Missionary Worker

FOR A FEW… what begins as a job becomes their mission. I’ve met my share of such fortunate people – whose “work” is no longer toil but a “calling” – invigorating, fulfilling, even if it doesn’t pay well. My wife and I encountered another such “missionary worker” last year (or so) at the Golden Age of Broadway pops concert in Atlanta – Gershwin, Bernstein, other greats – supported by a full symphony, fabulous chorus, and three stellar Broadway vocalists. We mouthed each “golden” tune from Broadway’s heyday, including a stomping salute to George M. Cohan (Yankee Doodle Dandy).


AROUND HALF WAY through the opening overture, I spotted Jane Little hunched over a massive double bass, taller, heavier than her 4 ft. 11-inch, 97-pound frame – squinting at the musical score, yet keeping up; deftly switching from finger to bow. Ordinarily, she’d be lost among the other bass players, big beefy guys. Rather, Jane sat behind in her own row, an “addendum,” a female anomaly perched precariously on a high stool. Formally garbed, save her black tennis shoes flashing fluorescently beneath her baggy slacks! How ODD she looked against the rest, how distant, yet how SERENE. “She’s into it.” I told myself, “How lucky to do something you really love to do.” This was obviously her calling. I couldn’t take my eyes off her for the rest of the concert.


SYMPHONY ORCHESTRAS are wonderfully eclectic…shaggy vets…brash upstarts eyeing the prestigious, front-row “chairs” of each section (strings, brass, etc.). Except for little Jane Little. She’d been a member of the Atlanta Symphony for SEVENTY-ONE years, a Guinness World Record. As a teenager, Jane took up the string bass since it was the only instrument still open in the Atlanta Youth Orchestra, the symphony’s predecessor. “My hands weren’t big enough,” she admitted, “I had to get people to help me lug it around, but I knew right away this was my instrument.” Determined, gifted, she moved to “first chair” within six months; playing with renowned conductors like Stravinsky over the decades; marrying the symphony’s head flutist, who died a dozen years ago after 40 years of marital melodies. “He carried my bass. I carried his flute,” she’d laugh. In recent years, with nagging health issues, she was nudged to the back row, but didn’t mind. She was where she was meant to be.


RICHARD ROGER’S Sound of Music closed out the nostalgic afternoon; the chorus and Broadway singers scaling the heavens with crystal-shattering crescendos. There too was Jane, plucking away; her head swaying to the conductor’s baton. She likely recalled playing those same tunes for the first time decades before; reimagining her husband’s glance over, sharing musical ecstasy…“Till you find your dreams.” At the end, the crowd roared! People took their ceremonial bows; first the singers, the chorus, then the symphony… including Jane Little, who shimmied down her tall stool, then climbed back up, for an encore, Irving Berlin’s iconic “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” The crowd clapped in delight. As did Jane, proudly slapping her bass fiddle.


UNTIL SHE SLID off the stool, knocking over her instrument as she crashed to the floor! Few on stage noticed. “She slipped,” I murmured. But she laid there, limp. One of the bassists rushed to help her get up. No movement. An usher approached, and then a stagehand…still the conductor, singers, most others in the orchestra hadn’t noticed, and kept playing. “There’s no people like show people, they smile when they are low….” By then, most in the audience had seen the commotion, the tiny “bass lady” being hustled away; the big bassist lifting (cradling) her tenderly, like an infant. “Let’s go on with the show!” The music stopped. At first, silence. Very few clapped. Others joined in, tepidly, then rousingly as before! Not for the grand conclusion, but even grander Jane Little, who died shortly thereafter, at age 87. The grandest exit, indeed. Living out her calling. Am I? Are you?


“The first step towards fulfilling your dreams is to find out what those dreams are. Start where you find passion. Follow it.” (Anonymous)