When the Washington Performing Arts Society presents "Women of the Gospel" on Feb. 17 at the Kennedy Center, one voice will be greatly missed.
Pearl Williams Jones, the program's artistic director, died this week after an 18-month battle with cancer, leaving a void in the coming program and in the local gospel music community.
Jones, 59, truly was "a woman of gospel" music, said Eric Torain, assistant manager of concert operations for the arts society.
"We are now dedicating the entire program to Dr. Jones because she epitomizes gospel, not only as a scholar, but as a performer as well," Torain said.
The idea to showcase national and local female gospel artists was Torain's idea, but Jones gave it life late last year.
"She was very instrumental in giving artistic input to the program, and we had hoped she would be able to direct the choir of 136 voices," Torain said.
Evelyn Simpson-Corenton and Priscilla Neely stepped in to direct the all-woman choir, which will be accompanied by an all-woman band, when it became apparent that Jones's health was declining.
Torain said the program was designed "to showcase how women, and particularly African American women, have contributed to gospel, because gospel music is an American art form."
Jones was acutely aware of the importance of perpetuating that view of gospel music, said William Howard Moore, chairman of the music department at the University of the District of Columbia.
As a professor of music at UDC, Jones taught jazz history and music appreciation. She also was in charge of the Gospel Studies Program, which included directing the UDC Gospel Choir.
Moore said Jones "saw gospel music as a legitimate and recognizable art form unto itself. She did all of the scholarly research to put gospel in its rightful place."
While she was very active in the community, Jones seemed most content at home in Bible Way Church, founded by her father, Bishop Smallwood E. Williams. She usually could be found sitting somewhere near the piano.
That's where she was one Sunday in 1988 when presidential candidate Jesse L. Jackson came to speak before the District's presidential primary. Bible Way Church was packed to capacity.
Before speaking, Jackson turned to Jones and said, "Sister Pearl, go to the piano. Every time I come to Bible Way, I have Sister Pearl play my favorite song."
Moments later, Jones began playing, "Everything Is Going to Be All Right."
It could have been any song, said Arthurene Foxx, executive secretary of the church. Jones, the church's minister of music, "always gave it her best."
This week Foxx and the other members of Bible Way Church reflected on the daughter of their pastor, Bishop Williams, head of the Bible Way Church organization worldwide.
"She was strictly a professional, whether it was classical or gospel; singing or playing, she was very dedicated and very serious about her music," Foxx said.
As minister of music at Bible Way, Jones was in charge of all the choirs, but the one she personally directed was the Bible Way Church Radio and Television Choir.
"She and I have worked together down through the years since childhood," said Theresa Whitehead, president of the Radio Choir.
"She has been an inspiration to me not only in the eight years I have been president, but since 1946."
One of the main functions of the choir, which can be heard each Sunday on radio WYCB 1340 AM and seen on WFTY-TV (Channel 50) each week, is to minister to the sick and those who cannot attend church.
During her final days, Jones benefited from the same group she worked so hard to perfect.
"One of her favorite songs was 'God Said He Would Be With Me,' " Whitehead said. Last Sunday the choir sang that song and dedicated it to the choir director.
Hours later Jones died. "I know she heard the song," Whitehead said.