So much has changed in James Turner’s life since he traveled north from Florence, South Carolina. As Turner contemplates his retirement after 23 years as Professor of Music and Director of Vocal and Choral Activities at Kalamazoo College, and as he stares down impending minor heart surgery at the end of the summer, he takes a moment to contemplate the long road traveled.
Turner earned his bachelor of arts from Mars Hill College in North Carolina and his master’s in music from Louisiana State University.
“I was married back then, and working in my first teaching position,” Turner recalls his southern beginnings. “My wife and I both received threatening notes from the Ku Klux Klan. We were both teaching black children. I was eager to get out of that climate.”
Turner moved from Tennessee to Detroit to teach at Marygrove College. He was no longer married. Turner had realized, and accepted, that he was gay; it was time for a new beginning.
“I taught at Marygrove for 12 years and then applied for a position at a college on the west side of Michigan; I later learned I was turned down for that position because I was gay. So I took a partial appointment with the Bach Festival in Kalamazoo when there were only six people in the choir, and I met Barry Ross and Zaide Pixley there. They told me about a part-time position at Kalamazoo College. I applied, and President Jimmy Jones made me feel very welcome.”
Professor Emeritus of Music Barry Ross, who founded the Kalamazoo College and Community Orchestra in 1994, and Zaide Pixley, the now retired Dean of First Year and Advising, encouraged Turner to hang in for a full-time position. And it happened. Turner was put on the tenure track, and he also became Bach Festival music director and conductor as well as the conductor of the College Singers and the select Chamber Singers. He also frequently collaborated with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.
Turner’s teaching of and enthusiasm for music has gone far beyond the campus borders of Kalamazoo College. He has fostered the love of music in high school students, for nearly 20 years, with the annual High School Choral Festival.
“I modeled the festival after a program I started back at Marygrove,” Turner says. “K’s festival today features 10 high schools, different ones each year, with 200 to 250 students participating, and every year we have a waiting list.”
The educational event celebrates the works of Bach and his contemporaries, as well as many 19th- and 20th-century composers. Students work with a nationally recognized master clinician and rehearse together in five choirs with singers from ten schools. Each choir performs for 20 minutes, then works with the clinician to further polish their performance.
“Whether these students grow up to be choral singers or not, what we learn from making music together is how to collaborate. That can have global importance,” Turner says.
In the summer of 2016, Turner was the recipient of the Arts Leadership Educator Award from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo’s Community Arts Awards.
More important than any award—and one of the great gifts of Turner’s long career—is all that he has learned from the students he has taught. “I admit I got caught up in traditional choir music for a while,” says Turner. “But when I was teaching women’s choirs at K, with many of the women not really having any background in music, the singers brought in different perspectives, social ideas, and they got me out of that traditional mode to try something new. One of my K students said to me, ‘I’m tired of always singing about Mary and Jesus.’ So we tried some women composers, sang an Emily Brontë poem, another by Emily Dickinson. We sang choral music with a tie to social justice. Teaching music to youth has gotten me out of my paradigm, out of my box.”
Even sweeter than an award for educational leadership are the words Turner recalls hearing from a K alumna. “A philosophy student,” Turner says, “she had a goal to live on all seven continents. At the time, she was a short-order cook living in Antarctica, and she said that I had been the most influential professor during her time at K.”
Turner says he will miss the students who broadened his horizons as much as he broadened theirs. He will miss the many great friends he’s made in the K community. He lives now an easy walk from campus, but once his last day at K is done, he and his partner, Jack, will move to Fremont, “a small town with only four stoplights,” he says, “and a great place to maybe start a garden, raise rabbits, chickens and goats.”
First and foremost, Turner adds, will be a focus on his health. A recent diagnosis of a heart ailment has increased his appreciation for all the richness that life offers. He will heal to the sound of music, and when it is time, he will reconnect with his network of friends through music.
“Music, specifically singing, can change lives, even save lives,” he says. “Music is one of those few things that can connect us all, across generations, across races and ethnicities and all the differences of being people, and bring us together.”
In fact, music brought together several of Turner’s former students on the occasion of his final Concert by the College Singers and Women’s Chorus in May. “Tim Krause ’07 sent out the music for the last song for that concert,” explained Elizabeth Wakefield-Connell ’08, “so that all alumni attending could surprise Jim by joining in for that last song. We were there on behalf of the many students who sang for Jim at K. He is a wonderful teacher, conductor, and a good friend. K College will not be the same without him.”