Perfect Sound Forever

William Corbett- Jones
San Francisco State Honors Music Professor

This seems to be a good time to write about William Corbett-Jones as San Francisco State University is honoring his tenure with them (since 1967) with an all Beethoven scholarship concert series; proceeds to benefit piano students and piano studies. The programs offer the cycle of Beethoven Sonatas, opus #2 on the Feb 24th program, and opus #10 is on the April 6th program. On the Feb 24th concert Corbett- Jones informed the audience that “he chose the order of the Sonatas on the two programs to show the development of Beethoven’s work between the early opus and the later one”. 

Corbett-Jones whole thrust as a concert pianist and music professor seems to revolve around wanting to show the evolution and development of a composer’s work; as well as an avid interest in instilling an understanding and love for the piano and the piano repertoire. With his interest in world history and the connection to the historical derivations and influences on music, he passes on this love of knowledge and music to his students. Professor Jones states, “to educate students to become significant creators, scholars and educators capable of major contributions in our urban, national and global environment”.

Elliott Dunlap, a bay area concert pianist, reaped the benefits of Jones’s philosophy while studying with him in the mid 1990’s: “I was primarily a cellist in my youth and Bill taught me to love the piano repertoire and to see it not as an exploration of history but also as a process of self discovery. His knowledge of it is encyclopedic, just as his frame of reference is for history and language is”. Reno concert pianist Allan Fuller remembers Jones using literary references such as ‘stentorian’ to describe an octave passage in one of Fuller’s lessons. A little intimidating for young Allan, I’m sure, “feelings of polar opposites but kindred spirits”, he states.

Dr. Corbett-Jones is in his 70’s and a more vital man would be hard to imagine. I’m sure his grueling schedule would dwarf most people half his age. Jones loves to travel and his  teaching and master classes have taken him all over the globe. To China 7 times and more recently to Western China, 3 years in a row in the Autonomous Region and has been guest professor at the Xinjiang Arts and also at the Yining University. He also performs and teaches master classes at the Central Conservatory in Bejing. He studied Mandarin in order to communicate with his students in China. Of course, that’s not the only language Jones speaks, try German, Italian and French! He is Juilliard trained and the recipient of a Fulbright Grant. Corbett-Jones received the Doctoral Equivalency from S.F. State Univ. in 1973. Professor Corbett-Jones is no stranger to the concert stage. He has performed the complete piano solo work of Chopin and Mozart and chamber music of Beethoven and Brahms; performing in the Salzburg Chamber Music Festival and  soloist with the Maggio Musicale Orchestra in Florence 3 times under the direction of Kurt Mazur., conductor of the New York Philharmonic.  Also, a soloist with S.F. Symphony Orchestra 8 times. He was the pianist of the famed Alma Trio for 8 years.

I first started attending Corbett-Jones concerts in the 1970’s with Harriet Jones, a friend and student of his (no relation). I was drawn to his sincere and conversational playing and diverse programs. Not lopsided with too many romantic works or modern pieces. His are beautifully balanced programs with a touch of obscure works thrown in for interest.

I’m almost always captivated by his rolling continuation of sound; brooks and streams come to mind. I believe music scholars call it ‘the long line’. Before each piece on a program he likes to offer some history and description of the work. Always the educator and scholar. 

Students and friends alike speak almost reverently of Dr Jones’s limitless knowledge of music and music history. S.F. State Professor, Inara Morgenstern, who has known Corbett- Jones for 50 years and studied with him many years ago states, “I decided the life of the musician was for me because of Bill Jones. Every time I teach my own students I hear his echo although I could never match his gentleness and generosity nor his awe inspiring mastery  and vast repertoire. He could launch into innumerable classics out of the blue. A rare gift! Generous with his knowledge, insatiably curious about everything”. Student Mark Wyman offers,” He loves knowledge. He likes it for his own sake to broaden his skills and interpretations. He makes connections between different pieces, composers, periods and disciplines”.
It would almost seem as if Jones had a photographic memory according to some of his students and friends. Pianist Eric Thompson recalls during a lesson, “Bill hadn’t touched a certain piece of music for decades. He took my place at the bench, wrote in a couple of fingerings that he had been suggesting to me, then launched into the passage at full tempo”. Thompson thought Bill “nailed it” after the 2nd attempt but Jones thought the 3rd worked, “There it is” he stated. Corbett- Jones says no to having a photographic memory but Eric Thompson thinks “it is an uncanny interest in the subject and ability to retain whatever passes his senses once”.  Thompson points out that this affinity does not apply to his knowledge of modern electronics though. Join the club.

Not only do his students honor him but composers compose works dedicated to him.
Some notables are Kirke Mechem (Sonata For Piano), John Sharpley (Etude For the Right Hand), Phelps Dean Witter (Music For Piano), and the composer I enjoy so much is Roger Nixon who wrote 24 Preludes For Piano for Corbett-Jones. A tall elegant man who usually is in the audience whether Jones is playing one of his works or not. I always thought Corbett-Jones had an affinity with composers such as Scarlatti, Schubert, Mozart and Hayden although he seems equally at home when performing and recording modern work such as Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemith.

Bay area pianist, Harriet Jones, related a story to me that took place in 1989 during the bay area’s huge 7.1 earthquake. She and Judy Blaylock were in the middle of their lesson, piano for 4 hands, ‘a sublime Schubert piece’, she recalls, with Professor Corbett-Jones at his home when the earthquake took place. After being thrown around by the massive rocking and rolling, Corbett-Jones said “Well, let’s get back to the lesson now.”  That’s dedication!

We die-hard music lovers and champions of Dr. Corbett-Jones come from all over the bay area to attend his concerts. It’s not often you get to hear a performer of Professor Jones’s caliber for such a nominal fee through the San Francisco State University faculty concerts.  I’m sure that he will continue his performances at different venues along with master classes at various university residencies around the world, but I bet it safe to assume that he won’t stop teaching and giving concerts at San Francisco State any time soon. After all, he has been performing and teaching there since 1967. Why stop now?

Neila Mezynski