Multifaceted Claudia Simpson-Jones lays down the conducting baton of the Olympia Chamber Orchestra

Before becoming conductor of the Olympia Chamber Orchestra, Claudia Simpson-Jones had many adventures, both musical and non-musical.

She was a pilot for major airlines. She performed in Las Vegas. She was featured in Glamor magazine.

But since the age of 15, Simpson-Jones has been a conductor.

On Saturday she will conduct her last concert for the orchestra, and on Sunday she will embark on her next adventure – a month-long road trip across the country.

Simpson-Jones, 71, will be driving his motorhome, accompanied by his four cats.

“I’m going to take a 6,000 mile trip around the United States,” she said in an interview last week. “I go to the South then I come back by the North.

“Most of my life has been on the road,” she added. “When I got a number in Las Vegas, I was on the road all the time and when I was a pilot.”

In Las Vegas, Simpson-Jones, then Claudia Simpson, were half of the two-piano number “Carol and Claudia: The Livin’ Dolls”.

Simpson-Jones and her good friend Carol Padgett, now Carol Stivers, played piano, fiddle, banjo and more, performing everything from classical to light rock, show tunes to country. The duo also made a few albums. “They’re 33-1/3rds old,” she said.

Simpson-Jones has stayed in touch with Stivers and will visit him in Murphy, North Carolina.

It was the busy life of Las Vegas – and touring the United States, Canada and the Bahamas – that led Simpson-Jones to the high-flying life of a pilot.

“I learned to fly so I could fly the band,” she said. “At the time the airlines were hiring women, I had many thousands of hours just for what I did privately.

“It was nothing I planned to do with my life,” she said. “Music was what I planned to do with my life. It was nothing more than a detour that turned out to be no small detour.

She was one of the first women to serve as a pilot for major airlines, working for Continental Airlines in 1977 and retiring from Southwest Airlines in 2000.

She met her late husband Hal Jones when she taught her daughter, Cathy, to fly. Cathy Jones also later became a pilot and the two worked together for Southwest.

Another person Simpson-Jones will visit on her trip is Cathy Jones, living in Las Vegas.

Simpson-Jones also had celebrity contacts. In 1980, Glamor magazine featured her in an article on 10 Outstanding Working Women. She and the other featured women — including NBC’s first female technical director and the Jackson County, Missouri, corrections officer — had lunch with then-First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

After Hal Jones died in a helicopter crash, Simpson-Jones married Fred Sorenson, who played Jock, the pilot in the opening scenes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“We’ve flown together and delivered big planes all over the world,” she said. “It’s a book in itself.”

The couple later divorced, but they remained friends, and Simpson-Jones also plans to visit her on her trip.

Simpson-Jones, who also flew helicopters, still has her pilot’s license and lives at a small private airport in Yelm, but she hasn’t flown in five or six years.

Today, she seeks adventure at lower altitudes and with less stress, which is partly what prompted her to retire from conducting, a voluntary work she has been doing for a dozen years.

“I want to travel and I want to compose,” she said. “And I’m looking for more stress-free times in my life.”

“A musician can make a small mistake in the music, and no one ever hears or knows it, but the work of a conductor on this podium is very demanding. It’s like preparing for a lead role in a play.

The orchestra will miss Simpson-Jones, said Rex Richardson, who plays bassoon and sits on the board. The board is currently looking for a new conductor.

“We all love working with her,” he said. “She has done a lot for us over the past 12 years in a rather thankless and unpaid position. She worked very hard, doing everything she could to make sure the orchestra was a success.

Though she’s stepping out of a starring role, Simpson-Jones will continue her involvement in music, and she’s not done directing.

She teaches music at St. Martin’s University and has been a conductor and pianist for plays there; she leads Opera Pacifica, although the group is currently mostly inactive; and she will serve on the orchestra’s board of directors, which named her conductor emeritus. Simpson-Jones also plays jazz piano and sings jazz with a variety of local bands and plays clarinet in the American Legion Band, and she is organist at Bethany Lutheran Church in Spanaway.

In the summer of 2017, she hopes to direct “Evita”. “I will join forces with Opera Pacifica when the time comes,” she said.

And, for the first time, she subscribed to the Seattle Symphony season, planning to attend several concerts.

“I’ve never been able to do that,” she says.

Olympia Chamber Orchestra

What: The orchestra closes its season — and Claudia Simpson-Jones’ 12 years as conductor — with a concert featuring works by Schumann and Tchaikovsky.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Or: The Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts, South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia.

Tickets: $20, $15 for seniors and students, $5 for children 12 and under.

Information: 360-753-8586, washingtoncenter.org, olympiachamberorchestra.org.

In the program : “The Star Spangled Banner”, Suite of English Folksongs by Vaughan Williams, Cello Concerto in A minor by Schumann with cellist Judi Martin, Suite from Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky, Symphonic Dances by Grieg and Genoveva Overture by Schumann.

About Roy B. Westling

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