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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Rutland's Rip Jackson Looks Back Fondly On 15 Years Of Music

Andrea Krause
Rip Jackson conducts members of the Grace Congregational Church Choir at the Salzburg Cathedral in July. Jackson will leave his position as Grace's Minister of Music to take on similar duties at a church in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Rip Jackson, long time music director at Rutland’s Grace Congregational Church, leaves Vermont next week for a new job outside Boston.

In his 15 years in Rutland, Jackson has earned a reputation for outstanding choral work as well as spectacular community theater productions. He’s also famous for his high-energy personality and blistering work schedule.

Case in point: Jackson just got back from leading a 70-member choir on a 10-day singing trip through Austria.

He had a farewell performance before that, a youth talent show and his regular Sunday duties — and in April, he led more 160 voices and a dozen musicians in a special gospel concert.

But Jackson, who turned 50 this year, says he realized it was time to reset priorities and take more time for himself and non-musical pursuits.  

He leaves next week for a new job directing music at a smaller church in Lexington, Massachusetts.

“I’m at a point in my life where I want a different balance,” says Jackson. “I want time to pursue personal goals outside of music. I have put everything into my music and I don’t regret one minute of it. For the last 15 years, music has taken center stage of my life,” he says.

That focus on music is obvious the minute you walk into his Grace Church office. There’s an upright piano, two electric keyboards, four guitars, African drums, recorders and even a harpsichord.

Well, I have two, you know — the other ones already in Boston," he says.

He pulls out the bench and begins to play a lilting song by Johan Sebastian Bach, one of his favorite baroque composers.

"I want time to pursue personal goals outside of music. I have put everything into my music and I don't regret one minute of it." - Rip Jackson

Jackson says it was his interest in music that saved him when he was a young boy growing up in Atlanta.

“When you grow up in the South … and I, of course, was very different. Number one, I was very artistic, and it’s not always easy for someone growing up as a young, gay man,” admits Jackson. “I think I felt really out of place. I wasn’t good at sports. And I really loved music.”

He enrolled in a magnet high school for the performing arts — a transformative experience that he says exposed him to music theory and different composers, ballet, modern dance and performance. 

It became a passion he pursued in college, graduate school and later as a music director at a Presbyterian church in Ohio — a job he says he loved.

Credit Courtesy
Rip Jackson stands in front of his harpsichords in his Grace Church office in Rutland. He says Grace Church's stirring productions of "Les Miserables," "West Side Story," "Miss Saigon," and others show just what a community can do.

“So I thought, well, I think this is my calling to work in multi-generational settings, such as a church, where a deeper meaning is guiding you," he says. "Where there’s a strong spirituality."

Jackson smiles and says Rutland was probably shocked at first by his vision and high-octane approach. But he says it didn’t take long to win people over. 

He says Grace Church’s stirring productions of Les MiserablesWest Side StoryMiss SaigonThe Messiah, and Leonard Bernstein’s MASS show just what a community can do.

Jackson says he’s especially proud that so many families performed together under his direction, among them mother and daughter choir members Barbara Kirk and Tegan Kirk-Elkin.

“I’ve known Rip since high School,” says Kirk-Elkin, who says she’s sung in just about all of Jackson’s productions. 

Early on, she says people may have thought, “What, a musical with dancing and singing? Us?”

"He just walks into the room with his magnetic personality, this huge vision and energy! And you'll be like, 'I'll follow you! Absolutely, you want to do that? I will do my best for you!'" - Tegan Kirk-Elkin

But she says Jackson has a way of bringing out the best in people, helping them perform at a level they never dreamed possible.

“He just walks into the room with his magnetic personality, this huge vision and energy!” she says, smiling.  “And you’ll be like, 'I’ll follow you! Absolutely, you want to do that? I will do my best for you!'” 

Kirk-Elkin’s voice softens, “He made it easy for you to try new things and not be afraid.”

Her mother Barbara Kirk nods. “I’m not sure we’ll ever find someone with the scope and range of interests that Rip has in music,” she says.

The two women say Jackson will be greatly missed and Lexington, Massachusetts, is very lucky.  

Adds Kirk, “They probably won’t know what hit them.”

Rip Jackson will lead the music in his final service this Sunday at 10 a.m. at Grace Church.

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