“Rhythm Changes” Update and Forthcoming Series on Dr. Eva Jessye
In June, we announced some “rhythm changes” here at the Gershwin Initiative/American Music Institute — namely an enlargement of our educational mission to amplify and celebrate BIPOC creators and performers in the field of American music, and to confront issues of appropriation, advocacy, and representation in the works of George and Ira Gershwin. Toward this expanded mission, recent blog posts by our undergraduate researchers have highlighted Ella Fitzgerald’s recordings of the Gershwin Songbook; profiled composer Undine Smith Moore; and critically considered Gershwin’s Blue Monday (1922), an operatic blackface sketch for a musical revue often cited as a prototype for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (1935). We are very proud of the work our blog team has already done, and are eager to share with you our next major project: a three-part series on the life and work of Dr. Eva Jessye (1895–1992), the choral director who served as the keeper of the Porgy and Bess score throughout much of the 20th century and an Ann Arbor resident with close ties to the University of Michigan, home to the Gershwin Initiative.
In this series on Jessye’s life, you’ll learn about her contributions to choral literature, her commitment to better working conditions for Black musicians, and her fight for racial equality in the United States. You’ll read about her role in numerous productions of Porgy and Bess, for which she often served as the only Black member of otherwise White production teams—and discover that while Jessye is perhaps most widely known for her work on the opera, this represents only one part of a rich and multifaceted musical legacy of composition, performance, arranging, and advocacy. Finally, you’ll join us on a trip into her archives at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library, which reveal new facets of Jessye’s life, writings, and unique philosophy on art. We cannot wait to acquaint you with this remarkable woman who became known as the “Grand Dame of Black Music,” along with the many other Black artists who inspired and realized the work of George Gershwin.