‘An amazing way to go’: Jane Little, world’s longest-serving orchestra musician, collapses and dies performing ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’
Jane Little, who debuted as a bassist in Atlanta on Feb. 4, 1945, at age 16 and who never stopped playing, died during a performance of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on Sunday (May 15, 2016). She was said to be the longest tenured orchestra musician in the world. She was 87.
Little was not a physically imposing figure. She weighed 98 pounds and had battled through, in addition to the myeloma, a broken shoulder, elbow and pelvis in recent years. Last August, she fell and cracked her vertebra, leaving her unable to play.
But in February, after months of rehabilitation, Little took to the stage and passed the record set by Frances Darger, the Utah Symphony violinist who had retired in 2012 after 70 years of playing. Little took pride in her feat.
“I’d thumb through the Guinness book and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat?’” Little told The Post in February. “A lot of people do crazy things like sitting on a flagpole for three days. I just kept on. It was just me and the lady in Utah. So finally, I said, ‘I’m going to do this.’”
Though frail and injury-prone, the prospect of setting the record seemed to have helped keep her going, albeit not for every ASO concert. “I was competing with this woman out in Utah, who played 70 years, 69 of them with the Utah Symphony,” she told Atlanta Magazine. “When I heard she was retiring, I said, ‘I’m going for it.'”
“Seventy-one years ago,” Little told The Post during the intermission after a five-minute-long standing ovation earlier this year. “It’s hard to remember when I wasn’t here.”
Little did not set out to play the bass when she first took an interest in music during the Great Depression. She wanted to be a ballerina, she recalled in an interview with Atlanta Magazine.
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….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.
According to her profile on the website of the American Federation of Musicians, “She struggled at first to hear the lowest pitches and could barely press down the thick E string — not to mention, even just carrying the bass around was no easy task. ‘I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be a challenge!’ she says. ‘But I was back for the next lesson, and the next, and the next.’ After just a couple months of private lessons, Little was ready to join the orchestra — and not only did she join, but she was quickly appointed principal bass.”
While playing in the symphony, she met the man who would become her husband, Warren Little, who played the flute. Their first date was a performance by the legendary violinist David Oistrakh.
“’I must say that when I met Warren, I was very impressed that he played a small instrument,'” she commented in the profile, “‘so he could carry my bass around!'”
There was no Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at that time. But there was an Atlanta Youth Symphony, for which she auditioned and joined in 1945. Three years later, that youth symphony became the Atlanta Symphony.
“She was strong, remember how she never gave up, that’s how she would want you to remember her – strong, fiery and spirited and most importantly happy and smiling,” her friend of 30 years Ellie Kosek said. “I think it was a gift to be as happy as she was. I would call her every day – of course, not before noon – just to chat with her.”