition in vain. And thus, she inquired: “Would there be any point to my coming out to audition? … I’m aware this is not the type of question to ask point blank, but at the same time it isn’t fair to travel so far and prepare for this with hopeful expectations if there is really no chance.”

In posing this question, Jones alluded to the history of racism that left nearly “no chance” for African American musicians to secure professional symphony orchestra positions, regardless of their training and ability. Orchestra auditions had long been inequitable, governed by the whims and outsized influence of autocratic conductors, favored principal players, and management, which failed to advertise openings publicly. While such practices could feel opaque and undemocratic to all musicians, for Jones, they emblematized the institutional racism of a musical culture that actively excluded her. She, alongside other African American musicians, had spent years advocating for fairer audition procedures. They organized, among other things, for “blind” auditions — auditions held behind a screen so the player’s identity would remain obscured.[2] Given the long history of segregation and racism both in and beyond the orchestral field, many Black musicians believed that only an anonymous audition process would allow for an impartial assessment of musical ability. By 1972, some orchestras, including SFS, had begun conducting preliminary rounds behind a screen. Recounting how she eventually won the position with SFS, Jones credits the screen for her success: “I wouldn’t have gotten the job if the screen wasn’t in play. I’m the recipient [laughing] of a thing that I worked on.”[3]

There is a burgeoning movement in Western classical music to upend traditional hierarchies and to reimagine this traditionally exclusive cultural field. These efforts have intensified in the post-George-Floyd era, as the classical music field grapples with its own complicity in anti-Black racism and white supremacy.[4] Jones, a 93-year-old classical musician, socialist, and self-proclaimed “stealth bomber” is a key figure whose life work of linking musical advocacy with social justice prefigures this current moment. In what follows, I ask what her struggles in San Francisco allow us to understand about the systemic racism embedded in the classical music field. Jones often despairs at the unchanged landscape of orchestras, lamenting that “to this day, you still have maybe one percent of Black musicians in all of the orchestras in the world.”[5] The barriers she faced in her career help us understand how this situation persists while also inserting into the historical record the efforts of working musicians like herself “who were willing to flare up and be an issue.”

Jones at the timpani in her home at Rossmoor, 2019. Photo by author.

I first met Jones years ago after attending a friend’s violin recital at Rossmoor, an active senior community located in the upscale suburban community of Walnut Creek in Northern California. An anomaly in the homogeneous whiteness of Rossmoor, I had already noticed Jones in the audience when she approached me after the concert, curious about my own presence. Gregarious and highly social, Jones quickly launched into a series of questions: “Had I heard of the San Francisco Symphony? Juilliard? Tanglewood?” As I later came to realize, Jones often introduces herself this way, highlighting these elite music institutions as a way to invite discussions into her past. Having researched the politics of race in classical music for Asian/Asian American musicians, I was intrigued by the fragments of her life she shared. I began visiting her for long conversations over meals. I knew Jones was engaged in a decades-long project of writing a memoir. This process led her to be introspective about her life and its meaning. But as her health began faltering, I began recording more formal oral interviews. Here, I focus on Jones’s musical experiences in San Francisco, a city that looms large in her own life narrative. When she arrived in San Francisco, the local press heralded her position with the orchestra as evidence of the city’s progressiveness. But Jones soon encountered significant backlash, including a well-publicized tenure denial. Drawing on her self-published memoir and extensive oral interviews, I highlight both the radical imagination that guides her life and the accumulated costs of pursuing artistic excellence in the face of persistent racial and gender exclusions.

Jones at the timpani, 1972. Photo by Don Jones, Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives.

San Francisco and the Battle for Tenure

A Harlem native, Jones planned to stay in New York for her entire career, viewing the city as the epicenter for both her racial advocacy and musical ambitions. But San Francisco sparkled with its reputation as a progressive cultural and activist oasis. She had never visited the “fabled city on the Bay” before auditioning for SFS but quickly fell in love, enraptured by the scent of eucalyptus leaves in Golden Gate Park, the ease of mild winters, and the colorful architecture that seemed to exude optimism and promise. She believed San Francisco represented a place less entrenched in racism. She left New York fully expecting to remain with SFS until her retirement.

