Jane Little, world’s longest-serving orchestra musician, collapses and dies performing

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. She was said to be the longest tenured orchestra musician in the world. She was 87.

“We can say that Jane was fortunate to do what she loved until the very end of her storied life and career,” the symphony said in a Facebook post. “The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was truly blessed to have Jane as part of our family for the past 71 years and we all miss her passion, vitality, spirit and incredible talent.”

“Her footprints are permanently etched on that stage,” wrote another admirer, Doug Ireland. “Everyone who ever attended a concert was amazed to see this tiny woman with that huge instrument!”

“Was at the performance today when Jane Little collapsed,” said a post by Rosemary Kord. “So sad to witness this tragedy. Happened in the last couple of minutes of the final song. I am still shakened and send my prayers to Jane’s family and to her musical family, The Atlanta Symphony. If there is a Requiem in her honor, I would like to be in attendance. RIP dear lady; you are an inspiration!”

The symphony was performing a pops concert called “Broadway’s Golden Age,” according to its schedule. A spokeswoman said the players were about 30 seconds from the last measures of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” the encore to the concert when Little collapsed and was carried backstage by her fellow bassists. She never regained consciousness.

“She seemed to be made of bass resin and barbed wire. She was unstoppable,” bassist Michael Kurth, who was playing next to Little when she collapsed, told The Washington Post on Sunday night.

Kurth, 44, added that “I honestly thought I was going to retire before she did, honestly.”

“What an amazing way to go,” added Amanda Turner in a post on the ASO website.

The symphony did not provide a cause of death. Little had not been feeling well. She’s been undergoing chemotherapy for multiple myeloma, had missed the orchestra’s April concert in Carnegie Hall in New York, and told Russell Williamson, the ASO’s senior orchestra manager, during intermission at Saturday night’s concert that she felt weak and woozy. That night, violinist Ellie Kosek asked Little to call when she got home safely, which she did.

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.”

By then, she had already said she would retire at the end of the season. Little, a widow with no children, planned to spend time at her house in North Carolina. Truth is, she hated the idea of walking away.

“She wanted to play,” Williamson said. “She certainly could have afforded to retire years and years ago. But this is what she did. This was her family.”

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!’” He retired in 1992 and died in 2002.

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.

“It’s just mind-boggling,” Timothy Cobb, the principal bassist with the New York Philharmonic, told The Post in February. “It takes a tremendous amount of physical power, frankly, and just brute force to play in a big orchestra. I have had friends who have made it into their 70s but to be pumping it out in the orchestra is really something.”

Little took a fall last August, cracked a vertebra and was so weak and in such pain she could only practice for minutes at a time during her recovery. She was taking prescribed steroid pills to help her through performances.

Little, according to the ASO, played under all four of the orchestra’s music directors, as well as guest conductors including Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Pierre Montez, Leopold Stokowski, John Barbirolli and James Levine.

“To me, it seems like more than the end of an era,” Kurth said. “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.”

There was great sadness among orchestra members Sunday night. There was also a sense that there was a poetic beauty to the timing of Little’s death, playing her bass during a performance of a classic from the “Great American Songbook.”

“Hollywood could not have scripted it better,” said Paul Murphy, the orchestra’s associate principal viola.

“For her to go out at the end of a concert, the golden age of Broadway, and it was during the encore,” said Williamson. “The words are ‘let’s go on with the show.’”