Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Jane Little becomes longest-serving orchestral player ever

Tonight, the bass player marks her 71st season with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Jane Little
Jane Little

Courtesy of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Update 5/16/16: Jane Little passed away on May 15 after collapsing on stage during an encore performance of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” according to a statement from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. “Jane Little was a woman who succeeded in a role traditionally reserved for men; she was a person of modest stature who played the biggest instrument in the orchestra; she was tenacious, miraculously fighting off multiple health challenges to tag her world record; and she was passionate, doing what she loved until the very end of her life,” said Jennifer Barlament, Executive Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. “She was an inspiration for everyone at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and for audiences who enjoyed her performances spanning seven decades. We will miss her greatly.”

Seventy-one years ago, bass player Jane Little performed in her first concert with the Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra, the forerunner of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Tonight, the 87-year-old will become the longest-serving orchestral player ever (an injury prevented her from performing during the first half of the ASO season). Last week, we spoke with Little—the ASO’s only remaining original member—about her record-breaking career.

Tell us how you began playing.
I always loved music from the time I was a kid. My aunt had a dancing school in Atlanta, and my mother was the piano accompanist. She played by ear; she could just sit down and play everything. I started dancing, and I wanted to be a ballerina, but to be a ballerina, you need to have these nice feet, and mine just weren’t right. So my dreams were shattered there. But I still loved music, and I taught myself to play the piano on my next-door neighbor’s piano. This was during the Depression, and we didn’t own one, even though my mother was a pianist.

Later, at Girls High School in Grant Park, I wanted to join the glee club, and I found out that freshmen had to take a musical aptitude test. They had quite a good orchestra, and the leader was a really good friend of Henry Sopkin, who would become the ASO conductor. I took the test along with all the other freshmen, and about a week later, I was called up to the orchestra room. I had scored really well, in the top percent of all the students. The orchestra leader asked me what instrument I played, and I told her I didn’t really play an instrument, I just wanted to join the glee club. She was shocked. She told me, you must play an instrument! You’ve obviously got the ear for it, and the rhythm for it.

She asked what I’d like to play, and I named a few small instruments like the clarinet and the violin. She said, “Actually, we really need bass players.” I was five-foot-three and weighed all of 98 pounds at the time, but she asked me to try it. She gave me lessons, and within a month, I was hooked. I loved it. It was awfully difficult to push those heavy strings down, and to carry the instrument around, but I just loved it.

And how did you become involved with the Atlanta Symphony?
One year after that, my sophomore year, the Atlanta Youth Symphony was formed. It was made up of players from youth orchestral programs at the high schools, and I had made such progress that I got in. After three years, they started hiring professionals, and it became the Atlanta Symphony. The fourth season I started getting paid. I went to UGA for two quarters, but I had to come home every weekend for symphony rehearsals, so I just transferred to Georgia State. I never graduated, though, because I was playing all the time. I went to Chicago and studied three summers in Chicago, during the off-season, which was like going to a music school. We only had a 22-week season then.

By the 1951 season, we were all making about $50 a week, unless you were a principal, and they were mostly faculty from UGA who would come and rehearse with us on the weekends. And they just started adding more and more professionals, and it just grew and grew.

Jane Little in the early years
Jane Little in the early years

Courtesy of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

What was it like in those early years?
For the first 10 years, we played a theater down near Georgia State. They had everything there: the circus, ice shows, Friday night wrestling. We’d come in on Saturday morning for rehearsal and they’d be taking down the wrestling ring for the arena, picking up beer bottles. When the circus had been there, flies were all over the place. Once we came in and heard a roar, and it turned out the circus hadn’t picked up the animal cages for the lions and tigers yet.

We also had to play concerts outside the city. A run out is when you leave Atlanta and go to within 150 miles to play a concert, and come back the same night. Many of the players had day jobs; we had schoolteachers and businessmen, so it was tiring. One time, we were playing a concert in Birmingham, and there were three buses to bring us home. Then one bus broke down. So we put everyone on the other two buses. Then one of those buses broke down. I remember sitting on the side of the road waiting for a bus to come pick us up. We didn’t get home until 7:30 a.m. And my boyfriend, later my husband, Warren (a member of the orchestra’s flute section) and I were driving home that morning, and my neighbors were all eyeing me like, Where in the world have you been?

You’ve performed with some musical greats at the ASO. Does anyone stand out?
We had [Igor] Stravinsky as a guest conductor, and that was quite a treat. We had Van Cliburn, and he was a delightful young person who played so beautifully. We had some great artists back then. One time—it could have been a disaster—but we had the great pianist [Arthur] Rubinstein performing with us. At the time he was considered the best in the world. He was doing a Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and as he lifted his hands to play, the piano started rolling towards the audience. Rubinstein tried to hold on to the piano, but it kept rolling, and finally one of the legs crashed into a footlight. If that leg hadn’t have been stopped by the footlight, it would have taken out the first row of the patrons—they had added extra seats in the front, he was so popular. Afterwards, they rolled the piano back and started the concert over again.

This season the ASO is celebrating the centennial of conductor Robert Shaw’s birth. What was it like playing for him?
I have such a great affinity for Shaw. I was just crazy about him, so it means a lot for me to play in those [centennial] concerts. It’s been an emotional year. When we first found out he was coming, everyone had to audition for him solo. We had three weeks notice, and my audition was the day after Christmas. I knew that I was playing for my job. I told my family, “Listen, Christmas has got to be on hold this year.” I was in my early 30s, and I knew this could be a life-changing event for me.

I practiced seven hours a day for three weeks straight. My appointment was at 10 a.m., and I walked in, and he was so nice and gracious. As I was uncovering my bass, he complimented the instrument and said how beautiful it was. He made me feel so at ease, I probably played better [that morning] than I’d ever played in my life. Later, when I was issued my contract, I was appointed co-principal bass. And I had just been a section player up until that point, so I was thrilled. Sixty percent of the orchestra was let go during the next three years, though, so it was a life-changing event for a lot of people.

I feel like my career really started in earnest under his tenure. He wanted me to play all the chamber music, which I’d never done before. I worked so hard, and he was such a wonderful musician, that he made you want to work to please him. I hope I can play some of the works that he was so famous for, like the Brahms Requiem.

How do you feel about breaking the record this season?
Honestly, after 71 years, I’m ready to retire. But I think it’s fantastic. I was competing with this woman out in Utah, who played 70 years, 69 of them with the Utah Symphony. When I heard she was retiring, I said, “I’m going for it!”