Given the paucity of non-white musicians in any major symphony during the 1970s, Jones’s presence at SFS served as validation of the city’s progressiveness and difference. The symphony’s young Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa, already burnished this image. A coveted star on the rise when SFS hired him in 1970, Ozawa embodied a sense of newness and excitement. As Larry Rothe recounts in his history of the orchestra, music critics hailed Ozawa as the “Now Generation Conductor,” captivated by his youth, the novelty of his ethnicity, and his generally “hip” style: turtlenecks, Nehru jackets, long shaggy mane, medallions, and love beads. Jones fit seamlessly into this marketing of San Francisco and its symphony orchestra as a “break with the past” and part of the “now.”[6] Together, Jones and Ozawa heralded a new era; they projected a forward looking vision of classical music.

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Seiji Ozawa and members of the orchestra outside airplane on 1973 European/USSR Tour. Photograph by J.C. Watts and Partners Commercial Photographers, Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives.

Jones’s orchestral debut in San Francisco began auspiciously with a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle, where the music critic Heuwell Tircuit proclaimed: “Major event — one not listed on the program — was the local debut performance of the Symphony’s new timpanist, Elayne Jones. Sensational! Absolutely sensational … Clean articulation, fine intonation, and technical savvy — a particularly fine roll, smooth as butter — rich tonal sensibility, and what was really mind blowing, she phrases.”[7] Jones included an excerpt of the review in the “Peace Day” holiday greeting sent to family and friends that year.

When I came across this holiday greeting nestled amongst the abundance of documents and ephemera accumulated in her home over the decades, it struck me in its promise and anticipation of a rosy future. Today, it remains a lingering snapshot of what could have been. Looking at it, I am reminded of William Cheng’s writing on loving music, how that love can be weaponized to dehumanize others, and the resulting “pain of unrequited love.”[8] Jones loved playing in a symphony orchestra. She reveled in the sounds of instruments coming together and creating palettes of such wondrous beauty. She maintained this love, even when its doors remained closed to her. Finally, Jones believed that her dedication to craft and musical excellence would be recognized and returned if not by love, than with tenure and membership in one of the nation’s most celebrated orchestras.

1972 “Peace Day” holiday greeting. Courtesy of Jones.

As is standard, Jones joined SFS on a two-year probationary period, after which she would be eligible for tenure. She knew that as an African American woman, the standard of excellence placed on her would exceed that of her white, male peers. She committed herself fully to the position. At the same time, she refused the additional labor of performing gratitude and subservience to her colleagues. If Jones’s family holiday greeting reflects exuberance and excitement for her family’s beautiful new adventure, the card she gave to her fellow SFS players centered her blackness. This interrupted the supposed racelessness of the orchestral space. As she recalls, her colleagues perceived the card to be political and intrusive: 

“When I got into the San Francisco Symphony that first year, people were giving out cards and everything. And I looked at all these cards and all these white angels and I thought, ‘White angels? Some angels must be Black.’ And that was when I discovered Marcus bookstore in San Francisco.[9]… Anyhow, so I got these cards with all these white angels. And I thought, ‘Why should I give my kids any cards with white angels? Well, if my kids can have white angels, their kids can have Black angels.’ So I went to Marcus and they had some Black Madonnas and I made some cards and I gave ‘em out. Well, you know, they protested that I’m imposing my beliefs on them. ‘Well, you’re imposing yours on me. Why do my children have to see white angels and your kids can’t see Black angels?’ Well, that may have been the downfall of myself – why I didn’t do too well with the orchestra. I should have just gone in and kept my mouth shut and not rocked the boat or made waves. And I guess this is why they had to get rid of me.”

