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Know Anyone Who Thinks Racial Profiling Is Exaggerated? Watch This, And Tell Me When Your Jaw Drops.

This video clearly demonstrates how racist America is as a country and how far we have to go to become a country that is civilized and actually values equal justice. We must not rest until this goal is achieved. I do not want my great grandchildren to live in a country like we have today. I wish for them to live in a country where differences of race and culture are not ignored but valued as a part of what makes America great.

Friday, May 24, 2024

A Black rising star lost his elite orchestra job. He won’t go quietly.

A Black rising star lost his elite orchestra job. He won’t go quietly.

Josh Jones plays the marimba at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago on Feb. 7. (Loren Toney for The Washington Post)

“Josh Jones wasn’t expecting to lose his dream job that day. He had heard some grumbling during his time as the principal percussionist with the Kansas City Symphony, but everyone agreed that he was a stunning performer — not to mention the first Black musician in the orchestra’s history to land a leadership position. In his first season, his marimba solo in a Vivaldi performance prompted the maestro himself to send a handwritten note: “I am so happy to make music with you,” Michael Stern wrote, “and there’s no doubt everybody onstage agrees.”

But two years later, Stern had called Jones in to inform him of his deficiencies, particularly his organizational skills overseeing a tiny section made up of one other full-timer and a rotating cast of substitute players.

“Josh, there’s a problem,” Stern told him, according to the symphony’s transcript of the meeting. “It’s not working in the section. It’s frustrating to me because I wanted it to work.”

Jones tried to argue. He denied that he had failed to rent equipment or assign parts on time, and he had the email records to prove it. But Stern kept going: complaints about his work in “The Nutcracker,” something about the marimba during a Rufus Wainwright performance, though Stern wasn’t there for either show.

“We had time to deal with this, and now we are at an end,” Stern concluded.

“That’s show business,” he conceded.

Technically, Stern was denying Jones tenure with the Kansas City Symphony that day in January 2023, but it was equivalent to ending his career there — he would be obligated to leave at the end of his initial short-term contract. And it would soon trigger a larger debate in the orchestra world about race, tradition and how the profession welcomes, or resists, new members.

Instead of going quietly like most denied musicians, Jones decided to challenge the system. He went public about the microaggressions and undermining moves that he says affected his on-the-job morale before a decision he argues was unjust. Now, he has shared with The Washington Post the performance reviews, emails and texts that shed light on a typically confidential process. Far beyond Kansas City, prominent musicians and supporters have seized upon his case. Jones, they say, stands for so many other promising young performers whose careers have been hobbled by an antiquated system in bad need of repair.

“Our industry does have a code of silence,” says Titus Underwood, the principal oboist in the Nashville Symphony. “And Josh broke that code of silence.”

Orchestra life has never been for the faint of heart. Conservatories can be crucibles that are just as crazy-making competitive as the music school from the jazz-ensemble psychodrama “Whiplash.” If you manage to graduate from one of the nation’s top programs, your odds of securing a reasonably paid symphony job are still as long as making an NFL roster. And if you make it, you’ll find yourself under an authoritarian structure centered around the maestro — a breed of boss whose temperaments, at the extremes, have been known to include baton-snapping screamers like the legendary Arturo Toscanini and frosty, unapproachable geniuses reminiscent of Cate Blanchett’s “Tár.”

There have been encouraging signs of change. Symphonies, contending with the demographic threat of aging patrons and rising classical-music illiteracy, have taken steps to diversify their orchestras as well as their audiences, launching programs to lure a wider range of young people to the performing arts.

And until last year, Jones’s career trajectory seemed to serve as an inspirational tale about the right way to nurture young, diverse talent.

Now 32, Jones grew up on Chicago’s South Side. His parents, a construction worker and a detox nurse, did not allow their three children to play outside. He remembers huddling on the floor with his family as gunshots sounded in the street.

Jones’s strong test scores and grades earned him a spot in a selective magnet school, where his fourth-grade music teacher introduced him to the bongos. She also got him to apply to the Chicago Symphony’s percussion scholarship program for low-income children. Many fall off after a year or two. But Jones spent nine years working closely with the program’s husband-and-wife founder-directors, Patricia Dash and Douglas Waddell.

At 16, he made his Carnegie Hall debut in a performance taped for PBS. After graduating from DePaul University’s School of Music, he performed with the Detroit and Pittsburgh symphonies before winning an audition and eventually tenure with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. His playing, at every stop, got attention. So did his enthusiasm, marked by a smile as he played.

“Josh is known for being a freakishly talented guy,” says Dylan Moffitt, a percussionist who met him at a music festival in 2017.

In March 2020, Jones auditioned for Kansas City.

