By Sally Douglas Arce
It’s remarkable yet true. For 50 years, the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra (BCCO) has provided free concerts.
Eugene Jones, an African American who was a firefighter and had a passion for classical music, founded the chorus in 1966.
<p>He broke through segregation against African Americans both as a firefighter and as a basso-voiced opera singer.
The 50th Anniversary celebration begins with three concerts performed Friday, Jan. 8 through Sunday, Jan. 10 at Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley – all with free admission, but donations are encouraged.
Led by Music Director Ming Luke, the 220-member chorus will perform Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms; a new work by Kurt Erickson, commissioned for the anniversary; and music to honor BCCO’s former music directors.
Jones directed BCCO for 22 years, from1966 – 1988. He crossed the color barrier both as an Oakland firefighter in the late 1940s and as a Bay Area opera singer in the ’50s, singing with the San Francisco Spring Opera, the Oakland Light Opera and the San Francisco Municipal Opera Chorus.
In the 1940s and 1950s, African Americans in classical music were few and far between. “He was not able to make the strides that someone who was European would have been able to make,” says Jeneane Jones, his daughter, and a violinist who performed with BCCO.
“That was a painful reality for him. It did not prevent him from pushing into areas that were not receptive to African American musicians.” Jeneane teaches violin both privately and with a music school in the Gaithersburg, MD area.
Both his daughters, Miriam and Jeneane, testify that their father had an incredible voice and was devoted to music.
“We all have a passion for music,” says Miriam Jones, referring to her mother and three siblings. “I love listening to all types of music. But, no one had as much passion for it as our father.”
For many years, Jones suffered from glaucoma, a progressive disease that reduces a person’s vision field. Despite an inability to view a musical score in its entirety, he never allowed that deficit to prevent him from conducting. For him, it just meant studying the music more and learning how to memorize scores.
With persistence, charisma, talent, and devotion, Jones realized his dream of creating a chorus of non-auditioned singers and an orchestra drawn from the community that together would perform choral masterworks in free concerts for the general public.
The first African American conductor of a large Bay Area chorus and orchestra, Eugene Jones guided the group, bringing great choral works (which often featured his superb bass voice) to BCCO singers and audiences.
When he died at the age of 79 in the fall of 2003, many longtime BCCO members sang at his memorial service.
Eugene Jones, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., came to Oakland in 1945 after serving in World War II as a Navy cook. He became a firefighter at a time when black and white firefighters worked at separate stations.
Jones retired from the Oakland Fire Department in 1969. Jones married Irene Idella Jones, who attended U.C. Berkeley and stopped her studies, before completing a bachelor’s degree, to marry and have a family.
In addition to BCCO, Jones, in the early 1960s, formed “Echos from Jordan,” an African American a cappella chorus that sang Negro spirituals. Performing for about 7 years, they were 40-50 voices and sang at the Kaiser Center in Oakland.
On Oct. 17m Friends of Negro Spirituals, a nonprofit organization, posthumously presented Eugene Jones with an award for his work to keep the heritage of African Americans strong through oral histories and music.
Also, from the late 1960s until 1972, Jones toured the country with his oratorical performance, “Black Man Speaks,” combining classic spirituals and oratory denouncing racism.
For more information about Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra and the Jan. 8, 9 and 10 performance, visit http://bcco.org/