Some 40 years ago, I was the speaker at a conference in the Santa Cruz Mountains at which Eugene Jones was the music director. Gene was a big, strong, well-proportioned and kindly African American man with a rich, expressive bass voice and a huge deep soul. He served in the Navy during World War II and for many years worked as a fireman in Oakland where he sang with the Oakland Symphony and was choir director in Bay Area churches. He was the first Afro-American soloist with the San Francisco Opera,
He also sang for the United Nations, and he conducted the Oakland City Chorus for 30 years. Many remember him as founder and director of the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra (BCCO), a non-auditioned musical assembly based on Jones’ belief that everyone should have opportunity to sing the choral music of Bach, Beethoven, and other classic composers. He also taught at the Berkeley Music Camp in Cazadero.
During the week I was on the program with him, I had no idea of his accomplishments and awards, but I was gripped by his singing and by his way with the choir he was putting together for the week. He even let me in, and I’m one who can hear the right note, but my voice produces it only by sheer luck.
Gene was having us work on that most famous of hymns “Amazing Grace.” He wanted us to feel what we were singing, and he was especially concerned with the third stanza: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, / I have already come, / ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, / And grace will lead me home.”
“I want you to think about the dangers, toils, and snares you’ve escaped from as you sing this stanza,” Gene said. “Yours will be different than mine. I face dangers, toils, and snares most every day, and I praise God when I get safely home.”
Everyone at the camp was white except for Gene Jones. I don’t think we had any idea what he was talking about.
That evening, after I had given my talk and after our choir had sung “Amazing Grace” to the gathering, Gene asked me if I would like to go with him into Santa Cruz for a hamburger and cup of coffee. I said sure, and we took off in his little sports car, an older green Austin Healy if I remember right. On the way into town we passed a number of cafes and road houses and Gene would slow down and look in the window and then drive on.
I said, “Any of these places would be all right with me, Gene.”
He said, “I know, but I can’t go in there.”
“Why?” I asked.
He said, “It’s not that they can keep me out, but there’s a bar and guys are drinking and if we go in there and someone says something ugly, I might react in a way that could get you in trouble and me in jail or worse. Dangers, toils, and snares.”
Not wanting to go to a drive-in and eat in the car, we never found a café Gene Jones felt comfortable about. We drove back to the camp and said good night to each other.
I didn’t get a hamburger and cup of coffee with Gene Jones that night, but I learned how his life, beyond all his talents and accomplishments, was different than mine: At every turn, he faced dangers, toils, and snares that I never had to think about.