Symphony auditions are not typical job interviews. Players travel on their own dime and can be dismissed within minutes. But the process is carried out with a strict focus on performance. You can’t name-drop or schmooze your way into the final round, because nobody knows who you are: Musicians play behind a screen placed onstage to hide their identities from the committee.

This protocol emerged half a century ago, largely to address concerns about inequity. In 1970, more than 95 percent of the players in Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York were men. Suspecting that audition committees were biased against female musicians, orchestra leaders tried leveling the playing field by not letting the judges see whom they were listening to. It worked. The percentage of women in U.S. orchestras rose from 38 in 1978 to 47 in 2022, according to reports from the League of American Orchestras.

So over two days in Kansas City, Jones played from behind a screen all the way through the final round. There, in a slightly awkward but not uncommon kind of matchup, he competed against David Yoon, a Juilliard graduate who had for months held the principal percussionist job in a temporary capacity.

The orchestra personnel manager delivered the news: Jones had won by a unanimous vote. He began to cry, envisioning the new life that he and his soon-to-be wife, bassist Sara Neilson, would start in Kansas City.

His excitement was shared by many in the orchestra, recalls its principal harpist at the time.

“It was such a huge win for the symphony to gain such an amazing player,” says Katherine Siochi, who now plays for the San Francisco Symphony.

Timothy Jepson, the orchestra’s timpanist since 1983, drove Jones to meet Yoon, who would continue with the symphony, and another young orchestra part-timer at a pizza place to celebrate. Jepson, who had served on the audition committee and would now oversee his tenure process, delivered words of praise that Jones would remember years later.

“I’ve never heard an audition like that,” Jones recalls Jepson saying. “Like, ever.”

A principal needs to do more than just play beautifully. The job is comparable to being a department head at a small college. You have to manage others while determining what equipment is needed or how many outside players must be hired for a certain performance. Matthew Howard, principal percussionist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, estimates that 75 percent of his work is about planning, not playing.

“Most of this job is logistics,” he says. “You are part librarian. You’re part production. You are doing a lot of different things and not only playing the most challenging parts.”

Yet musicians are rarely informed during their audition exactly what the role entails, notes Elizabeth Rowe, the longtime principal flutist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“There’s nothing in my job description that says that I do anything other than just kind of come up, come to work, and play the notes in front of me on the stand,” says Rowe, who now coaches other musicians through the tenure process.

Audition winners begin their job on probation; only later does a secret committee of musical peers — their identities never revealed to the probationer — decide whether to recommend them to the orchestra director for tenure. That’s where the scrupulous objectivity of the blind audition is abandoned for something more akin to a high school popularity contest. Any orchestra member can share their critiques with the committee — anonymously if they please.

Ultimately, the committees play merely an advisory role. The power to decide whether a musician gets tenure generally lies with the music director. Yet many maestros — including Stern — are typically only in town for a few months each season, with guest conductors at the podium for most concerts.

The mysteries of the process have confounded orchestra newcomers for decades. In recent years, it is Black musicians in particular who have questioned the system.

They say that they have had to prove themselves in ways their White counterparts have not — and they point to the scarcity of Black faces onstage.

About 2.3 percent of musicians surveyed by the League of American Orchestras identify as Black, barely up from 1.8 percent in 2014. In 2022, a group of Black musicians founded the Black Orchestral Network to advocate for their peers.

“I’m not saying that these [orchestra leaders] are bad people,” says Underwood, the Nashville oboist and one of the founders. “But Kansas City has no Black tenured principal musicians. Zero. So I’m supposed to be like, you know, this place is really, really, really fair? That’s an act of faith.” (Leaders of the Kansas City Symphony say race does not play a role in hiring.)

Underwood had an unusually fraught experience after joining the Nashville Symphony. He clashed with a clarinetist who he says made him uncomfortable with comments about race, such as asking him about the use of the n-word in rap music; later, the man sent another orchestra member a rambling, five-page letter, viewed by The Post, that criticized Underwood’s playing and made unnerving references to a brewing “war” and his family owning a gun. The clarinetist was eventually fired. Some allies have said he was stressed out over Underwood’s HR complaint against him; he has since portrayed himself in conservative media as a victim of “woke” orchestra politics, saying that he initially supported Underwood’s hiring but was ostracized after questioning the fairness of the process, which he believed gave more weight to the oboist’s race than his talent.

Yet Underwood received tenure and was backed by the orchestra in the conflict. Other Black musicians, though, have sensed a frostiness from orchestra leadership after they win their auditions.

“I knew from the minute that screen came down and I walked into that room that this guy was never for me,” says Shea Scruggs. The oboist only got a two-month tryout at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra after members of his audition committee lobbied hard to overcome the maestro’s reservations — and then was dismissed with no explanation, even after begging for feedback. (The maestro declined to comment for this story.)