“They had to get rid of me” — the tenure committee, SFS, the classical music establishment, and the white status quo most broadly. Decades later, Jones still chokes up discussing her tenure case, a trauma that loops in her mind, litigated repetitively to the same result.

In 1974, SFS evaluated eight players for tenure. Only the two non-white players, Jones and Japanese bassoonist Ryohei Nakagawa, received negative votes from the Player’s committee (the 7-person committee that votes on tenure). For Jones, losing her battle for tenure at SFS marked the symbolic end to her music career, extinguishing years of striving and ambition. Her years with San Francisco Opera Orchestra, where she earned tenure and worked for over 25 years, barely merits any mention in her memoir. This should not suggest that Jones does not have fond memories of her years with San Francisco Opera. By all accounts, she held some epic parties and made lifelong friends. But pit orchestras, tucked in the shadows under the stage (with the percussion section far back in its recesses) do not provide a visible platform. The singers on stage occupy the spotlight, while the orchestral musicians remain largely unseen, behind a perpetual screen of sorts. This may speak to why Jones found the most steady work in pit orchestras, where the concealment of her body allowed for some greater measure of inclusion. Prior to SF Opera, she played with New York City Opera for 12 years, where she was the first African American and female musician hired by that orchestra. As a musician quoted in a 1976 Los Angeles Times article about the absence of African Americans in symphony orchestras suggested, talented Black musicians, knowing how unwelcome they are in symphony orchestras, gravitate elsewhere, including “pit orchestras where our color won’t disturb sensitive souls who can’t believe that Afro-Americans can understand the great music of Western civilization.”[10]

What does inclusion look, feel, and sound like when the erasure of one’s body is part of the precondition for considering one’s admittance? In its most literal form, screened auditions distill music making to its aural element, redacting the body to create a blank slate for listening. Racial fantasies, projections, and stereotypes have long filled the gap between a musician’s body and their performance, a process that can unwittingly serve as self-fulfilling prophecies of racialized beliefs.[11] The screen interrupts these imaginations, anonymizing the body through a large black apparatus. But the screen is a mechanism designed to engender impartiality. It functions in the service of meritocracy rather than a commitment to diversity or racial justice.[12] And meritocracy’s relentless focus on individual effort and ability does little to address the systemic racism, discrimination, and history of segregation that sustain inequities in the orchestral field.

Popular media often extols the use of screens in orchestra auditions, pointing to the near 50% increase in the representation of women since its implementation and encouraging other industries to use similar anonymizing strategies to tackle implicit bias in hiring.[13] What is clear, however, is that the use of screens has done little to increase the representation of African American musicians in U.S. symphony orchestras. And in Jones’s case, the screen did little to change the conditions that precipitated its existence in the first place. As a Black woman occupying a principal position in SFS, an orchestra with no other African Americans and only 22 women (out of approximately 100 players) when she joined in 1972, Jones was, as she puts it: “treading on the toes of the white male, and that was really a bit too much for most of these people to deal with.”[14] 

Jones’s negative tenure vote and lawsuit made national news, spurred local protests, a letter writing campaign, and threats to withhold the symphony’s funding. She filed a lawsuit charging racial and sexual discrimination, which she dropped after receiving an additional provisional year and vote on tenure.[15] But when the second tenure vote came back negative, Jones filed another lawsuit. In 1977, her tenure battle ended when the courts dismissed the case.

The details of Jones’s tenure case involve skirmishes of power between multiple parties — unions, orchestral players, management, and Ozawa. Rather than relitigate the specific merits of the case, I focus, instead, on what the case reveals about the institutional history and culture of symphony orchestras. Part of the difficulty Jones encountered proving racism stemmed from long standing beliefs separating politics from the distilled performance of “the music itself” and understandings of the whiteness of symphony orchestras as incidental rather than instrumental to the assessment of musical excellence.

