Eugene Jones was a native of Buffalo, New York. He served in the navy in World War II as a cook, and came to live in Oakland after the war. He became an Oakland firefighter in the late 1940’s, one of the first African -American firefighters in Oakland. He worked as a fireman until 1969. Around the same time, he married Irene Jones. They had four children, and were married for 32 years.
He had an extraordinarily rich and beautiful bass voice, and began singing with the San Francisco Spring Opera, the Oakland Light Opera and the San Francisco Opera Chorus in the 1950’s. He was one of the first African-Americans to sing with these groups.
He created his own solo show, “Black Man Speaks” in which he sang classic spirituals and spoke out against racism. He toured the country with this show in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Gene Jones founded the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra in 1966. Gene loved Handel’s Messiah, and the group’s first concerts were December performances of this oratorio. He soon added a spring season, with renditions of great choral works by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Handel, and many others. But his greatest joy was the Messiah, which was performed every December from 1966 until 1988, when Arlene Sagan took over the BCCO baton, as Gene retired from BCCO in 1988.
One of the high points of the Messiah performances was Gene’s singing of the aria “Why do the Nations Rage so Furiously Together” from the podium, facing the audience and conducting as he sang. His voice was truly extraordinary, powerful,
musical, soaring out over the audience.
Gene died in September 2003. He was mourned by his wife Marie Carmichael, by his children and by the BCCO community. Many BCCO members sang at his memorial. He was greatly respected, loved and admired by singers and musicians, devoted audience members, and by the many people whose lives he touched in the navy, among the firefighters, and the youth of Berkeley who he taught and mentored at Berkeley High School. He created the BCCO: his vision was to create great music and to share it with the community.
His vision lives on!!