Jackson Wiley, who brought modern American composers to life as musical director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and brought the Springfield community together to create the Summer Arts Festival, died Tuesday in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Indianapolis.
His posted obituary said Wiley, who was 92, passed peacefully while surrounded by his family, with whom he’d spent the Labor Day weekend.
A New Jersey native whose contacts with the New York music scene included Charles Mingus and members of The Modern Jazz Quartet, Wiley arrived in Springfield in 1957 speaking fluent Japanese, and with degrees from Yale and Julliard in his pocket.
Ian Polster, whose 50-year stint as an orchestra trombonist began in 1962, called his friend “a real champion of American music” who leveraged his love of that music to raise the orchestra’s level of performance.
“He said if you can do the 20th century stuff” with its challenging rhythms and pitch and unusual technique, Polster recalled, ” the other stuff becomes easier.”
Polster added that Wiley’s New York connections didn’t stop him from being down-to-earth.
“It wasn’t unusual for him to have a hammer in his hands” when it came time to build sets for musicals, and “he was really attached to the community.”
To Wiley, “it didn’t matter who people were, he just became involved and involved them,” he said.
That kind of involvement helped Wiley to create not only the symphony’s Youth Orchestra but perhaps his greatest local legacy: the Springfield Arts Council and its Summer Arts Festival.
Another of Polster’s memories of Wiley is getting a phone call from him after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a request that Polster write a special tribute for that weekend’s symphony performance, and being part of the performance of “Fragment from Memory: April 4, 1968.”
Wiley, who returned to the Summer Arts Festival five years ago to lead the symphony’s performance of Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” left Springfield for a teaching position at Butler University.
He went on to conduct the Philharmonic Orchestra of Indianapolis from 1993-2010. After surrendering his baton, he moved into the orchestra’s cello section.
A memorial service will begin at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler. An open house will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., and a musical performance that invites audience participation will begin at 4 p.m.
Survived by wife, Jane, sons Scott, Hunt and Bradford, daughter, Candida, and six grandchildren, Wiley will be honored by the Springfield Symphony at its Oct. 12 concert.