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

During Jerold Ottley’s tenure as director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, U.S. President Ronald Reagan dubbed the venerable organization “America’s Choir.”

High praise, indeed — but not entirely indicative of the choir’s global reach stretching far beyond national borders.

During his 25 years (1974-1999) at the helm of the choir now known as The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Ottley fulfilled the organization’s defining charge to bring joy, peace and healing to its worldwide audience. 

But Ottley’s deep footprint of gospel devotion and musical capacity was also reflected in his innovative leadership. Working closely with choir advisors and staff, he made several significant changes that forever changed the choir and its brand and still ripple throughout the organization two decades after his retirement.

Technically, Ottley worked to bring the choir’s now trademark sound in pure harmony with the dignity and variety of the music it performed.

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. 

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

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

In a Deseret News story published shortly before his retirement, Ottley explained the reasoning behind placing so much stress on music fundamentals. “We don’t have a lot of rehearsal time like some choirs, who practice for six to eight weeks for a concert. … We have a concert every Sunday, ripping and reading through music so fast that people need extra ability to keep up.”

Ottley was also key in formalizing a requirement that would-be choir members hold a current temple recommend. After this change, he acknowledged, “The choir turned into a powerful spiritual organization.”

Ottley originally began working with the choir as its assistant director while still employed as the assistant chair of the music department at the University of Utah.

Splitting time between the university and the choir was “the best of all possible worlds,” he said at the time.

“I’ll have the opportunity to work with the choir from time to time and be associated with its development, but I wouldn’t have the prime responsibility. I could have my cake and eat it too, as it were.”

There was little time to enjoy his “cake.” He was soon appointed director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — a position he would fill for a quarter-century.

Born April 7, 1934, in Murray, Utah, to Sidney and Alice Ottley, Jerold Ottley, worked as a teacher and conductor at Salt Lake City-area schools and churches. 

His 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 Ottley conducts the audience of Sunday morning's session.
Jerold Ottley conducts the audience of Sunday morning’s session. Credit: Chuck Wing, Deseret News

Millions of Latter-day Saints across the globe would also come to recognize Ottley and his distinguished white head of hair as he led, baton in hand, the choir at general conference.

Retired Church News editor Gerry Avant covered the Tabernacle Choir for much of her career, including several tours. Her frequent assignments and deep affection for the choir provide her with many opportunities to interact with Ottley and his wife, JoAnn, a celebrated soprano and the choir’s former voice coach.

No surprise, Avant was on hand when the Ottleys participated in their final “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast on Oct. 17, 1999.

All stops, she wrote, were pulled out to mark the couple’s shared retirement from the choir:

“At a mini-concert after the broadcast, President Thomas S. Monson conveyed love and appreciation from the First Presidency and Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt proclaimed Oct. 17, 1999, ‘Jerold D. Ottley Day.’ 

“Richard D. Alsop, president of Bonneville Communications and executive producer of ‘Music and the Spoken Word,’ presented a plaque to Brother Ottley on behalf of Bonneville Communications, Bonneville International Corp., KSL, CBS Radio Network and more than 2,300 radio and television broadcasters and cable casters.”

That day, the Salt Lake Tabernacle was almost filled with Ottley relatives, friends, admirers and hundreds of former choir members.

President Monson, then first counselor in the First Presidency, quoted Doctrine and Covenants 25:12: “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.”

The scripture, President Monson said, was as a tribute to Brother and Sister Ottley, and to all members of the choir, past and present.

President Monson presented on behalf of the First Presidency a plaque to Brother Ottley. The inscription noted that Brother Ottley’s tenure as music director of the choir represents a significant contribution of time and effort in the service of others.

A plaque from the First Presidency to Sister Ottley commended her service to the choir as vocal coach and as a singer who has been a soloist with the choir.

Former director Jerold Ottley conducts choir during general conference session in 1989. In accepting hall of fame induction, director Mack Wilberg acknowledged that thousands have contributed to choir's success over the years.
Former director Jerold Ottley conducts choir during general conference session in 1989. In accepting hall of fame induction, director Mack Wilberg acknowledged that thousands have contributed to choir’s success over the years. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News Archive

Ottley may have “retired” as the choir director in 1999, but he continued to serve for years to come.

For several years he volunteered 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.

The Ottleys are parents of two children.