Former Tabernacle Choir Music Director, Jerold Don Ottley, passed away in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the age of 86 on Friday, 19 February 2021, due to complications relating to COVID-19. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Allison Ottley.
Ottley was born on Saturday, 7 April 1934, in the Cottonwood Maternity Home in Murray, Utah, to Sidney James and Alice Warren Ottley. He completed his master’s degree in choral conducting at the University of Utah and was awarded a Fullbright grant, as was his wife, to the Academy of Music in Cologne, West Germany. He received his doctorate from the University of Oregon.
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. 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.
Jerold Ottley, who directed the Choir from its home on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, for nearly a quarter-century, from 1974-1999, was easily recognized by his distinguished head of white hair and what members of the Choir referred to as “his beautiful hands.”
His time as director of the Choir included thousands of rehearsals and performances, 30 commercial recordings, 1,300 Music & the Spoken Word broadcasts, and more than 20 major tours around the world.
Ron Jarrett, the Choir’s President, sang as a tenor in the Choir under the baton of Jarold Ottley. He 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.”
Choir Director Mack Wilberg added, “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.”
LDS Living reports that “Ottley’s imprint on the Choir reflected his deep spiritual roots, his professional musical abilities, and his organizational acumen.” He developed a professional sound for the all-volunteer choir, emphasizing music fundamentals, including harmony, diction, and pitch.
It is of interest to note that after the Tabernacle Choir performed under Ottley’s baton at President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural in 1981, Reagan dubbed the Choir “America’s Choir.” The name has stuck to this very day.
In addition to his musical talent, Ottley also put in place major changes to the Choir’s operation, including a retirement policy, attendance policy, structured audition procedures, and seating arrangements. When he retired in 1999, he and his wife, noted soprano JoAnn Ottley, became volunteers and directed the newly created Choir Training School to prepare new Choir members for the rigors of music performance. He also revised the choral library database for the Choir’s more than 800,000 pieces of sheet music.