But some see a system that is unjustifiably callous to young hopefuls of all races — as was the experience of a White violinist who joined Kansas City during Josh Jones’s final season.

Autumn Chodorowski’s first four months with the orchestra coincided with several personal calamities: Her husband, a double bassist in St. Louis, nearly died of Lyme disease, forcing her to miss most of her debut concert series; and then she missed another week after coming down with covid.

Back with the orchestra, a minor mistake during a performance of “The Nutcracker” seemed to seal her fate. In her first one-on-one meeting with Stern, in January 2023, he informed her she had been denied tenure.

In shock, she demurred when Stern asked her to defend herself, she says. “I just wanted to get out of the room.” Later, she asked the orchestra for a second chance but was denied.

Could the Kansas City Symphony have cut more slack to a new member grappling with her husband’s near-death? Stern declined to comment — but the orchestra’s executive director, Danny Beckley, expressed regret about the handling of her case. He called the tenure process “outdated, out of touch and flawed.”

While Chodorowski’s tenure decision “technically” complied with the rules, he added, “I believe the process fell short.”

Other orchestra leaders now appear open to reconsidering a culture of highhanded leadership and unforgiving protocols — if only with the benefit of hindsight.

Today, Weston Sprott is a trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and a dean and director for Julliard’s Preparatory Division. But in 2004, he was a senior at Curtis Institute of Music who had just won an audition for the part-time Delaware Symphony.

Early on, music director David Amado sent word through an intermediary that he wanted the young Black musician to meet with him in Wilmington — up to an hour by commuter rail from Sprott’s Philadelphia campus — without conveying the purpose of the meeting. When Sprott asked if he could schedule a different time, Amado never replied.

A month later, Sprott returned home from a weekend of concerts to find a letter from Amado. He had been denied tenure, with no explanation.

Sprott was crushed. Though he soon moved on to better things, 20 years later he has kept a copy of the letter of protest he sent to the orchestra.

“I’m a student, I don’t have a full-time performing job, and I’m thinking, ‘My God, I can’t even get tenure in a regional orchestra,’” he recalls.

Amado stepped down from his position in 2017. Reached for comment, the maestro listened as a reporter described Sprott’s account of his dismissal. He conceded that he had handled it poorly — and acknowledged that he could find no documentation of issues that would have justified the firing.

In February of this year, Amado sent Sprott an apology.

The trombonist told The Post he remains concerned that orchestras aren’t doing enough to address their hiring and retention procedures.

But on a personal level, Sprott said — yes, the apology offered him a measure of closure on that chapter of his life.

Early in Jones’s Kansas City stint, Stern hosted a gathering for the orchestra atEver Glades Farm, in the rural Missouri exurbs. Jones and Neilson exchanged glances as they drove up to the sprawling, white-columned mansion. Then they Googled. As they suspected, enslaved people once worked at what was then called Everglades Plantation.

The choice of a venue tapping into antebellum nostalgia unnerved Jones, who complained in a note to the orchestra. Other moments left him uncomfortable. Once, when trying to enter the performance hall, security staff made him feel singled out by stopping him and pressing him for identification.

Symphony leadership said they regretted any discomfort triggered by the party setting but otherwise declined to comment on the incidents that Jones described.

From Jones’s point of view, the deterioration of his relationship with Jepson — the symphony’s veteran timpanist assigned to oversee his tenure process — was a harbinger of his downfall. But while Jones recalls a climate of disrespect and what he perceived as subtle racial slights, Jepson offers a very different perspective.

They were friendly at the outset. Jepson gave Jones rides to rehearsals and looked after their dog when he and Neilson traveled. But Jones felt that Jepson was quick to criticize him. At a run-through of the opera “Carmen,” Jepson disagreed with Jones’s decision to let a pair of substitute percussionists depart before the end of rehearsal. When he realized they were gone, Jepson “gave me this look of anger, disgust and shook his head aggressively,” Jones remembers.

Another time, Jepson scolded Jones so loudly for tuning another player’s snare drum during intermission that Jepson later sent him a note apologizing for the outburst.

Jepson, though, told The Post that Jones is misremembering how their relationship soured. He and Jones were friends, he said, “until the day he didn’t get tenure.”

One of the more startling details in the early news coverage of Jones’s departure from the Kansas City Symphony was his allegation that his tenure committee chair joked during a ballet rehearsal that a certain dance step reminded him of “Sambo” — a reference to a racist stereotype from a long-discredited storybook.

That tenure committee chair was Jepson, who told The Post he has no recollection of making such a reference in a musical context. Instead, Jepson recalled a conversation in which he told Jones about the overt racism he witnessed as a child — including the existence of a restaurant chain, now defunct, that was called Sambo’s.

