1992 Interview with Craig Jessop

Jessop had a distinguished career as a Lieutenant Colonel from the United States Air Force, where he was director of the Singing Sergeants (1979–1987), commander/conductor, Band of the United States Air Forces in Europe (1987–91) and commander/conductor of the Air Combat Command Heartland of American Band (1991–95).  Jessop was named Associate Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 1995 and became Music Director in 1999.  He held that position until 2008 when he left to become head of the music department at Utah State University. 

CJ:            I’m currently the commander of the Strategic Air Command Band at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.  I’m a major in the Air Force.

Q:            And how long, Major, have you known Robert Shaw?

CJ:            Well, I have known of Robert Shaw and his work virtually all of my life.  I was bitten by the choral art from the time I was a young boy.  And I can remember borrowing recordings of the Robert Shaw Chorale from my choral music teacher, specifically the spirituals, and then I discovered Benjamin Britten, that great recording of the Ceremony of Carols, and from that point on, this was a man that I wanted to work with.  I grew up in Utah, out in the western part of the United States, and we had a great choral tradition there, of course the Tabernacle Choir, but I never had a chance to work with Mr. Shaw.  But one of his assistants, Dr. William Ramsey, came to Utah State University and passed on to us that Shaw legacy and through William Ramsey, who himself is a consummate choral musician, I felt like I knew Robert Shaw.

But it wasn’t until about five years ago when he did a conducting seminar at Emory University with “Elijah” that it was the first time I’d ever worked with him.  And at that particular time I was commander of the United States Air Force Band in Europe in Germany, and I said to Mr. Shaw, I know you have your festival in France.  If we could be of assistance in providing brass or woodwinds, we have an international mission to play there in Europe and we would be happy to support you if we could do this.  And a few months later he called me and said, “We’re going to do the B Minor Mass.  Do you think you could help us with winds and brass?”

So, in the summer of ’90, while I think we did seven performances of the B Minor Mass, we were able to provide brass players, woodwind players and percussionists for those performances.  And that was my first chance, those three weeks, in 1990 to work with Mr. Shaw.  And it was heaven!  I’ve never worked so hard or intense ever.  I’ve never seen anyone who spends more time in score preparation, who has the score – every intimate part of the score – in mind, who has spent hundreds of hours marking the score and marking the parts, not only the choral parts but all the instrumental parts.  And it was one of the mountain top experiences of performing with him, and now, once again, to be here.  I am almost grateful that it was at this point in my career that I was able to work closely with him rather than at an earlier part.

Q:            It took some time on your part to be ready for him.  Is that it?

CJ:            Yeah, in many ways.  I was - it’s just hard to explain.  I feel like this man is still at his very peak, and it came at the right time, the very right time for me.

Q:            When I – you describe yourself and the work you do in the military where discipline is a very important factor.  Is it that aspect of Shaw’s approach to music making that appeals to you?

CJ:            It’s interesting.  I had a conversation just the other day with a friend of mine.  Robert Shaw is a four-star general if I’ve ever met one.  This man is a consummate leader.  There is no doubt and he is in control of every single aspect.  In Europe he would arrive several hours before the singers would arrive at the concert place and personally would place chairs and music stands.  And then when he’d get on the podium and look at all of us, he’d say, this is not at all how I saw it in my mind.  I saw you here, or I saw this there.  And he would move these things.  Every single detail.  Not that he doesn’t delegate.  He does that as well.  He has a general staff who support him as well but this man is a Dwight Eisenhower or a George S. Patton or a Curtis LeMay.  I’d better put in LeMay for Strategic Air Command.  This man is a leader, in the truest sense of the word.

Q:            I don’t want to dwell on the military metaphor too much longer, but the kind of project that we’ve been observing taking shape here this week at Carnegie Hall – the Missa Solemnis.  Is he a good strategist in terms of taking the rehearsals from the beginning to the end and finishing it off?  Do you sense that there is a real battle plan there?

CJ:            Without a doubt.  He knows from the very beginning and there is not one second wasted.  Every exercise, everything we do in the preparation. is geared to one end and specifically tailored.  With any person, the success of the performance will depend upon the success of the rehearsal because we will never exceed the amount of discipline that we achieve in the rehearsal.  What will exceed is the emotional intensity.  And what I have noticed is, in a lot of the preparation, he conserves the voices beautifully.  This soft singing, this counting, this discipline, discipline, discipline, and then the timing of the emotional release is what’s perfect because it peaks at the right moment.  He uncaps that strength and he knows exactly what he’s doing in this timing of all the rehearsals.

Q:            Are these skills and values and techniques that you are able to apply to your work with bands?

CJ:            Absolutely.  I identify with Mr. Shaw in a modest, modest, modest respect in that all my training was in vocal and choral work.  I did play some, a few instruments, but I was principally a singer and I was hired by the United States Air Force to conduct the Air Force Singing Sergeants which I did for eight years in Washington, D.C.  I loved my job.  I really loved working in the Air Force and elected to continue on, and because of that, I needed to go on and take a band, which I have never regretted at all. 

But music is music, whether it’s voices or whether it’s instruments.  Notes is notes.  Mr. Shaw had a choral background for which he crossed over into the orchestral, and to me, there is so much to be gained from both worlds.  I wish that more people could fuse the two of them.  There is an immediacy and a personal involvement of the singer that sometimes an instrumentalist does not experience.  Also, an instrumentalist is not accustomed to working with a text.  On the other hand, the singers are often very undisciplined.  They are so caught up in the emotion and in the beauty of making sound with their own body that they lack a rhythmic discipline and a discipline of sometimes pitch and color.  And when those two fuse as Mr. Shaw has done it, it’s remarkable.  And I have looked to him as a role model, if I may say so, of one who’s been able to take the choral art and the instrumental art and fuse the two together.

Q:            Well he may be a role model for you but I’ll bet you that your uniform is more neatly pressed than his is.

CJ:            I didn’t realize it but in France I kept showing up with pressed shirts and I guess it became a bit of a symbol of me.  Yes, it’s ingrained.  I do press my shirts.

Q:            Craig, thank you very, very much.

CJ:            Thank you very much.