The Tabernacle Choir Blog

“God Be with You” Jerold Ottley – Beloved Choir Director 1974-1999

Jerold Ottley (1934-2021) never imagined himself a public figure, his shock of white hair easily recognized in a crowd. With his doctoral degree in pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching), he pictured himself at a university school of music for his career.  So how did he become so easily recognized by television viewers across the nation? How did he find himself dining with kings and dignitaries in far off lands? How did this humble, happy soul whose humor delighted those around him fill music halls, radio, and television with a love for the spirit and the divine?  

He became the 13th conductor of The Tabernacle Choir. So much for his quiet nature.

It was not by his own doing but in response to a call from President Spencer W. Kimball of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ottley saw it as his “duty” to step up on the podium and for the next twenty-five years he dealt with the spotlight, uncomfortable as it was for him, that accompanied the high-profile Choir and its beloved music. If he had a favorite moment with the Choir, it might have been in 1993 when it sang “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” on tour in Israel at the Garden Tomb.

Ottley passed away February 19, 2021 from illness related to COVID-19.  He was 86.

Daughter Allison Ottley recalls: “He was devoted to his work, to beautiful music, to the Church, and to the Choir and its ability to touch hearts everywhere.”  He was very comfortable as a teacher, at home in the classroom, but he overcame his native reticence and embraced the opportunity to stand on the world’s stage and share the music of the Lord.

From 1974-1999, Ottley led the three hundred plus all-volunteer chorus in 1,300 broadcasts of Music & the Spoken Word. Do the math: that was a program every week for nearly a quarter of a century with rehearsals every Thursday evening as well.  He directed 30 commercial recordings and conducted the Choir on 20 major tours that reached from Australia to Russia, Japan to Israel, Poland to Brazil, and Mexico to Finland. “Tour was grueling. We would do seventeen cities in twenty-one days and my dad would come home absolutely exhausted. He gave everything he had,” Allison explains. He had a gift for programming music that would be accessible to people of all languages. In Japan she remembers they sang, “Seventy -Six Trombones” from The Music Man and the audience was thrilled. “You could watch the audience in lands that did not speak English and they were as engaged as those who attended performances in the Tabernacle.” 

He did more than stand at the podium, baton in hand. He set a tone of professionalism, a standard and structure of excellence in auditions, rehearsals, and performances that vaulted the Choir to new heights. “His legacy is a gold thread in the tapestry of the Choir’s past, present, and future,” observed Mack Wilberg, current music director of the Choir. “He was not only a wonderful musician but a great person, who, like those before him, laid a foundation for today’s Choir.” 

Ottley served under two Choir presidents, Oakley Evans and Wendell Smoot. Today’s Choir president Ron Jarrett, who sang in the Choir as a tenor under Ottley’s hand, said: “The Choir would not be what it is today without Jerold Ottley’s contributions for a quarter of a century. He was a visionary who put in place protocols that refined the Choir organization and ensured its future success.”

He was a master organizer putting in place systems for retirement, attendance, and seating that have continued. He instituted the first Christmas concerts which have become central to the Choir’s repertoire, conducted the Choir at U.S. presidential inaugurals singing their signature “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and established a worshipful tone at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints general conferences twice a year. After his retirement, he revised the Choir’s choral library database of more than 800,000 pieces of music.

At his side as the vocal coach for the Choir was his wife JoAnn, a gifted soprano. After receiving his master’s degree from the University of Utah, he and JoAnn were both awarded Fulbright grants to study at the Academy of Music in Cologne, West Germany. He received his doctorate from the University of Oregon and was a faculty member and assistant chair at the University of Utah Music Department when he was tapped to serve with the Choir. When he dropped her off to teach at the University, Allison remembers: “You know he looked a little longingly at her opportunity to work in the shelter of the classroom.”  After a particularly stressful day, he went home and had what he called “something wicked”—a banana split.

Ottley retired in 1999 before the Conference Center was completed. He spent all his years with the Choir in their home in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. He didn’t leave Choir service, however. He and JoAnn volunteered to direct a newly created Choir School for new members to more quickly develop the musical skills needed to perform at the level of the Choir. The two also designed the lesson plans for the training program.  

Craig Jessop, who served as his associate and later as Choir music director, described Ottley as one of the most important figures in his life. “He was one of the two redwoods in my forest,” he said. And for the Choir in general, Jessop described each Choir member and director as putting their brick in the walls of the “Choir cathedral” during their tenure. But Jerold Ottley, he said, “was the pillar, the giant marble column that stood immovable in the Choir’s cathedral and held everything up.” 

Choir members described Ottley with fondness mentioning “his poetic hands,” his being “so spiritual,” “so funny,” “so good-natured,” and “a mentor to so many.” He knew the name of all the Choir members and never forgot them. “We would be out at a restaurant and he would recognize someone who sang in the choir decades before,” Allison said, “He loved them.” 

His sense of humor was legend. He always had a joke for rehearsal which he shared when the Choir seemed to be lagging. His jokes weren’t great—which made him all the more endearing.

Ottley conducted the Choir in the funerals of many Church leaders. One of the sad ironies of the current pandemic is that the Choir will not be able to perform at his funeral. Plans are being made to provide video of Choir performances for the family service currently being planned.

The funeral service will be private, a public celebration will be held at a later date. We invite friends to attend the service via livestream on Saturday, February 27th at 12:00.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made to the LDS Humanitarian Aid Fund.