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Dr. Eva Jessye: The Grand Dame in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Dr. Eva Jessye had a special relationship to the University of Michigan and to the city of Ann Arbor. Join blog team member Sophia Janevic as she spends a day in Jessye’s archive, currently housed at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, and speculates on what its materials can tell us about Dr. Jessye’s vibrant life. This is the final installment of a 3-part series on Dr. Eva Jessye. In part 1, we explored Jessye’s early life and her achievements as a choral director and composer, while part 2 chronicled Jessye’s work as the longtime choral director of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.

The finger may bend, but point out the right road                                                        To some misguided soul.                                                                                            The limbs may be gnarled and tottering                                                                        Yet stand up for truth and justice!                              Moreover,                                                                                                                      Soul and spirit cannot be measured by man.

—Dr. Eva Jessye, excerpt from “Old, Not So Gifted…And Black”

The Collection: History and Access

Dr. Eva Jessye is special to the Gershwin Initiative for many reasons—her illustrious career; her decades of work with The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (1935); her pioneering work as a Black composer, arranger, conductor, singer, and teacher. In addition to these accomplishments, Jessye’s connections to the University of Michigan make her particularly special to the Ann Arbor community. Jessye first moved to Ann Arbor in 1974 for a teaching position at the University. Shortly thereafter, she established the Eva Jessye Afro-American Music Collection—an archive that chronicles prominent Black American musicians.

Our Eva Jessye series would not be complete without a look at this incredible trove of historical materials, so in January, I ventured into the Eva Jessye archive at the Bentley Historical Library. The week prior to my scheduled visit, I emailed the Bentley explaining my project, and a few days later had a Zoom consultation with archivist Sarah McLusky. She explained the collection’s contents, suggested boxes I should request, and gave me a rundown of the COVID safety precautions that would be in place during my visit.

With Sarah McLusky’s help, I was able to piece together the history of Jessye’s collection. Donated specifically to the University Black Music Students Association in 1974, the collection was originally housed at the School of Music. It was eventually relocated to the Center (currently Department) of African and Afroamerican Studies, and finally found a permanent home in 2010 at the Bentley Historical Library. Jessye’s collection, I learned, began with her own accumulated educational materials on Afro-American history but quickly grew. Today, the Eva Jessye Collection consists of an expansive body of both personal and historical documents: personal writings (including speeches and poetry), photographs, programs, original scores, correspondence, awards, poetry clippings, and papers focused on Black history, among many other materials and mementos. (For a more comprehensive look at the contents of the collection, check out the scope and content notes in the collection’s finding aid). Indeed, Jessye intended for the collection to continually evolve, as she emphasized that it was to “serve as a nucleus for future acquisitions and donations of black music and its related arts.”

The Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, home to the Eva Jessye Collection 

Jessye also established a similar collection at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, her home state, where she was Artist-in-Residence from 1977 to 1981. In 1985, she moved back to Ann Arbor, stating, “It is a wise and long overdue move…for cultural, social, and health reasons.” Jessye spent the remainder of her life in Ann Arbor. She died in 1992, and is buried right next to U-M campus in the Forest Hill Cemetery.

A Dive into the Archive

Armed with an understanding of the collection’s contents, history, and context, I visited the Bentley on January 14th. Although it was my first time entering a campus building in nearly a year due to the pandemic, I felt surprisingly at ease as I arrived. A staff member greeted me at the door, checked my ResponsiBLUE symptom tracker app, and led me (at a safe distance) to a table where my requested boxes had already been placed for me. For the rest of the afternoon, I was free to explore Jessye’s materials.

The Eva Jessye Collection paints a dynamic picture of an artist deeply invested in Black musicians and musical traditions of the past, present, and future. As I sifted through folder after folder, I was struck by Jessye’s immense respect for Black musicians, both of and prior to her time. I frequently came across lists of Black artists she had typewritten, with titles like “Field of Negro Writers” or “Negro Artists..Painters.. Photographers, etc.” Some of these lists were just names, but others included notes on the person’s history and accomplishments. The purpose of these lists became clear as I opened a folder of excerpts from speeches she had written. Though these speeches covered varying cultural and musical topics, a clear message on the significance of Black musical legacy emerged. One speech, titled “Negro History,” emphasized the importance of acknowledging contributions of Black ancestors, while another, “Footprints of Black Musicians,” explained to a predominantly Black youth audience how it is important not just to trace the footsteps of older Black musicians, but also to understand that they too can leave “impressions on the minds and lives of those who follow after and who may, even without your knowledge, use you as a pattern of example.” These explicit themes of history, footprints, and inspiration reveal Jessye as someone not only with an interest in the past, but also someone who contextualized her own role as a Black creative within an ongoing history—a deeply rooted process that is continually being constructed. In her own words, “I am sure the most praiseworthy thing I’ve done is discovering, coaching and encouraging aspiring singers and actors.”