Jones spent decades repeatedly proving her ability and musical worth. When she learned of the shockingly low scores she received for her tenure, they felt like a personal assault to diminish and demean. For her first tenure vote, she received 177 out of a possible 700 points. Two tenure committee members gave her an insulting score of 1 out of 100. The vote the following year came in even lower. As a point of contrast, in the final round of Jones’s audition for SFS, she received 920 points out of a possible 1000 from the audition committee.[16]

In my interviews, Jones’s speech uncharacteristically sputters and pauses as she recalls the reasons used to justify her tenure denial:

“How all of a sudden could I be so bad? And these guys said…well, I…well, what was the thing with the trumpet player?…well, there was…he made a statement…What was?…there’s something silly they said I didn’t do…I try to block them out. That’s why I have difficulties remembering. … Gosh. Well. I mean it boils down to the fact, so I have to be perfect but nobody else around me is perfect?”

For Jones, the moving target of perfection placed on her felt unbearable. The criticism levied about her playing proved equally damaging to her psyche. She considered leaving the profession for good. “I’m a perfectionist,” she continues to muse, “so I will still think, was it my playing?” But perfection, while aspirational, is both elusive and subjective. This is particularly true for musicians playing at her high level of musicianship.

In the first public statement issued by the SFS Players’ Committee (the tenure committee) in September 1974 about Jones’s tenure denial, it concluded by referencing the hallowed space occupied by a symphony orchestra:

“A symphony orchestra is a rare and special thing. It is the unique product of our Western Musical Tradition, a tradition centuries old. It is made up of members who each embody decades of training and experience. It is not a work-force or an assembly line. It is a living thing, a musical and social organism. And like any living thing, it should be treated with care for its health, and respect for its accomplishments.”[17]

This language is, on the one hand, unsurprising in its description of a symphony orchestra as a “special thing” for a select few. Unlike other workplaces, a symphony orchestra exceeded such mundanities of labor and production. It represented both an enduring testament to centuries of European tradition and a delicately balanced living organism, whose inheritors stewarded its continued maintenance and care. On the other hand, such evocations of a symphony orchestra contained a clear message. Like the purported racelessness of meritocracy and the symphony orchestra, the players’ invocation of our “Western Musical Tradition” functioned as a proxy for whiteness and its continued preservation.

Would the outcome of Jones’s tenure vote have differed if she had muted her “zippy, boat-rocking personality,” acquiesced to claiming less space, and accommodated more to the status quo?[18] As she wrote in a letter to the supporters of her tenure: “Someone I trust confided to me that I was disliked because I didn’t conform to the subservient image of a black woman — and had stood up for my rights instead, with pride, and not with the soft humility some considered more befitting.” Rather than subservience, Jones embodied its mirror in her defiance and anger. At the same time, Nakagawa, by all accounts a “soft-spoken” and mild-mannered principal bassoonist who accepted his negative tenure vote without challenge, did not fare any better.[19] It is unsurprising how closely descriptions attached to Jones and Nakagawa’s outward personalities hew to the racial and gendered scripts placed on Asians and African Americans. In the end, the similar fates of Nagakawa and Jones speak to the bind that musicians of color face gaining inclusion and holding leadership positions in spaces of white supremacy. 

When Jones discusses racism, she often adds that white people do not understand what racism entails, viewing it as a matter of etiquette and hurtful comments rather than a system of acquiring and maintaining power. She, like Nakagawa, was a principal player — a first chair position, which represents a leadership position in the orchestra. This translated into greater pay and power than other section players in their workplace, not a special living thing. Their presence disturbed the “natural” order of the organism:

“I was a principal player, the person who is the head of a section and always paid above the rest of the section, first ever for an African American. I was experienced and I was competent; conductors and audiences acknowledged that. … This situation was compounded by the fact that the orchestra had a conductor and another principal player, who like me, were not of European origin. Having these three non-Europeans in the orchestra in leading positions was a little more than their egos could handle.”[20]

In Jones’s view, their collective visibility in positions of power precipitated their downfall. Nakagawa returned to Japan. And while Ozawa did not attribute his resignation from SFS in 1975 to the tenure disputes, he left as well, continuing his post with Boston Symphony Orchestra full time.

