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Baylor organist Joyce Jones remembered for passion for music, students | Education

Friends and colleagues remember Baylor University organ professor Joyce Jones as a passionate advocate for the organ and her students and as a world-class talent at the keyboard. She was also an energetic, talkative soul who sewed her own sparkling concert gowns, tended a notable rose garden with her late husband Robert and generously shared resources and help with the people around her.

Jones died Feb. 28 after suffering injuries from a fall several days earlier. She was 89. Funeral services are planned for 10 am Monday at Seventh & James Baptist Church, 602 James Ave., following visitation from 3 to 5 pm Sunday at OakCrest Funeral Home, 4520 Bosque Blvd. Burial will be in Oakwood Cemetery.

Jones taught organ at Baylor from 1969 until her retirement in 2012, with her career punctuated by performances across the country and the world. She played on some of the world’s most celebrated organs, including at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Chartres Cathedral also in France, Riverside Church in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.

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She also built the organ program at Baylor, not only recruiting and teaching students, but consulting on the university’s major organs in Jones Concert Hall, Truett Seminary and, one of her favorites, the Ruffatti Organ in Roxy Grove Hall.

“Her legacy is there in wood, steel and leather, and students as well. There are generations of students that have gone through that program,” Baylor Director of Keyboard Studies Brian Marks said. “When you think of the identity of an institution, part of the character … is left by the people who taught there. Joyce left an indelible part of the character and history of the Baylor School of Music.”

She was born Anita Joyce Gilstrap, the daughter of Johnnie and Jessie Gilstrap, on Feb. 13, 1933, in Taylor, Texas. She grew up in George West, graduating from high school at age 16 and going on to earn music degrees from bachelor’s to doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. She married Robert C. Jones, a pastor and US Army Chaplain, in 1954, and the two were married 65 years before his death in 2019. They adopted three children, Robin, Janet and Jeffrey.

After postings in Germany, Panama, New York and Colorado, the Joneses moved to Waco in the 1960s, and Jones joined the Baylor School of Music in 1969. Over her four decades as organ professor and organist-in-residence, Jones became known for her virtuosity, passion for the organ and seemingly boundless energy when away from the organ console.

“She was such an irresistible ball of energy, in her program, in her concertizing and away from it,” said Marks, also a neighbor to the Joneses for two years. “She did that for over 40 years and never seemed to slow down.”

Becky Ward, the organist at First Presbyterian Church for 42 years, studied under Jones in the late 1970s and the mid 1980s and found her a teacher ever willing to help her students, but always truthful about their playing when it didn’t measure up. Whenever she started a sentence, ‘You know …,’ students braced for the gentle criticism about to follow. Ward said she once complained about a particular organ after she had finished a less-than-stellar performance. Jones steered the attention from the instrument to the instrumentalist.

“‘You know, a professional makes any organ sound good,’ she told me. And I have never forgotten that,” Ward said.

Students unprepared for a lesson learned they could temporarily deflect her by asking about one of the famous organs she had played and its registration, the combination of pipes and stops that create an organ’s distinctive sounds. She would then unwind a long, cheery explanation that would consume the class period, though Jones inevitably would make sure students caught up on the missed lesson, Ward said.

Then there was the class that Jones, suffering from back pain, taught while lying on the floor only to find something that needed correction.

“She had a bird’s-eye-view of our pedal technique and let us know she did not like what she was seeing,” Ward said.

Jones was a lifetime member of the American Guild of Organists and led the organization in directing and hosting its Pipe Organ Encounters aimed at introducing young people to the instrument nicknamed “the queen of instruments.” She led summer camps at Baylor for young keyboardists to get a taste of playing the organ, played at the Baylor program’s Halloween-themed concerts for kids with gusto and costumes, filled in for local church organists and played the occasional public concert, including a series with late Waco pianist and composer Kurt Kaiser.

“She championed every person that tried to learn the organ,” said Lydia Bratcher, the organist at Seventh & James Baptist Church for the last 18 years.

Bratcher, a longtime pianist, took lessons to transition to organ and said that while the thought of playing organ in Jones’ home church was intimidating, Jones was never less than gracious or affirming of her work as organist. Jones frequently shared music, arrangements or other resources, Bratcher said.

Jones’ expertise was not limited to the keyboard. Family friends and neighbors knew her knack for jams and jellies, and she sewed many of the sparkling sequined gowns she wore in concert. One passion was roses, and the garden she and her husband tended at their Castle Heights home drew community attention when it bloomed in spring.

She continued to garden and play organ days before her death.

Baylor School of Music Dean Gary Mortenson said she was stalwart in her advocacy for the organ even as global trends in church music shrank the central role organs once played and the congregations that grew up with hymn- and anthem-driven worship music.

“You had to be a headstrong advocate to try to stem the tide, and she succeeded in part,” Mortenson said. “In her passion and dedication to all things organ, she was never at a loss in conveying strong opinions on things. … Surely the entire music world is grieving for Joyce Jones.”

Jones is survived by her daughter Robin Edgerton of Waco, daughter and son-in-law Jan and Greg Brown of Mansfield, daughter-in-law Julie Strickland of Fort Smith, Arkansas, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials be sent to Truett Seminary at Baylor University for the Joyce Jones Endowed Scholarship Fund; the Robert C. Jones George W. Truett Theological Seminary Endowed Scholarship Fund; Joyce and Robert Jones George W. Truett Theological Seminary Endowed Scholarship Fund; or Providence Hospice Place.

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