Dr. Eva Jessye: Make Way for the Dame
Composer, singer, and actress Dr. Eva Jessye was the first Black woman to earn international distinction as the director of a professional choral group, the Eva Jessye Choir. Inspired by her heritage, Jessye also arranged and composed spirituals and worked to increase appreciation for them. This is Part 1 of a 3-part series on Dr. Eva Jessye in which we explore the life and legacy of the “Grande Dame of Black Music.” Part 2 will chronicle Jessye’s work as the longtime choral director of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, while Part 3 will discuss Jessye’s career in academia and the Eva Jessye Collection here at the University of Michigan.
“If anything is going to bring this world together, it’s going to be music. It’s going to be music, and it’s going to be the arts. Nothing else will accomplish this. Because nothing except the arts will reach the people. It must be communication spirit to spirit.” -Dr. Eva Jessye
Composer, conductor, singer, and poet Dr. Eva Jessye’s (1895–1992) passion for music fueled her devotion to the arts. Over the course of a long and storied career, Dr. Jessye led a celebrated choral group, composed her own music and performed spirituals, and taught at universities. She helped to launch the careers of numerous Black concert artists, fought for fair performer compensation, and worked toward the desegregation of U.S. theaters. Given her contributions to the arts, Jessye has frequently been referred to as the “grand dame of Black music.” In this series, we will learn about her background and professional accomplishments, dive into her key role in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (1935), explore The Eva Jessye Collection at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, and uncover her relationship with the city of Ann Arbor.
Born and raised in Coffeyville, Kansas, Jessye was first exposed to music through her church and her great aunt Harriet’s singing. It was Harriet who introduced young Jessye to spirituals—sacred songs that grew out of a distinctly American history of slavery and the nation’s musical traditions, which might be sung for worship, at baptisms and burials, as a code song to signal a planned escape, as a lullaby, to accompany work, or for socializing (Graham 2018). Until the late 1860s, these expressions of faith and resilience were passed on orally. While spirituals were first notated during the Civil War period (the first published collection, Slave Songs of the United States, appeared in 1867), some formerly enslaved people chose to reject this musical tradition in order to distance themselves from the experience of slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Spirituals reemerged, however, in the 1870s when the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a musical group from the historically Black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, began touring the United States and Europe, performing Black folk songs in order to raise money. Owing to the popularity of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the spirituals they performed, these traditional songs have since been arranged by countless individual singers and choral groups. For Jessye, as she was a child of former slaves, spirituals played a significant role in family heritage, and would become a cornerstone in her life.
After her early introduction to spirituals, Jessye began to pursue a career in music. At 13, she began attending Western University in Quindaro, Kansas, where she received much of her formal musical education. Jessye later recalled that it was during a choral audition with the composer Will Marion Cook that she became determined to devote her life to “our music [read: spirituals]”:
“I sang: ‘My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.’ Many of the other students laughed in derision. They laughed and laughed. And I said to myself, ‘One of these days they’ll see how valuable spirituals are and what they can mean.’ I determined then that some day I would make this music more appreciated—and it has been my life’s work ever since.”
After college, Jessye taught in segregated Oklahoma schools and worked for The Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore. While serving as the director of music at Morgan College in Baltimore in 1926, she founded the Eva Jessye Choir. The group originally debuted as the Original Dixie Jubilee Singers but later changed its name to differentiate from other choirs calling themselves the Dixie Jubilee Singers. Jessye’s choir performed spirituals, work songs, ballads, ragtime, jazz, and light opera across various media, from radio to film to the Broadway stage. During its decades-long run, the Eva Jessye Choir even crossed over the pond to tour in Europe.
The Eva Jessye Choir’s early successes were on the silver screen. In 1927, the group appeared in Harry A. Pollard’s film Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel dealing with issues of racism in America. While researching music for the film, Jessye visited cotton field workers in the American South (Jenkins 2016). Inspired by a song she heard sung by descendants of slaves, Jessye’s arrangement of “Sold Away to Georgia” became the movie’s theme song. Two years later, the Eva Jessye Choir performed in King Vidor’s film Hallelujah (1929), Hollywood’s first all-Black sound film. While Jessye had the opportunity to compose original music for the film, she still faced discriminatory practices on set. When she later spoke out about her experiences, Jessye was praised by the Black press for her commitment to equality.
