Jean Belmont Ford: The Joy of Writing Music

The Beloved Composer Has Enhanced the Kansas City Music Scene for 30 Years

Last March, during the last performance of the American Choral Directors Association’s conference, the Kansas City Chorale performed the latest work by Kansas City composer Jean Belmont Ford, “Manifesto.” The piece wasn’t listed on the program and when artistic director Charles Bruffy announced that she was in the audience, people gasped.

“I guess they thought I was dead,” Ford chuckled.

Ford isn’t on social media, doesn’t have a website and doesn’t use email. For many years, when she was writing as Jean Belmont, people thought she was actually a he, and French Canadian, to boot. The idea makes her laugh. “I have never Googled myself. I’m going to go to my grave, whenever that is, never having Googled myself.”

Born in Redlands, California, in 1939, Ford is part of a generation of American composers (like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Gloria Coates and Terry Riley) that irrevocably changed our perspective toward how music was made and performed.

“I’ve always written music for the sheer joy of doing it, because it was a problem to solve. I write just one or two pieces a year and that’s all I’ve ever done,” she said.

Still, one or two pieces a year for the last 40 years yields a commendable catalog. She is one of Kansas City’s highly acclaimed composers, and her work is performed all over the United States and in Canada, Europe and Asia. Bruffy and the Chorale are some of her staunchest champions, but her work has been performed by the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra, Lyric Arts Trio, Chanticleer, Emerson String Quartet, Phoenix Chorale, Elmer Iseler Singers, Ad Astra Singers, Choral Arts Society, Fine Arts Chorale, Simon Carrington Singers and Lakeside Singers.

“Each piece that you are writing you have great hopes for, that it’s going to be something that you really need to say . . . and that you feel that the next one will be closer,” she said.

She writes everything at the piano, by hand, with a No. 2 pencil. She has a kind of “haiku” approach to writing, in that every note effects every other note, each placed specifically, “propelled by the notion of the shape of the entire work” to achieve an intensity of emotion.

Though Ford’s music is often labeled neo-romantic, “I spend a lot of time avoiding the predictable,” she said. Her work uses irregular rhythms and no key signature. Many a time, she’ll write the piece all the way through, then add bar lines. She has also written her own text, which was the case with “Manifesto.”

“I want to write pieces of music that when people are done listening to it, they think that it was much shorter than it actually was. They feel that it was inevitable, but surprising, that it was supposed to be there.”

The Path to Success

Ford started composing as a young girl, almost by accident: She was playing a piano piece in recital, forgot how it went, and made the rest up on the spot. Her mother, a pianist and organist, encouraged her daughter’s musical creativity, and when it came time for college she told the professor at the University of Redlands, Wayne Bohrnstedt (who was, incidentally, the organist at the family’s church), “Don’t ruin Jean.”

Instead of training Ford in this-or-that school of composition, Borhnstedt taught her how to notate her ideas. He also imparted a tenet that she retains to this day: “He said, ‘seven to 10 measures a day for life and you’ll be fine.’ I’ve stuck to that.”

Throughout her schooling, she found mentors who encouraged her to develop her unique voice. After studying with Bohrnstedt, she graduated in 1961 and accepted a scholarship to George Peabody College for Teachers in Tennessee (now part of Vanderbilt University), where she earned a master’s degree and did a few years of doctoral work.

She taught at the University of Alabama for a few years (in Tuscaloosa she marched during the civil rights movement), then at a private school in Connecticut, before arriving in Kansas in the 1970s, when her then-husband accepted a position at the University of Kansas Medical School. She left off composing for a while to raise her daughters, Cynthia and Jessica, and taught piano lessons.

Even before her writing became part of the Kansas City music scene, she was involved, volunteering with ensembles and arts organizations. She was the first woman president of the Mission Hills Homes Association, and she ran the torch-lit outdoor Verona Columns Concerts from 1975 to 1985. One year, the series included a performance by Jay McShann, Claude “Fiddler” Williams and Milt Abel.

“I believe in the Hindemithian notion, Gebrauchsmusik: making music where you are, for the people where you are,” she said.

Once her girls were in school, around 1980, she decided to get back to writing. “You have the time and there’s the piano. Let’s get to it,” she said.

The trick was, who for?

She started by knocking on doors, literally. “I just looked around for somebody who might be willing to do my music.”

There were. She started with a duo for violin and piano performed by Kansas City Philharmonic concertmaster Yuval Waldman and his wife, Cathy, and then created work for an area high school choir led by Robert Bucker.

Her first piece for choir, she admitted, was awful. But her second found some success. That was “Nativitas,” written in 1981. Her work sparked the interest of a young Bruffy. He invited her to come hear the group he was in, the relatively new Kansas City Chorale. They recorded “Nativitas” in 1996 and commissioned “Electa.” Phoenix Chorale (where Bruffy was also artistic director) recorded “Electa” for their 2008 album, which won a Grammy Award.

Her work has won numerous awards, but she primarily eschews the politics of panels and conferences and academics. She’s somewhat reclusive, but she’s not shy. It’s more about how to expend her energy.

“There’s never enough time, but making choices to do your work the best you can do with the time you can give to it is what you do, and joyfully doing all these other things is the whole point.”

Finding joy can be difficult. A year ago, she lost her youngest daughter to cancer. During the ordeal, she wrote a children’s book called “Wink and the Giant Trample Tail” with her granddaughter, who did the illustrations. Written by “Grammy, age 78, and Genevieve, age 9,” it was a “specific way of dealing with nine months of sheer hell . . . to make something beautiful with Genevieve, that would make us laugh, that was positive,” she said.
She continues as an activist in social causes. Later this year, she’ll return to Redlands for a special ceremony to put up a gravestone next to her father’s in the family plot, honoring the migrant workers who cultivated the fields of Southern California. It is, as far as she knows, the first monument of this kind in the United States.

These days, she’s not sure she’ll write another piece. Maybe, if the right idea comes. Maybe, if she feels like it’s the best use of her time. But for now, she has a garden to tend and a granddaughter to cherish.

Above: Composer Jean Belmont Ford in her Overland Park home (photo by Jim Barcus).

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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