It is impossible to know how the fragility of white egos might have entered into the Players’ Committee’s vote on tenure. But an 8-page, typed document in the SFS archives, written in 1992 by a member of Jones’s second tenure committee, provides some clues. It is unclear why or to whom this treatise titled “the Elayne Jones Affair” was written. When I inquired, the archivist at SFS could offer no additional details. But as a defense of the symphony and the committee’s commitment to objectivity, it contains a litany of highly charged personal claims. The accusations levied against Jones included: the “distorted view” she had of her music ability and her tendency to blame career disappointments on racism (or sexism) rather than her own shortcomings; insinuations that affairs with music critics led to all of her positive newspaper reviews; and the multiple “cards in her deck” that Jones held due to her race and gender, effectively rendering SFS “impotent.” The document closes with the musician’s continued discomfort encountering Jones periodically in his everyday life — on the tennis courts in San Francisco and as a colleague at music festivals. As he writes: “she is the only person who has ever publicly charged me with being racist or sexist.” In the end, being accused of racism and sexism proved this musician’s most enduring slight.

Conclusion

For Jones, at 93, mulling over the events in her life can become a form of rehearsal. In our conversations, certain moments loop and rewind, an attempt to move past the racialized trauma of her tenure denial, only to return again to well-tread tales: playing with conductor Leopold Stokowski; her political advocacy; encountering segregation in St. Louis and Chicago; winning the position with SFS. The record skips and repeats, landing again and again on her tenure denial where the narrative inevitably stops. As she wrote to the supporters of her tenure battle: “I don’t know why I’ve worked so hard to climb up so far, because the long fall is so painful.”

In a roundtable discussion centered on the experiences of African Americans in classical music, Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic (and the only African American musician currently in that orchestra), eschewed the “exceptional talent” narrative for what it elides. Refusing to allow his own success story to serve as an acquittal of the field, he asserted: “I think it’s actually very important to highlight everybody else …[those] who are blocked from having that path. It’s important to look from that perspective as well.”[21]

How do we highlight this perspective in the institutional history of symphony orchestras? This is an archive of absence and of what could have been — aspirations thwarted, talents obstructed, careers re-routed, and spirits incalculably destroyed. But it is also, as Jones’s life shows us, an archive of defiance and refusal. Her life offers new insights into the past — a way to rethink the history and culture of American symphony orchestras through her visionary perspective. Tina Campt speaks of black feminist futurity as “a performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must.”[22] Making music and occupying space in sites where African American women have and continue to be excluded, Jones’ life compels us to grapple with the segregated histories that structure how we listen and see. “If my life matters,” Jones told me recently, “it’s because I have to make you think it matters.” Here I offer space to understand how her life matters for what it allows us to envision — new worlds and modes of imagining the orchestral field, music making, and the structures of power that sustain them.


[1] Letter to Verne Sellin from Elayne Jones. San Francisco Symphony archives

[2] For an incisive critique of the ableism contained in the term “blind” auditions, see William Cheng, Loving Music Till it Hurts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 63-64.

[3] Unless otherwise cited, all quotes from Jones come from interviews and conversations with the author.

[4] See, for example, Michael Andor Brodeur, “That sound you’re hearing is the classical music’s long overdue reckoning with racism,” Washington Post, July 16, 2020, Zachary Woolfe and Joshua Barone (interviewers), “Black Artists on How to Change Classical Music,” New York Times, July 16, 2020, James Bennett, “On Taking Lip [Service], WQXR blog, June 2, 2020, Aaron Flagg, Anti-Black Discrimination in American Orchestras, Symphony, Summer 2020.

