Alva James-Johnson

Alva James-Johnson: Life is made of music, thankfully

What would the world be like without music?

That was a thought-provoking question I encountered this week.

The man who made me pause and think about such a gloomy scenario was T. Marshall Jones, former chairman of the Department of Fine Arts at Albany State University.

Some in Columbus may remember Jones as the man who built the school's marching band from 1963 to 1969 and as a fixture at the annual Fountain City Classic at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium for more than 20 years. The football game features ASU and Fort Valley State University, two HBCUs with a long-standing rivalry.

Well, Jones was in town Tuesday for an interview with Gloria Strode, host of the "Straight Forward" TV show that airs 10:30 a.m. Sundays on The CW network. Strode invited me to meet Jones because she thought I would find him interesting. I'm not a sports fan, and I have never even been to the Fountain City Classic, although I've heard a lot about it since moving to Columbus.

But I do like music. So, I thought it would be cool to meet a man who has become a legend among ASU alumni living in Columbus and other areas.

I met Jones and his wife, Mary, at the NBC 38 Studio off Buena Vista Road. They were a charming couple who dressed immaculately for the interview. After a warm greeting, we began to talk about music and how it impacted his life.

As a child, Jones said, he spent summers with his grandmother in Orange County, Va., while his parents -- a cook and butler -- worked on a South Carolina farm. He was just 5 years old when a blind uncle taught him how to play guitar. He later picked up piano and played the trombone in his high school band.

"I had a tremendous memory. So whatever came up on the piano, I could pick it out, even though I hadn't gotten to the point of studying music from the standpoint of playing the notes," he said. "My ear was almost like I had perfect pitch. So that was a lot of what kept me going until I went to college and had to take two years of piano in my curriculum."

Jones went on to earn several degrees in music -- a bachelor's from Virginia State College, a master's from the University of Michigan and a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma. He also served two years in the military, where he played in Army and rock 'n' roll bands.

During his first six years at ASU, he was marching band director and built the Marching Rams from about 32 players to more than 100. Strode, who was majorette in the band from 1974 to 1976, said Jones took young people from some of the poorest counties in Georgia and turned them into polished musicians. The band, with blue and gold colors, is now a regular competitor in the Honda Battle of the Bands, which showcases talent from some of the best marching bands in the country.

Jones left in 1969 to pursue his doctorate degree. When he returned in 1972, Lamar Smith, former band director at South Girard High School and

Central High School in Phenix City, was the new marching band director and Jones became director of the school's symphonic band.

Even in retirement, the two are still friends and play together in a jazz quartet. Jones is also minister of music at a church in Albany. Music is just part of his DNA.

I can relate to Jones' passion for music having grown up in a family where it was a central part of our home. My siblings and I all took piano lessons, and while I didn't master the skill, I have two sisters who are very talented in that area. My mother also plays the piano, and so do my two daughters. Growing up, I also sang in many groups and choirs, which really enriched my life.

So when Jones brought up the possibility of life without music, I couldn't even imagine.

Like him, I'm just blessed to have it in my life.

Alva James-Johnson, reporter,