The record-breaking career of 87-year-old Jane Little, the world’s longest-serving orchestra musician, came to an end on Sunday when the 5'3 bassist collapsed onstage during the Atlanta Symphony’s performance of “Broadway’s Golden Age.” The song she was playing, fittingly enough, was “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Little’s orchestra career began in 1945 when, at 16, she joined the Atlanta Youth Symphony—which eventually became the Atlanta Symphony.
In a February 2016 interview with Atlanta Magazine, she charmingly described her introduction to the bass, saying:
...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. They had quite a good orchestra, and the leader was a really good friend of Henry Sopkin, who would become the ASO conductor. 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.
Little’s passion for the bass lasted the remainder of her life.
“It’s hard to remember when I wasn’t here,” she told the Washington Post about her time with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
In February, Little took the stage after months off following a bad fall. With that performance, she became the longest-serving orchestra musician in the world, just ahead of Utah Symphony violinist Frances Darger (who served an impressive 70 years prior to her retirement).
Via the Washington Post:
“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.’”
Little served the ASO for 71 years. She played under four musical directors and an impressive list of guest conductors that includes Igor Stravinsky.
As her fellow bassist Michael Kurth told the Post, “She seemed to be made of bass resin and barbed wire. She was unstoppable.”
In recent years, Little had been suffering health problems that included multiple myeloma (treated by chemotherapy) and several broken bones (most recently, a cracked vertebra). Still, she returned to the stage to do what she loved until May 15, when she fell unconscious on stage and could not be revived.
“To me, it seems like more than the end of an era. She outlasted every era of this orchestra. She outlasted three music directors. The next, most longest tenured member was here I think twenty years less than she was. There are no words to describe how remarkable she was. You think of superlatives and you just run out.”
We should all be so lucky to go out like this shero—doing what we love.
Image via the ASO.