Longest Gig Ever: World’s Most Tenured Symphony Musician Died Doing What She Loved

ASO December 2014

On Sunday, a diminutive musician playing an 18th century Carlo Giuseppi Testore double bass viol collapsed onstage as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed the final measures of an Irving Berlin composition, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Her fellow bass players carried her backstage where a doctor in the ASO chorus tried in vain to revive her. The bassist’s name was Jane Findley Little, and she had been “with the band” for more than 70 years.

Fellow musician Michael Kurth told the Atlanta Journal Constitution,

“It was the last minute of the last piece on the program. Her bass crashed into my bass, she fell over onto the floor, and as quickly as we could we dropped our instruments and got her offstage.”

Little told Atlanta Magazine that her first aspiration was to be a ballerina, but she had the wrong kind of feet. She enjoyed music but had no interest in playing an instrument when she took a musical aptitude test at Girls High School in Atlanta. She wanted to join the glee club, but the school orchestra conductor, an associate of Henry Sopkin, the maestro who would become the first conductor of the Atlanta Youth Symphony, suggested Jane turn her innate musical talent toward an instrument. Jane’s first choice was clarinet, but Girls High’s orchestra was in need of a bass player, so Jane toted the massive musical instrument to and from school for two years, swiftly becoming suitably proficient to try out for the newest symphony in town.

Jane Findley was 16 years old when she auditioned for and won a part with the newly formed Atlantic Youth Symphony on February 4, 1945. As she rosined her bow for her first rehearsal with the orchestra, American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Russian leader Joseph Stalin were gathering at a place called Yalta on the Black Sea coast to work out the details of the end of World War II.

The Atlanta Youth Symphony changed its name to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1947.

On February 8, 71 years to the day since she joined the symphony, Jane Little was honored with a five-minute standing ovation, after which she exclaimed, “It’s hard to remember when I wasn’t here.”

During her seven-decade tenure, Little performed under every ASO conductor, as well as for guest conductors Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli, Pierre Monteux, and James Levine.

The Atlantic Symphony Orchestra released an official statement on May 16.

“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.”

Executive Director Jennifer Barlament added, “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.”

Several sources, including the Atlanta Journal Constitution, are reporting Jane Little’s height at 4 ft. 11 in. but this is not accurate. In an interview with Atlanta Magazine in February of this year, Little herself noted that she was 5 ft. 3 in. tall when she took a musical aptitude test at Girls High School in Grant Park. Jane joked about her short stature, remarking that when she first met future husband Warren Little, she was delighted that he played flute, because that meant he could carry his own instrument and her bass viol, too. Jane and Warren performed together in the ASO until his death in 2002.

On February 5 of this year, the Washington Post noted that the Guinness Book of World Records did not yet feature a category about longest-tenured symphony musicians, but that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was planning to submit documents to officially register Jane Little as the longest-serving symphony member in the world. Prior to Little’s 71st anniversary with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the longest-held symphony seat belonged to a violinist who played with the Utah Symphony for 69 years.

Legacy is hosting a permanent guest book for those who would like to add their condolences and memories of Jane Little.

[Photo by Katie Darby/AP Images]