Jack Abell

DadJack Abell, veteran first-chair violist with the Memphis Symphony as well as a conductor, music teacher and publisher, died in 1993 at age 48 after a battle with cancer.  Abell, one of the most active classical musicians in the city, was best known for his work with the Memphis Symphony, for which he had played since 1975. The late symphony conductor Alan Balter acknowledged Abell’s work and his illness at that year’s televised Sunset Symphony concert. “Jack Abell’s musicianship, knowledge, quite strong leadership and gentle caring are gifts treasured by me and the Memphis Symphony,” Balter said. “I will miss Jack, his viola playing and our frequent discussions.” Abell also had taught at Memphis State University and Rhodes College, where he conducted the Rhodes College Civic Orchestra. One of his favorite projects was the Tennessee Summer Symphony, which he founded in 1991. The orchestra of professional musicians from across the state got together for one weekend each summer to play concerts in West Tennessee. The weekend of his passing happened to be the Summer Symphony’s annual concert weekend, and according to the orchestra’s president and executive director, Martha Ellen Maxwell, “We will go full speed ahead with the concerts. It’s what Jack would have wanted.” Although Abell’s conducting teacher, Harold Farberman of New York, was scheduled to be the principal conductor because of Abell’s health, Abell still had planned to conduct Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, which depicts a man fighting a courageous battle under difficult circumstances. The lanky, 6-foot-4 musician was regarded as one of the most talented string players in Memphis. Michelle Walker Fine, another Memphis Symphony violist, praised Abell’s ‘incredible facility’ on the viola. She said, “As wonderful a musician as Jack was, what struck me most about him was his humanity and his sense of humor.” A native Texan, Abell grew up in South Dakota. He had performed in Europe and in Latin America while a Peace Corps volunteer. He also played at the Santa Fe Opera, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Peninsula Music Festival, Chicago Little Symphony, Memphis Chamber Music Society and Opera Memphis. In 1992, he organized an orchestra specializing in music of the baroque and classical eras. The Rhodes orchestra performed several unique programs, including one featuring William Grant Still, a neglected African-American composer born in Mississippi. Abell had composed, studied baroque music extensively, written articles on music, played studio sessions and run a publishing firm called Ivory Palaces.

-taken with slight edits from Jack’s obituary in The Commercial Appeal, written by Whitney Smith