Organists are also by definition organ technicians, and James Jones who is here to perform the Poulenc Organ Concerto with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra on Thursday, 30 June 2022, is no different – and that’s a good thing considering the City Hall’s Norman and Beard (1905) organ, considered one of the finest of its type, is in great need of an overhaul.

I caught up with Jimmy this week as he sat at the console of the City Hall Norman and Beard organ and marvelled at its power, while fearing that it is in severe need of extensive maintenance! He was waiting for Charles Hart, the organ technician, to arrive and sort out some problems that Jimmy identified. Some of them he fixed himself.

“I finally have this wonderful beast of an organ ready for this week’s concert,” he said. “It’s been so much fun discovering all of the beautiful colours this instrument can produce… as well as it’s unmatched power!”

James Jones organ
James Jones organ

The organ or nothing!

Since Jones is able to identity colour with sounds, his score is full of red and blue and yellow dots which Jimmy uses to identify multiple changes of “stops” on the instrument as well as shifts in sound.

Jones has been an organist since he was six, and “employed” at eight years old, when he was first hired to play for worship services at a church in North Carolina. “When I was five, I wanted to begin organ lessons; but the organist at my church suggested I start by learning piano, because my feet couldn’t reach the pedals! My mother used to take me to choir rehearsals from my infancy and it wasn’t long before I knew that it was the organ or nothing for me. My parents bought an old church organ and put it in our basement; I was so attached to it that the sound shook the house until late at night.”

When asked who was the greatest musical influence in his life, he countered with “don’t you mean ‘what’?” And what it is …

“I grew up in a town of 500 people and 10% of those were my family!  Music was all around us. My grandmother was a fantastic alto, and although she didn’t read music, I learnt harmony through her. My older sister had been forced to take piano lessons and she hated them. So, my mother was not keen to give in easily to my wish to learn. Finally, she relented, and she never ever had to ask me to practice… only when to stop!”

Jones served as Director of Music at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina from 2010 – 2021 with something like 70 hours of playing a week in church services, funerals, and weddings. In spring of 2021 a broken ankle put him out of commission for several months. If ever an accident can be a good thing, the timing was indeed serendipitous and since his partner, Robert Moody, has just been appointed Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, they decided to move there. He has been able to recover fully and enjoy much work in the Memphis church and organ community.

While there are several concertos written for the organ, it is the Poulenc that is probably performed the most often, and the organ’s dynamics from the very loud opening chords of the concerto to the softest notes possible are on display. “The concert harkens back to Buxtehude while including neo-classical elements, and there are wonderful tonal clusters and even blues chords which accompany the orchestra’s playing of the beautiful melodies. The harmonies are so sexy,” he adds.

“Great Gate of Kiev” finale

In addition to the concerto, the organ will be featured in a surprise work for the audience, and also in the “Great Gate of Kiev” finale of Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition.

After the concert Jones and Moody will leave for the US where Jones will spend the month of July in his home state, returning to his roots to spend time with his family and serving as Resident Organist of the first church he ever worked.

Moody, who is also a cellist, will be part of the “Jimmy and Friends” series of events while there. In his mind, church music must be strong both liturgically and artistically.  This provides for wonderful variety in his programming.

Jones, who is well connected with historical organ societies in the US, has already been telling people of the grand organ here, so we are all holding thumbs . . .

What: Final CPO Winter Symphonies concert
Who: James Jones organ
When:  Thursday, 30 June 2022, 8pm. Open dress rehearsal 11am
Where: Cape Town City Hall ;
Tickets: Concert. Dress rehearsal here.