First Black Percussionist in a Major Orchestra, Elayne Jones, Dies At 94

Facing racism caused her to second guess her talents and intelligence. 

Elayne Jones, the first Black percussionist to hold a principal position in a major symphony orchestra, died at age 94 on December 17, after a long career as an acclaimed drummer. 

According to Local 802, in which Jones was a member of for 66 years, the timpanist integrated the High School of Music & Art in NYC in the 1940s, choosing the violin as her instrument before the strings teacher told her she was too skinny and should consider the drums.

“I recommend you study the drums,” the teacher said. “We all know Negroes have rhythm.”

Jones grew a passion for percussion, which led to her winning the Duke Ellington Scholarship in 1945. The scholarship allowed her to study with principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic, Saul Goodman, as she attended Julliard.

Goodman was intrigued by the “little Black girl” on stage with the big percussionists, and chose her to play timpani for the Juilliard Orchestra’s final concert, Brahms’ First Symphony.

Although Jones’ talent raised concerns for orchestra managers who felt she was offending the sensitivities of their white subscribers, she was granted positions in the New York City Opera and New York City Ballet orchestra following her graduation from Julliard in 1949.

Jones auditioned for the timpanist position in the San Francisco Symphony, becoming the first Black musician to hold such a position in a major orchestra, after joining in the 1970s.

Although she was constantly hidden by the orchestra’s manager, she received great feedback from critics. The orchestral committee denied Jones’ application for tenure on May 15, 1975, leading her to file a discrimination lawsuit, which she lost.

She continued to play for the orchestra until her retirement in 1998, where three white male orchestra members accompanied her to her pension meeting. Jones secured a second-place amount, instead of the normal fifth-place timpanist pension.

“It has been quite difficult,” Jones said in a television interview in 1977, according to sources. “Not only playing but trying to live through all this, and living with myself too, which is kind of hard because you begin to question, well, am I really a good performer, am I worthy person?”

“I listen to other people, and I have more confidence in myself,” the late Jones added.

Jones discussed her journey in her autobiography Little Lady With a Big Drum, published last year.