A woman named Jane Little showed up on a crawl at the bottom of my TV the other night. I was watching some political nonsense when the item moved across my screen and completely stole my attention. I haven’t been able to get her out of my mind since.
We don’t often hear much about symphonic musicians. When we do, it’s usually the star violinists like Itzhak Perlman or cellists like YoYo Ma. Tell me, when was the last time you heard about a string bass player? And we’re not talking about someone from one of the country’s top orchestras either, like New York, Boston, LA, Chicago or San Francisco. We’re not even talking top ten here (oh yeah, they actually rank symphonies).
Jane Little played string bass for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Nothing remarkable there. But last year she set the Guinness World record for longest tenure in a single orchestra. Jane started when she was 16, and played 71 straight years. 71 years with the same orchestra. Amazing.
Even more amazing was that a woman in 1945 could get a paying job in a symphony orchestra. Let’s face it, gender bias was in its heyday back then. Tough for women to compete with men for work. Even more so at her chosen instrument.
Yeah, we don’t want to admit it, but there are certain instruments women are “supposed” to play and be good at. Then there are ones we don’t think they should be playing professionally. Quick, can you name 10 famous female rock guitarists? How bout 5? I can easily name 50 famous male rock guitarists, but only a handful of female rockers. And I can’t think of even one famous female drummer (except for Sheila E, but she’s more of a percussionist than a drummer, though she’s a total badass on timbales).
“Instrument gender bias”, as I’m calling it, exists in the symphonic world too. It’s cool to have women excel at instruments like strings and woodwinds, at least the small ones. Rarely is it cool for women to star on brass or percussion. Sure, you can have a woman playing the harp, but tuba, trombone, trumpet or timpani? No, other than a token woman here or there, those instruments are for men.
And that’s why it’s extra amazing to me that Jane Little played string bass in the same orchestra for 71 years. She had to be good to succeed for so long at a “man’s” instrument. Funny, though, when she hooked up with a man in the orchestra, and a big ‘ol manly 6 foot 2 inch one at that, he wasn’t playing one of the “manly” instruments. Jane’s husband played the flute.
But none of these things were why Jane was crawling across the bottom of my TV Monday night. What blew everyone’s mind wasn’t that an 87-year-old woman could still perform at such a high level. That was amazing. But that didn’t make the news. What made the news was that Jane played right up to the very end. To the very end of the show. To the last 30 seconds of the last song on the program.
And then, after 71 years, Jane Little collapsed on stage and died. 30 seconds from the end of her very last song. Jane got to do what most of us can only wish for. To be hard at work doing what we love most, right up until the very end.
Like you, I just had to know. What song did Jane go out on? What was her swan song? Jane went out at the end of, wait for it…
“There’s No Business Like Show Business…”