[5] This statistic has remained relatively constant. A survey conducted in 1974 revealed African Americans to make up less than 1% of orchestras in the U.S. “Symphony Orchestras: A Bad Scene,” The Crisis, January 1975. In a 2014 survey by the League of American Orchestras, the figure had risen to just 1.8%.

[6] Rothe, Music for a City, Music for the World, 156-57.

[7] Heuwell Tircuit, “Show of Symphony Pride,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 1972.

[8] Cheng, Loving Music Till it Hurts, 104.

[9] Marcus Books (named after Marcus Garvey), currently located in Oakland, is the oldest independent Black bookstore in the United States.

[10] Dorothy Samachson, “Orchestras in the U.S. — Where are the Blacks?” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1976.

[11] For more on racialized listening practices see, for example, Nina Sun Eidsheim, The Race of Sound (Durham: Duke UP, 2019); Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line (New York: NYU Press, 2016); Kira Thurman, “Performing Lieder, Hearing Race,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 72, Number 3, 825-865; Grace Wang, Soundtracks of Asian America (Durham: Duke UP, 2015).

[12] See Anthony Tommasini, “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions,” New York Times, July 16, 2020 and Cheng’s discussion of anonymous audition processes and meritocracy in Loving Music Till It Hurts, 63-104.

[13] Malcolm Gladwell writing on “blind auditions” in Blink, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005 helped popularize the findings of the widely-cited article by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians,” American Economic Review, vol. 90, no. 4, September 2000, 715-741.

[14] Charles Burrell, a double bassist, the first African American musician hired by SFS, performed with the orchestra from 1959-64. Jones’s lawyer claimed that Burrell was forced out, a narrative that differs from the official history of SFS, which recounts how earthquakes in the region prompted the bassist to return to more stable ground in Colorado. Larry Rothe, Music for a City, Music for the World, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2011, 134-35.

[15] The extent to which the courts did not consider race and gender discrimation as intersectional created further obstacles for Jones. In his sworn affidavit, Jerry Spain, President of Musician’s Union Local 6 offered the statistics on gender at SFS, noting that the orchestra employed more women musicians than any other major symphony. This fact was used to buttress the orchestra’s claim that it did not discriminate on the basis of sex. This defense recalls Kimberle Crenshaw’s argument that separating gender and race discrimination leaves no place for Black women. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 139-67

[16] For tenure during this period at SFS, a Players Committee (composed of 7 musicians) and the music director award points, with each side able to override or deny tenure. Musicians needed to receive a total of 351 votes to have the conductor’s vote added to their tally. As such, the low scores effectively sidelined Ozawa. The members of the audition and tenure committee were different, so do not represent a direct contrast (although the tenure committee is supposed to represent the collective view of the orchestra).

[17] Report to the 1974 ICSOM Convention from the San Francisco Symphony Players’ Committee. San Francisco Symphony archives.

[18] Quote from Arthur Bloomfield, “The Story That Won’t Go Away,” San Francisco Examiner, Sept 2, 1975.

[19] The narrative around Nakagawa’s tenure denial in the press and within SFS also suggested (falsely) that he was Ozawa’s former roommate in Japan and enjoyed a closeness to the conductor given their shared ethnicity. This narrative implied cronyism in his hiring. See Paul Hertelendy, “Jones: ‘How Good Do You Have To Be?’”Oakland Tribune, August 31, 1975. Although Nakagawa did not challenge his tenure denial, following Jones’s lawsuit he, too, was given a second vote.

[20] Jones, Little Lady wIth a Big Drum, 303.

[21]Learning to Listen” June 10, 2020.

[22] Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham: Duke UP, 2017), 17.

Grace Wang is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race through Musical Performance (Duke UP) and is currently collaborating with filmmaker Julie Wyman on a documentary film about Elayne Jones’s life in politics and music.

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