In Sight

An Uninterrupted Life

Meet the 87-year-old bassist who just made symphony history.

Record-breaking—Jane Little (center) began playing bass in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra when she was a teen. She holds the record for the longest time served with an orchestra -- 71 years. Photo: Dustin Thomas Chambers / The Washington Post.

by Geoff Edgers

ATLANTA—On a Monday, Jane Little got her weekly chemo shot. That Thursday, she gulped down five green steroid pills and reported to Symphony Hall to fight her way back to the stage. And that she did, all 98 pounds of her, stroking a D chord at 8:04 p.m. to make her comeback official. The Atlanta Symphony bassist now held the world record for longest tenure with an orchestra.

“Seventy-one years ago,” Mrs. Little sighed during intermission, overcome by emotion after a five-minute-long standing ovation. “It’s hard to remember when I wasn’t here.”

She was 16 and wearing a pastel evening gown when she made her debut on Feb. 4, 1945. That same Sunday, a long way from Atlanta, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill gathered to start the Yalta Conference.

Mrs. Little with her husband, Warren, who was the principal flutist for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Dustin Thomas Chambers / The Washington Post.
Mrs. Little with her husband, Warren, who was the principal flutist for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Dustin Thomas Chambers / The Washington Post.

Guinness does not list an official record for longest orchestra tenure, though that will change when the ASO sends documentation to have her feat registered. The unofficial record had been held by Frances Darger, a violinist in the Utah Symphony who retired in 2012 after 70 years. Just over a handful of musicians played more than a half century, including New York Philharmonic clarinetist Stanley Drucker (60), Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Rolland Tapley (58) and San Francisco Symphony flutist Paul Renzi (52).

“I’d thumb through the Guinness book and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat?’ ”

Mrs. Little’s quest is even more remarkable when you consider that she plays an instrument more than a foot taller than she is.

“It’s just mind-boggling,” says Timothy Cobb, the principal bassist with the New York Philharmonic. “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.”

Persevering through the pain.

Jane Little grew up in Atlanta during the Depression, her family too poor to afford a piano. But she loved music and was encouraged to try bass because, simply put, the orchestra at the Atlanta Girls High School didn’t need her to play clarinet, her first choice. She made her debut in 1945 with the Atlanta Youth Symphony, which became the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1947.

Over the decades, Mrs. Little has had her ups—performances with Igor Stravinsky and Arthur Rubinstein— and downs, none of them harder than the 2002 death of her husband, Warren Little, a longtime ASO flutist.

Mrs. Little has also had a number of physical setbacks. She currently has multiple myeloma, a cancer that’s being managed with chemotherapy and pills. She’s broken her shoulder, elbow and pelvis over the years. Then, last August, Mrs. Little was scrambling out the door to meet a friend for dinner. She slipped and fell and, despite muscling her way through an evening out, woke up the next morning unable to get out of bed. Mrs. Little had to call an ambulance. She had cracked a vertebra.

The pain is still there.

“It takes so much, to push those metal strings down against the fingerboard,” says Mrs. Little. “When I first started practicing two months ago, I could only practice for two minutes because it hurt so bad.”

So this week, she asked her doctor if she could take her steroid pills on Thursday, before the concert, instead of over the weekend, as is typical. He told her to go ahead.

Truth is, Mrs. Little plans to retire after this season. She’s got a house in the North Carolina mountains and wants to spend more time there. It also feels like time.

But Mrs. Little always kept Darger’s record in mind.

“I’d thumb through the Guinness book and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat?’ 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.’ ”