Jones also raised concerns about his interactions with Yoon, the fellow percussionist he had beaten for the job of principal.

Once, Yoon assigned a couple of his parts to a substitute without talking to Jones, which Jones considered insubordination. And after a tense meeting with Stern in May 2022, Jones received a text from Yoon.

“Sorry to hear about your meeting today,” Yoon wrote. “You are a wonderful player and a colleague to have, and I’m sure that any concerns can be taken care of.”

It was a kind gesture, but Jones was baffled: Yoon wasn’t on the tenure committee and should not have known about the meeting. Meanwhile, Jepson told him that Yoon was complaining about Jones’s organizational skills. Yet Jones had emailed Yoon and the rest of his section asking for feedback and got none.

To Jones, it seemed like a conflict that the man he had beaten for the job was able to offer criticism to the head of his tenure committee behind his back. Yoon declined to comment for this story.

Other musicians say discussions like these can undermine the fairness of the process. Jessica Phillips, a Metropolitan Opera clarinetist involved with revamping its audition and tenure system noted the blurry lines. “When somebody doesn’t win the audition … what is their role in the tenure process?”

Jepson maintains that he and Yoon were trying to help Jones make it though the tenure process. At a time when Jepson was coping with family illnesses, Stern called and begged him to try to help salvage Jones’s position in Kansas City. Jepson said he offered Jones more direct feedback and coaching on his organizational duties — but Jones, for whatever reason, didn’t show enough improvement.

How the tenure committee voted on Jones is unknown; ultimately, though, it was Stern’s decision.

In an interview, Stern dismissed the idea that Jones was treated unfairly.

“Listen, I don’t wish Josh Jones ill, not one single part of me,” he said. “But the facts are the facts. There were requirements for this job. There was a consensus over 13 months.”

And Stern rejected Jones’s accusation that race played into the process that led to his dismissal. “The fact that he’s Black is irrelevant.”

The maestro — son of the legendary violinist Isaac Stern — will step down at the end of this season after 18 years with Kansas City. While some players have complained about his temperament and his skills, he has also been credited with transforming the symphony. He hired nearly three-quarters of the musicians in the current 80-member orchestra. “Which fills me up, actually,” he said. “I get very emotional thinking about this.”

As the Jones dispute was covered in the Kansas City press and spread throughthe close-knit orchestra world, some wondered why Stern couldn’t have managed the situation better. If Jones was such a special player, as many agreed, couldn’t the symphony have mentored him through the organizational duties he had been criticized for or delegated some of them?

In May, leaders of the Black Orchestral Network — including Sprott, Underwood and Scruggs — met with Stern to suggest potential remedies. Why not restart Jones’s tenure process?

Stern and Beckley explained that a collective bargaining agreement between musicians and management left them no opportunity to make tenure choices that would impinge upon Stern’s successor. It was an answer the Black Orchestral Network found unsatisfactory.

“If Michael Stern and the CEO of the organization determined that they wanted to do something to make every opportunity available to Josh, they could have,” Sprott told The Post. “They made a choice not to.”

Earlier this year, Jones headed to the VanderCook College of Music in Chicago to rehearse with a group of students, who cheered when he walked into the practice room.

After rehearsal, he headed home for a late afternoon dinner with Neilson. Her bass and his marimba sat in the living room of their apartment, ready for practice. Their dog, Olive, lay on the couch. Then it was off to Lyric Opera, where Jones, as a regular sub, would be in the pit for a performance of Terence Blanchard’s “Champion,” an opera about the life of boxer Emile Griffith.

Jones now has a tenured role as principal percussionist for the summer-season Grant Park Orchestra, which plays in a beautiful outdoor pavilion designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.

Things aren’t perfect in this job either: Early on, he heard grumblings in the section about some of his assignments and organizational decisions. The stage crew had a slightly different idea of where they wanted the chairs and music stands, and some of his fellow musicians wanted him to play louder.

However, this time Jones heard the critiques directly, including from Waddell, his childhood mentor who plays in the percussion section. Waddell set up a meeting with Jones and the other players to talk through their issues.

“What is not working? What is working? I went to Josh several times with our timpanist, and we talked about that stuff,” Waddell says. “His second year was much improved to the point where it almost got to be like the best principal we’ve ever had. That happened because we had communication.”

Jones continues to audition for a permanent slot in a full-season orchestra. But he hasn’t forgotten Kansas City.

He and Neilson decided not to sue because of the cost, and he feared that a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would take years to resolve and be hard to prove.

Yet Jones says he’s not ready to move on from Kansas City, where his old job remains open with Yoon serving as acting principal pending new auditions.

What does he want? Not an apology. Not even a better explanation.

“I want my job back,” he says.

Alice Crites contributed to this report“

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