Ralph Jones, faculty-in-residence at Afrikan Heritage House, recently accepted a teaching position at Spelman College in Atlanta beginning next year. Jones, who is also currently co-chair of the music program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, leaves behind a five-year legacy of spiritual and musical guidance at Oberlin.
Growing up in what he described as the “musical womb” of Detroit, Jones was surrounded by Motown and improvisation-oriented mentors. He began playing clarinet at 7, before later learning saxophone. At 14, Jones met jazz saxophonist Yusef Lateef, who became his lifetime friend and mentor and with whom he would travel the world playing concerts and studying musical cultures.
During his time at Oberlin, Jones has been involved in numerous lectures and productions, exposing the community to a variety of musical and spiritual influences, including drummer Norman Connors, vocalist Shahida Nurullah and Lateef. He also taught Introduction to African American Music and Great Thinkers in African American Improvisational Tradition, which offered students a glimpse into the improvisational minds of musicians like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman.
Jones is leaving Oberlin in hopes that Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women, will offer him more opportunities to teach.
“I realized I had gone basically as far as I could go here,” said Jones. “I’ll be teaching [at Spelman], which was something that was evasive here for me, and I’ll be conducting their jazz ensemble, so I’m really looking forward to continuing my educational aspiration, as well as my musical productions.”
Although Jones’s freedom to teach classes at Oberlin proved to be limited, he nonetheless interacted frequently with students and faculty.
“The students have always been acquiring, very cordial, very wonderful. … I’m teaching regardless of whether it’s in the College or not. I’m going to be teaching and inspiring and encouraging students — that’s really where my life focus is.”
Johnny Cochran, OC ’11, and double-degree fifth- year Aaron Janik echoed sentiments popular among students regarding their interactions with Jones.
“Ralph is a long-time mentor and friend,” wrote Cochran, who studied Jazz Saxophone in the Conservatory, in an email to the Review. “Through my four years here at Oberlin, Ralph has been a positive force on my musical evolution. … [He] is a brilliant and humble man who will greatly missed by all of Oberlin.”
Janik, who studies Jazz Trumpet in the Conservatory, said that he also learned a great deal from Jones. “I have known Ralph for five years, and I have been fortunate to hear him perform and even perform alongside him several times,” said Janik. “Each time has been an incredible learning experience, as he is an unbelievable musician, a great listener and a great person.” Assistant Professor in African Politics Booker Peek wrote a recommendation letter for Jones’s application to Spelman in which he touched on his first impressions of Jones, and how Jones’s impact on the students continued to develop over time.
“What struck me most at that time was Mr. Jones’s ability to connect instantly with others with his very endearing personality, ready smile and incredible sincerity,” Peek wrote. “Mr. Jones radiates a calm- ness, excitement and civility that energizes everyone touched by his glow.”
Joshua Morton, a College senior and Africana Studies major, said that Jones’s commitment to teaching had impacted him significantly.
“I will miss the way he teaches,” said Morton. “He expects a certain discipline, but meets it with the reality of the creative process. He makes sure that people know what they’re doing, but does so without killing the creative spirit within them under a logical machine. My experience [is that Jones] views creativity as the ultimate goal of music, and I think there’s a very, very small minority of teachers who do that.”