Principal percussionist Josh Jones denied tenure by the Kansas City Symphony

The Black Orchestral Network and members of the wider KC music community are protesting the decision, and questioning the process that brought about this result.
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Josh Jones. // Courtesy Asa Orrin-Brown

In 1972, timpanist Elayne Jones won a blind audition for the San Francisco Symphony, becoming the first Black principal musician in a major American orchestra. After her probationary period was up in 1974, she was denied tenure by her colleagues on the committee.

Nearly 50 years later, the tenure process is still a barrier for many Black classical musicians nationwide. A 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras found that less than two percent of orchestral musicians nationwide are Black.

“The industry has not treated us well,” says Titus Underwood, a representative of the Black Orchestral Network (BON) and orchestral oboist.

In 2020, percussionist Josh Jones won the opening for principal percussionist of the Kansas City Symphony, leaving his tenured role at another orchestra for the opportunity.

 “Josh Jones has won not one, not two, but three principal percussion auditions in less than four years,” says Underwood. “That is unheard of. Most musicians win one audition in their whole career.”

This spring, Jones—regarded as one of the best orchestral percussionists—was denied tenure. He is the only tenure-track member of the three Black musicians in the Kansas City Symphony. 

Now, the Black Orchestral Network—a national collective—and many in KC’s music community are protesting the decision. 

On Tuesday, May 9, BON publicly released a letter protesting Jones’ denial of tenure. Initially sent to the Symphony’s CEO and President Danny Beckley and Music Director Michael Stern on April 7, the letter quickly garnered widespread attention throughout KC’s music community on social media. 

BON issued a call to action, urging the community to let the Kansas City Symphony know that Josh is supported and “let Symphony leadership know they need to #MeetWithJosh.”

“[The tenure process] is designed in such a way that you get feedback, but there are no mechanisms in place to get the help that you need in order to grow,” Underwood says. “In some places, it gives the illusion of more of a hazing process than a growing process.”

Amid the widespread social media reactiobns, the Kansas City Symphony announced the results of their search for a new Music Director: Matthias Pintscher. Pintscher will start his contract in the 2024-25 season.

Kansas City Symphony CEO Beckley stands behind their tenure process and guidelines.

“Winning the audition is not the end; it’s the beginning,” Beckley says. From there, there is a probationary period—18 months in the case of the Kansas City Symphony—to evaluate if they’re up for the job. “Being a great artist is one element, but it is one element. The principal role is really a leadership role, and it requires communication and organization and advanced planning,” Beckley says.

The Symphony provided a document outlining their audition and tenure process, noting that their “collective bargaining agreement with the musicians’ union details how we approach every part of our Audition, Probation and Tenure Review process.”

While the Symphony’s tenure process is legally binding and strictly procedural, is it equitable?

BON explained in their statement that “tenure committees find other, pretextual ways to criticize the way we do our jobs. Much too often, “leadership” or “management” or similar factors become the excuse instead.”

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Josh Jones. // Courtesy Greg MacKay

Beckley disagrees: “I think that they’re being dismissive of the things that are really core to the job. There are no pretexts.” 

The Kansas City Symphony declined to provide demographic data on the tenure committee but noted tenure track committee members must be tenured musicians themselves. There are no Black tenured musicians in the Kansas City Symphony. 

When asked if the committee members received DEI training before or during the tenure process, Beckley says, “That’s something [the Kansas City Symphony] is working on…but this is a journey for us as an organization, but we’re in a very early stage.”

For many, change has been all too slow.

 “Corporations have instituted DEI programs,” Underwood says. But most American symphony orchestras are late to the game, often failing to address and acknowledge implicit bias.

The Kansas City Symphony’s official statement stated that “race is not a factor in these decisions.”

 “Without any DEI training, how can we say that there isn’t racial bias when Black people are absent in that space?” Underwood says.  “You have to really think, is what they’re doing working?”

The Kansas City Symphony’s President and CEO, Danny Beckley, issued the following statement:

While this individual situation is a personnel matter and our comments therefore are limited, our tenure process is comprehensive and objective. This process includes regular, detailed feedback – both in-person and followed-up in writing – at scheduled intervals, so that all parties avoid any surprises about that process, or the outcome of the proceedings.  Race is not a factor in these decisions.

Principal positions in an orchestra are charged with leading their sections. Thus, successful Principals must possess not only the on-stage artistic talent and individual performance excellence, but it is imperative that they also demonstrate the operational proficiency, leadership, organization, planning and communication skills required behind the scenes to ensure the smooth and effective functioning of the entire section. 

The Kansas City Symphony is committed to our focus on diversity and inclusion within orchestral music, whether through the recruitment process, featuring a diverse range of composers and artists during performances, expanding the appeal of our concerts across demographics, or building new relationships throughout Greater Kansas City.

Categories: Culture