In 1934, the Eva Jessye Choir sang in Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The opera featured an all-Black cast, a choice made by Thomson in part “for the excellence of their diction,” considering the difficulty of singing in English (Purdy 2018). The opera also served as a musical and economical breakthrough for all professional choirs—Jessye demanded that her choir receive compensation for rehearsals, a non-standard practice at the time. Jessye fought a “deeply ingrained system of discriminatory salaries, rampant kickbacks, and nonpayment of choruses” to achieve the milestone of earning choir members pay for both rehearsal and performance time (Watson 2000).
The Eva Jessye Choir in a production of Porgy and Bess c. 1938, Eva Jessye Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
In 1935, after they appeared in Four Saints in Three Acts, George Gershwin hired the Eva Jessye Choir and personally selected Dr. Jessye to be the choral director for the first production of Porgy and Bess. Jessye led the choir in every incarnation of the show for 30 years, often fighting segregationist policies in performance venues where they appeared. In her notes, Jessye described discriminatory conditions in Dallas where “the cast could not eat in nearby places” and had to walk to the predominantly Black part of town (Napoleon). While in Washington D.C., Jessye joined a cast strike against venue segregation. They did not perform until the National Theatre management agreed to temporarily remove its segregated seating policy, resulting in the theatre’s first integrated audience in 1936—nearly twenty years before the theatre was officially desegregated in 1952, the same year as the Breen-Davis revival of Porgy and Bess for which Jessye also served as the choral director.
Jessye’s commitment to improving race relations in America did not end in the 1930s. Jessye and her choir remained deeply involved in efforts to end segregation and discrimination in the United States. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. named the Eva Jessye Choir the official choral group for the 1963 March on Washington. They performed “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom Is the Thing We’re Talking About” in the same city where they had fought segregation three decades earlier.
A talented composer and arranger as well as a choral conductor, Jessye authored a collection of spirituals and folk-oratorios. In 1927, she published a book of arrangements titled My Spirituals, inspired by her upbringing in southeast Kansas. According to the Kansas Historical Society, “Jessye believed African Americans should have the choice to experience the creative sounds of the many talented jazz musicians and, at the same time, be encouraged to retain their ethnic musical roots.” Jessye found beauty in spirituals and made them her life’s work, even though the genre was often overlooked. While they were never officially published, Jessye frequently programmed her own compositions Paradise Lost and Regained (1935), The Life of Christ in Negro Spirituals (1955), and The Chronicle of Job (1978). Based on John Milton’s epic 17th-century poem Paradise Lost, Jessye’s Paradise Lost and Regained has been described as “a moving tapestry of music and the spoken word” that audiences marveled at for its “smooth blend of two totally diverse styles of expression” (Jenkins 2016). The Chronicle of Job demonstrated Jessye’s continual use of spirituals throughout her career, as she told the Bible story through spirituals in this later composition.
Performance by soprano Marti Newland of Jessye’s arrangement of “I’m a Po’ Lil’ Orphan.”
Jessye’s contributions to the arts continued until her final breath; she passed away in 1992 while working on her book, Fill Up the Saucer, about her experiences over the years with Porgy and Bess. (Read more about Fill Up the Saucer in this digital archive project by the Alfred and Jane Wolin Gershwin Initiative Managing Editor, Dr. Andrew Kohler.) From her work teaching segregated students in Kansas to leading a choir for 30 years, to performing during a watershed Civil Rights Movement event, to lecturing at the University of Michigan, we will continue to explore how Dr. Eva Jessye cemented her role in American musical history. In the next installment of the Dr. Eva Jessye series, we look into Jessye’s unprecedented collaboration with George Gershwin as she served as the choral director and only Black production member of Porgy and Bess through decades of revivals.
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