Cordes Jeff Langley, composer and Sonoma State University arts educator, dies at 70
Ukiah native Cordes Jeff Langley — pianist, composer, educator and longtime arts administrator at Sonoma State University and one of the visionaries behind SSU’s Green Music Center — died on Nov. 10 in Asheville, North Carolina, of cancer. He was 70.
The soft-spoken, self-effacing Langley leaves behind a wide-ranging canon of musical works for voice and theater and a populist vision of education that lives on in the SSU music department.
“Aim high, reach wide and educate all … it was one of those things that Jeff came up with, and the music department has adopted it,” said Andy Collinsworth, SSU music department chair. “That slogan, to me, expresses who Jeff was as a person.”
By the time he retired from SSU in 2014, Langley had taken on multiple roles as professor of music, artistic director for the Center for Performing Arts and artistic director for the Green Music Center. He worked with consultant Robert Cole, who put UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on the map, to plan the 2012 inaugural grand opening season for Weill Hall at the Green Music Center as well as the 2013-14 season.
In collaboration with his longtime lyricist Amanda McTigue of Petaluma, Langley composed all music for the Sunrise Choral Concert during the hall’s grand opening weekend in September 2012. He dedicated one song to Telecom entrepreneur Donald Green and his wife, Maureen, who kicked off the fundraising effort for the hall in 1996-97 with a $10 million gift to SSU. Maureen Green died in 2020, and Don Green died in 2021.
McTigue, who met Langley in New York in 1977 while he was studying music composition at The Juilliard School, said she knew right away they would become creative partners.
“There was an immediate recognition of connection,” she said. “He was a theatrically gifted composer, and he was particularly gifted at setting words. … He came in with a feel for it, and he was also schooled beautifully in theater, jazz, opera and classical music.”
Born in Ukiah in 1951, Langley was the second oldest of four children in a family with deep roots in the Ukiah Valley. His father, Cordes Langley, ran a wholesale lumber operation and his mother, Marie Barr Langley, supported the family business and was active in social causes.
By age 7, Langley was studying piano and composition with Siegfried Schultze, a concert pianist who fled Nazi Germany during World War II and emigrated to the U.S. While living in Ukiah, Langley started a long-term, artistic collaboration with Holly Near, a singer/activist who grew up in Potter Valley.
“He’s got these amazing teachers, anchored by very interesting parents and friends like Holly Near,” McTigue said. “That slingshots him out of there.”
Langley studied music at UC Berkeley from 1969 to 1972 while protesting the Vietnam War. From 1972 to 1976, he toured the U.S. and Europe with Near while composing songs and recording three albums.
In 1973, Langley and Near performed at military bases around the Pacific Rim as well as in 60 U.S. cities in partnership with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. In 1975, he joined the couple to visit North and South Vietnam as a U.S. cultural delegate.
In 1976, he moved to New York City to earn degrees at Juilliard, writing works for orchestra, piano and choir as well as an opera, “The Autumn People,” with McTigue. He joined the Juilliard teaching faculty in 1980.
A proponent of American music, Langley also wrote many works for music theater and cabaret stages, collaborating with folk singers such as Ronnie Gilbert and Pete Seeger as well as Broadway and classical singers.
From 1990 to 1994, he took a job as director of entertainment for Knott’s Berry Farm, bringing a taste of Broadway, off-Broadway and even avant-garde theater to 20,000 audience members a day at the theme park. McTigue served as his writing partner there. One of their early projects was “Peril on the Prairie,” an original musical comedy about an underground community of prairie dogs that was a vehicle to highlight environmental and social issues.
In 1997, he joined the faculty of Sonoma State University as a music professor and director of the Center for the Performing Arts. In 1999, he presented his original musical, “Peril on the Prairie,” at SSU’s Person Theatre.
While he enjoyed being on stage and playing the piano, Langley was unassuming and unpretentious, according to those who knew him. He was a mentor to both students and staff at SSU.
“He was the first to give credit to everybody else and none to himself,” Collinsworth said. “He didn’t seek the limelight. It was all about service.”
“He was a musician’s musician, so he wasn’t hedging standards,” McTigue said. “It was excellence, but excellence for everyone and in every musical form and genre and at every stage (of their development).”
Green Music Center, a world-class concert venue seating 1,400, involved a 15-year fundraising process, through which Langley kept the project on track by organizing summer festivals at the campus and bringing major donors to Tanglewood in western Massachusetts to experience the center’s architectural inspiration, Seiji Ozawa Hall.
After retiring, Langley moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and put the finishing touches on a song cycle, “So Much Heaven.” Most recently, he was working on another song cycle based on works by well-known Black poets.
“He loved living in Asheville,” said his partner of 45 years, Robert Kertzner of Asheville, North Carolina. “The mountains here reminded him a little of Ukiah, and he felt at home here. … He was so pleased to have the opportunity to return to full-time composing.”
In addition to Kertzner, Langley is survived by sisters Catherine Langley Elawadly of Ukiah and Edith Eleanor Langley of Asheville, North Carolina; brother Edgar James Langley of Los Angeles; three nephews and one niece. He will be buried in a family plot at the Ukiah Cemetery. A celebration of his life will be held in Northern California this summer.
Donations in his memory may be made to the Green Family — Green Music Center Endowment Fund at tinyurl.com/GMCendow or to the Sonoma Bach Choir at sonomabach.org/support.html. Or send a check to, for Green Music Center: Green Music Center Development, Sonoma State University, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, CA, 94928 (payable to Sonoma State University Foundation and add Green Family Endowment in the memo). For the Sonoma Bach Choir: send your check to 911 Lakeville St., No. 193, Petaluma, CA, 94952 (make the check payable to Sonoma Bach).
Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dianepete56
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