This Black Musician Says He Was Unjustly Fired From His Orchestra Job. Now He’s Calling Out A System Of Inequality


The Washington Post / Contributor / Getty Images

When acclaimed musician Josh Jones joined the Kansas City Symphony in 2020, he made history. Jones was named Principal Percussionist, making him the first Black man in the symphony’s 38-year history to hold a leadership position. But he says it all came to an end when he was denied tenure leaving him with no job and no health insurance as he completes cancer treatment.

Initially, Jones had no plans to call out what he said was an unjust process or the micro-aggressions experienced, which included being invited to an event at a former slave plantation and having trouble getting through security into the building. He felt compelled to, however, after learning of unfounded rumors being spread. “I wanted to set the record straight by going public,” Jone said.

Now the percussionist is speaking out about his experience to the media, exposing what he says is a longtime history of bias within the American orchestral community, where Black musicians continually face barriers, especially during the tenure process. 

With the help of the Black Orchestral Network (BON), which aims “to create an inclusive and equitable environment for Black people in the orchestral field,” Jones went public with his story.

Founding BON member David Norville told ESSENCE, “The challenges we as Black orchestral musicians face couldn’t be farther from the sounds we produce, the venues we’ve played in, or the audience members we’ve pleased.”

“Those who exclude us make it about everything but our music,” added Norville. “The struggle is fundamentally an issue of civil rights. So we (BON) are endlessly oriented toward a fair and equitable employment experience as well as a place for refuge against anti-Blackness.”

So, how did Jones go from making history as the first Black tenure-track musician in the Kansas City Symphony’s history in September 2020 to losing his job less than three years later, in January 2023?

This Black Musician Says He Was Unjustly  Fired From His Orchestra Job. Now He’s Calling Out  A  System Of Inequality
Josh Jones

According to Jones, The orchestra tenure process varies and is often shrouded in mystery, and with some symphonies this is more true than others. “I’ve been in three orchestras, and each orchestra has a process where after you win the audition, there is a probationary period where you play under a short contract. I’ve heard people having as short of a contract as three months, and as long of a contract as seven years. It depends on each orchestra and how they want to handle the tenure process,” says Jones.

An open letter from the BON demanding tenure reform notes that “most audition and/or tenure committees do not receive training or guidance on the tenure process. This lack of standards impedes transparency and can lead to inconsistent procedures. Often, musicians have little to help them understand what orchestras expect of them, which makes it hard to successfully deliver on those expectations.”

When Jones was denied tenure with the Kansas City Symphony, “it was equivalent to ending his career there—he would be obligated to leave at the end of his initial short-term contract,” The Washington Post reports.

According to Danny Beckley, Kansas City Symphony president and CEO of the Kansas City Symphony, “the principal role is really a leadership role, and it requires communication and organization and advanced planning.” When Jones was denied tenure, the feedback he received revolved around what were noted as organizational deficiencies and complaints about his work. 

But Jones is adamant this is not the case. During his time with Kansas City, the feedback Jones says he received was not detailed, especially in comparison to his other tenure track processes. In addition, “every review during my tenure process at Kansas City had incorrect information.

In response to these allegations, Beckley issued a statement to local news outlet KSHB 41, which read in part, “While this individual situation is a personnel matter and our comments therefore are limited, our tenure process is comprehensive and objective. This process includes regular, detailed feedback – both in-person and followed-up in writing – at scheduled intervals, so that all parties avoid any surprises about that process, or the outcome of the proceedings. Race is not a factor in these decisions.”

But there is one thing Jones wanted to make sure was clear: “I love music,” he said. It all started when “my grandpa gave me a drum set when I was three for Christmas,” Jones shared. “I was fortunate enough when I was in fourth grade to get into this program called the percussion scholarship program that was headed by a percussionist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.”

After graduating from DePaul University’s School of Music, Jones had a fellowship with the Detroit Symphony and then another with the Pittsburgh Symphony. “But before I even started with Pittsburgh, I won my orchestral job in Alberta, Canada, with the Calgary Philharmonic,” said Jones.

From there, Jones beat out an extremely competitive field to become the principal percussionist at the Kansas City Symphony. This is a testament to Jones’ talent—winning three orchestral auditions in less than four years is an almost unprecedented accomplishment in the musical world. 

Currently, Jones is a tenured principal percussionist for the Grant Park Orchestra, which plays during the summer season. “I want my job back,” said Jones, who is continuing “to audition for a permanent slot in a full-season orchestra. But he hasn’t forgotten Kansas City.” One thing that’s important for Jones is having health insurance, so he can keep getting cancer screenings.



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