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Former Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley dies at 86

By Genelle Pugmire special To The Standard-Examiner - | Feb 22, 2021

Jerold Ottley was the director with the beautiful white hair who had the gift of music and the energy needed to take the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square to the corners of the earth with their music.

Ottley died Friday in Salt Lake City. He was 86.

For nearly a quarter of a century, from 1974-1999, Jerold Ottley directed The Tabernacle Choir from its home on Temple Square, then known as the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”

While serving as the choir’s director, Ottley directed 1,300 “Music & the Spoken Word” broadcasts, 30 commercial recordings, and more than 20 major tours that took the choir to places throughout Europe, the Holy Land, and across the U.S. and Canada, among other places around the globe.

After the choir performed under Ottley’s baton at President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural in 1981, Reagan dubbed it “America’s Choir.” The name stuck.

Easily recognized by his distinguished head of white hair and what choir members described as “his beautiful hands,” Ottley was revered by those who sang with him, worked with him, and observed his dedication to making the Choir ever better, according to a statement from the choir offices.

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.”

Ottley left a great legacy for the choir. While “Music & the Spoken Word” has been the identifier for the choir to the world for 100 years, Ottley brought them into modern times and introduced a variety of music and sound that enhanced the choir’s repertoire.

His popularity and that of the choir’s had many young LDS members warm-heartedly dubbing them “Jerry O and the MoTabs,” reflecting the more modern sound of the choir.

Current Choir Director Mack Wilberg appreciated the groundwork put in place for musical excellence, saying: “Jerold Ottley was not only a wonderful musician but a great person who, like those before him, laid a foundation for today’s choir. His legacy is a gold thread in the tapestry of the choir’s past, present, and future.”

Working closely with choir advisers and under the direction of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Spencer W. Kimball, Ottley developed a professional sound for the all-volunteer choir, emphasizing music fundamentals, including harmony, diction and pitch, according the choir offices.

In addition to his musical talent, Ottley had a gift for organization. He put in place major changes to the Choir’s operation, including a retirement policy, attendance policy, structured audition procedures, and seating arrangements.

After his formal retirement in 1999, Ottley and his wife, noted soprano JoAnn Ottley, became volunteers and directed the newly created Choir Training School to prepare new members for the rigors of music performance. Adding to his long list of accomplishments, he also revised the choral library database for the Choir’s more than 800,000 pieces of sheet music.

Born April 7, 1934, in Murray, to Sidney and Alice Ottley, he began his work with the Choir as a part-time assistant director until he became the 13th music director, succeeding Jay Welch. He served under two choir presidents, Oakley Evans and Wendell Smoot.

Ottley completed his master’s degree in choral conducting at the University of Utah; was awarded a Fulbright grant, as was his wife, to the Academy of Music in Cologne, West Germany; and received his doctorate from the University of Oregon.

Prior to his full-time appointment to the choir, he was a faculty member at the University of Utah Music Department where he served as assistant chair, according to his biographical information.

Funeral arrangements are expected to be announced at a later date.


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