“To inspire, to educate and to entertain – not always in that order,” says Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, artistic director of the Capital City Men’s Chorus, over coffee one sunny morning at Walton’s fancy and staple. That’s how he explains the mission of the CCMC– the oldest gay performing arts organization in Austin – which has been wowing audiences since 1989. “There is something really amazing about hearing a group of unpaid volunteers and seeing the reactions in the audience.”
“It was a good group when I took it over,” Jones-Ragona says. “Previous directors had instilled some very good essential music skills in them.”
Jones-Ragona, a professional musician and singer in his own right who received his PhD in conducting from the University of Texas and his undergraduate degree in music from Iowa’s Drake University, applied for the position of artistic director about two years after moving to Austin, in 1995, when the group’s former artistic director resigned. It was originally going to be an interim gig; he was planning a teaching career upon completion of his doctoral studies. Fourteen years later, Jones-Ragona is still conducting and writing music for this flourishing group of passionate singers.
Capital City Men’s Chorus is a dues-paying, all-volunteer organization run by a board comprised of eight longtime members. The artistic director and the group’s pianist for the past 21 years, Karl Logue, are the only paid members. Although the group is funded partially by a contract with the city, ticket sales and donations are the CCMC’s bread and butter. “Ticket sales were the main source of our revenue last year for the first time in a long time,” Jones-Ragona says.
The CCMC has certainly had its share of ups and downs. Early in 2005, after dealing with what Jones-Ragona calls “economic bad luck,” the group worked extra hard to garner a large audience for their may 2005 concert – that helped put it in a stronger place financially. “The business side has been very strong over the past few years.”
“These guys are largely non-musically trained,” Jones- Ragona says. “Most of them just do it because they love it and they love what it means for the community.”
One such devoted member, Richard Bates, has been there since the beginning and is now vice president of the organization’s board. Bates and a few friends began to meet informally in the 1980s, ultimately transforming their love of music and singing into the Capital City Men’s Chorus. That first year the group had about 30 members.
Bates, an Austinite since 1984, was a baritone in his singing years, but his primary role now is helping to plan events, secure venues and raise money. “The thing that makes this group wonderful and unique is that everyone can relate to mu- sic and singing” Bates says. “Men’s choruses for me bring out this pride; just male voices singing together – it brings out deep emotions.”
The chorus has also played a unique role in the personal lives of its fans, many of whom have been or are still coming to terms with their sexuality. Jones-Ragona talks about an email he received from a young man who attended a CCMC concert about 10 years ago. He had snuck in wearing a baseball cap and shades. After seeing how relaxed everyone was and how much fun they were having, he came out to his friends that week and was planning on coming out to his family as well.
Last year’s holiday concert was a smashing success. Held at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, it attracted a standing-room-only crowd of over 600 guests (a 50 percent increase over 2007). This year’s event, to be held on December 13 at University United Methodist Church, is sure to attract even more festive revelers. The new venue can accommodate a more than 800 people and the chorus will be accompanied by a brass ensemble. If the group continues to expand and attract a larger following in the coming years, as planned, Jones-Ragona says: “We’ll go to the Long center.”
The group’s annual spring fundraiser is also being revamped for 2010. The gala event – featuring multiple performances, a silent auction, appetizers and refreshments – will be held March 6 at the Mexican American Cultural Center.
Aside from working with the metropolitan community church, the chorus has collaborated with or performed for AIDS Services of Austin, the Human Rights Campaign, the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival (they recorded the “turn off your cell phones” song that played prior to every screening this year) and a host of other gay choruses throughout Texas.
Jones-Ragona does many of the arrangements himself, and also writes the music, conducts and leads rehearsals. The chorus rehearses once a week – and usually two or three times the week of a performance. Currently, the organization has 62 members on its roster, with an internal goal of hitting 100 or so in the coming years. “I think that momentum is starting to take off and there are some new people who are experiencing the chorus,” Bates says.
Anyone who’s interested in joining is welcome to audition, and prepared pieces of music aren’t required. “There are some people who come in and want to sing who don’t even know what their voice sounds like,” says Jones-Ragona, who describes his rehearsal process as “very intense.” “They audition successfully. If they’re willing to put in the time and do what it takes, they’re welcome.”
For Jones-Ragona, whose personal journey might be thought of as one of those happy accidents of life, the most gratifying aspect is the final result. “That’s the best part: hearing the finished performance, the incredibly beautiful end-product and feeling the impact it makes on listeners and on the performers.”
Brimming with pride for his group and its impact both within the LGBT community and on the City of Austin, Jones-Ragona notes the power of music to defuse prejudice, strengthen community bonds and bring people together. “It’s harder for our enemies to tear us down, when we make such beautiful music.”
For more information visit: www.ccmcaustin.org