Jerold Ottley, longtime Tabernacle Choir director, passes at age 86 from COVID-19-related illness

Longtime Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley, 86, passed away Friday morning, Feb. 19, 2021, after a lengthy COVID-19-related illness. 

Ottley helmed the choir — now known as the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square — from 1972 to 1999.

“He was my hero, the best man I ever knew — I got to experience him in a different way than everyone else in the word,” said Allison Ottley, his daughter, recalling his love of humor, gardening and popcorn.

With baton in hand and his well-recognized silver hair, Jerold Ottley provided a well-recognized presence and persona while directing the choir for a quarter-century.

“He was devoted to his work, he was devoted to good music, and he was devoted to the Church in every way,” said Allison Ottley. 

JoAnn and Jerold Ottley
JoAnn and Jerold Ottley Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

When his wife, JoAnn — an accomplished soprano who also served as Tabernacle Choir’s vocal coach for 24 years — suffered vision loss a half-dozen years ago, he focused on attending to her needs and care. 

“They were joined at the hip,” said Allison Ottley of her parents, who were to have celebrated their 65th anniversary this June.

After the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in in-home Church worship services last spring, Jerold Ottley was circling the neighborhood and ward to help provide the sacrament ordinance to those remaining in their residences, his daughter said.

“He was ‘duty’ with a capital ‘D,’ ” Allison Ottley said of her father. “He could never hold still for very long.”

He was in hospice care in a Holladay, Utah, assisted living facility at the time of his death.

A recent Church News feature on Jerold Ottley highlighted his deep footprint of gospel devotion and musical capacity that was also reflected in his innovative leadership. Working closely with choir advisers and staff, he made several significant changes that forever changed the choir and its brand and still ripple throughout the organization more than two decades after his retirement.

Jerold Ottley conducts the audience during a session of general conference.
Jerold Ottley conducts the audience during a session of general conference. Credit: Chuck Wing, Deseret News

“Technically, Ottley worked to bring the choir’s now trademark sound in pure harmony with the dignity and variety of the music it performed,” said the Dec. 5, 2020, Church News article.

“On the administrative side, Ottley helped formulate the choir’s existing policy of singers retiring at age 60 or following 20 years of service, whichever came first. Changes were also made to attendance policies and seating arrangements. Meanwhile, the choir implemented a more structured and formalized audition process. 

“Such Ottley-directed changes allowed the amateur choir to realize new levels of musical “professionalism.’”

Read more: Footprints from Jerold Ottley’s innovative leadership as director of the Tabernacle Choir remain 2 decades after his retirement

Born April 7, 1934, in Murray, Utah, to Sidney and Alice Ottley, Jerold Don Ottley married JoAnn South on June 22, 1956, in the Salt Lake Temple. He is survived by his wife, their two children — Brent and Allison — and a grandson.

Ottley’s duties with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir included preparing and performing nearly 1,300 weekly radio and television broadcasts of “Music & the Spoken Word.” He also led the choir in more than 30 commercial recordings and more than 20 major tours, in addition to regular concerts at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

Jerold D. Ottley directed the Tabernacle Choir for the last time at broadcast in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Sunday, October 17, 1999. His first directed broadcast was Sep 8, 1974.
Jerold D. Ottley directed the Tabernacle Choir for the last time at broadcast in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Sunday, October 17, 1999. His first directed broadcast was Sep 8, 1974. Credit: Johanna Workman, Deseret News

Following his retirement, he volunteered for several years as an administrator and teacher for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Training School at Temple Square, as a Tabernacle Choir staff volunteer revising the choral library database and served as artistic advisor to the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable.

From 2005-2008, he also directed the Brigham Young University-Hawaii Chorale and taught music education and assisted in administration at the Church-owned college in Oahu, Hawaii.

He also served as a bishop in his Latter-day Saint ward.

Jason Swensen of the Church News contributed to this report.