Published: Feb. 9, 2024 By

O'Neil JonesMention Jamaican music to most Americans and the pop sounds of reggae usually come to mind. But there’s much more—the wonderfully rich harmonies of choral music, hundreds of rarely heard sacred songs and folk songs that deserve more exposure.

O’Neil Jones—a third-year DMA student in choral conducting and literature at the College of Music—is bringing those sounds to Boulder. 

Jones has created the first statewide Jamaican Choral Music Symposium, Feb. 22-25, to elevate the history, language and musical elements of Jamaican choral music through direct interaction with natives of the country. A highlight of the symposium will be a Sunday concert by the University Singers who are based at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. The group, now led by Franklin Halliburton, will appear here thanks to a $25,000 Roser Visiting Artists Program grant awarded to Jones. Halliburton is a key figure in furthering Jamaican choral music as a genre, having worked with choral conductor-composer Noel Dexter over some 20 years prior to his passing.

“This music is a major part of who we are,” stresses Jones. “Jamaicans know this music, but they don’t know who wrote it.” A native of Montego Bay, he grew up singing those songs in church, noting that Jamaica has 1,600 churches, the largest per-capita number of any country in the world. “The music was not being preserved, beyond simply being performed,” he explains. Indeed, while there were sacred songs being sung all over the island, most were never written down or were notated in different versions. 

Today, Jones—who’s also the 2023-24 recipient of the Susan L. Porter Memorial Fellowship—is advancing one of the goals of our American Music Research Center by bringing the choral music and culture of his island home to a wider audience this month, including the participation of area high schools and the CU Boulder University Singers, Chamber Singers and Treble Chorus. He also hopes to publish the music of Jamaican choral composers. 

Primary among those is a major force in Jamaican choral music—and a pivotal figure in the lives of both Jones and Halliburton: Noel Dexter (1938-2019). “He’s the reason I’m here,” says Jones. “He was my mentor, he gave me my first voice lesson and he taught me how to conduct.” Their bond began in 2009 and continued until Dexter’s death.

Noel DexterMore than a teacher, Dexter influenced his protégé with his humble approach to life. “He was so modest,” recalls Jones. “When he was near the end, he told those gathered around him, ‘Just let people know that I tried.’ All Jamaicans know of him.” 

Dexter sent Jones on a journey of discovery that led him to Boulder. Since Jamaica had no serious conducting program, he encouraged his young student to enroll at Mississippi’s Alcorn State University where another of Dexter’s former students had been teaching. Jones obliged, then continued his studies at the University of Southern Mississippi. Eventually, he met Assistant Professor of Voice Andrew Garland at a national singing competition at CU Boulder. “CU allowed me to accept Professor Garland’s invitation to continue studying voice while actively pursuing a career in conducting,” Jones says. 

In 2021, he settled in Boulder, although Jamaica remained close to his heart. “In preparing my conducting recitals, I included one song by Mr. Dexter to honor his memory—from there, the zeal to bring more of his music to the world was ignited,” he adds.

The CU Boulder College of Music presents the University Singers, Mona in concert—as part of the Jamaican Choral Music Symposium—at Macky Auditorium on Feb. 25, 2024.

Photos: O’Neil Jones (top); Noel Dexter (right).