“Footprints of Black Musicians,” Text of Jessye’s speech, Eva Jessye Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

In seeing herself as extending a legacy, Jessye kept lengthy notes on her life—many of which were intended for a memoir, Fill Up The Saucer, which unfortunately was never completed after the book deal fell through. Lists of life topics deemed “pertinent,” snippets from backstage gossip at her shows, ideas for comedy lines for her scripts (“born too early, too late…too something..how about too ‘black’?”), and other random notes fill the boxes of her collection. Even her most nebulous of brainstorms—such as one jotted down in her cursive scrawl on a scrap of cardboard—contain remarkable words of wisdom: “‘Culture’ is not an empty, stuffy word, but an atmosphere in which good and fine things can flourish.” Other documents, such as notes from her travels, reveal how issues of race and equality informed her engagement with art beyond music. On a trip to an art garden in Jerusalem, for example, she noted that the “only Negro” depicted in Epstein’s “In Plaster” exhibit was the singer and activist Paul Robeson, and expressed disgust at an offensive label in another exhibit, commenting that her friend had suggested she “destroy the caption.”

While Jessye’s own writings reveal her beliefs, creativity, and powerful personality, her strong friendships and investment in her community shine through in her correspondence. Letters with Ira Gershwin show that the two stayed in touch long after Jessye worked as choral director on Porgy and Bess, and much of their conversation centers around subsequent productions of the opera. Ira’s letters also show great admiration for Jessye’s newer work; in a 1965 letter he compliments her lyrics (or possibly a poem) “My Past Thirty Years,” remarking,

“I like the sentiment and also the fact that you are scrupulous about correct rhyme in an age when many songwriters and advertising jingles use bad rhymes like ‘time’ and ‘mine,’ ‘fun’ and ‘gum,’ ‘unforgettable’ and ‘incredible,’ etc., etc. ‘My Past Thirty Years’ certainly deserves to see print in at least a ‘trade mag.’ Nice work.”

Letter from Ira Gershwin to Eva Jessye, 27 December 1965, Eva Jessye Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. (Rouben Mamoulian directed the first production of Porgy and Bess.)

Other letters from both friends and fans shared their latest gossip, congratulated Jessye on her newspaper features, or speculated about issues of race in America. A unifying theme among many of the letters was a sense that Jessye’s opinion of emerging Black artists, writers, and politicians—as well as Black representation within these fields—deeply mattered to fellow artists and friends. One such letter from 1989, written by Jessye’s friend Bob Rogers, raved to her about film director Spike Lee, asserting that he “writes great dialogue for whites and all minorities. No white writers can write great dialogue for Blacks, Asians, Indians, and Latins.” It is clear that for many, Jessye was a cultural authority, as well as someone with whom it was simply exciting to share moving artistic works.

It is a testament to Jessye’s prowess as an archivist in her own right that the collection contains materials from its own dedication ceremony. Photographs from the 1974 event in the Stearns Building depict a sizable crowd that included prominent guests such as Etta Moten Barnett, who had performed as a soloist with the Eva Jessye Choir in the 1930s and was notable for her role as Bess in Cheryl Crawford’s 1942 Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess. Famous ragtime pianist and composer Eubie Blake, who had also donated an interview of himself to the collection, made a short speech in Jessye’s honor as part of the program. The University Chamber Choir rounded out the ceremony with a performance of Jessye’s own piece, Move! Let Me Shine! 

Materials from the dedication also include countless letters of congratulations. Sent by everyone from close friends to old acquaintances (including Harriet Jackson, who identifies herself in her telegram as “the first to sing Summertime in the original [1942 Broadway revival] company of Porgy and Bess”), the messages show the collection’s wide reaching impact and significance in preserving Black musical history. Of particular note is a telegram from Coretta Scott King, who writes,

“I heartily commend you on the opening of the Afro-American Music Collection which you have worked so assissidously [sic] to establish. This rich cultural legacy of America’s largest ethnic minority has too long been buried under the debris of racism, thus denying national and international citizens and [sic] opportunity to enrich their lives through a knowledge of the unique contribution that Afro-Americans have made to world culture. Now, exposed to the sunlight of time, I know that this long lost part of our heritage will prove itself to have been the missing ingredient to the completeness of humanity.”

Telegram from Coretta Scott King to Eva Jessye, 18 January 1974, Eva Jessye Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Coretta Scott King’s words ring true—this post merely scratches the surface of an impressive and comprehensive preservation of Black American musical history, as well as an illuminating window into Jessye’s own rich life and place within this legacy. Though I only made it through a few of the collection’s twelve boxes due to the Bentley’s COVID-conscious time constraints, I could have easily spent months inside this collection, examining its abundance of exciting and insightful materials. Despite the historical significance of Jessye’s collection, it unfortunately remains an underutilized resource. This is alarmingly apparent in light of the fact that no published biography of Eva Jessye exists, despite detailed documentation of her life. A few scholars—namely Doris Louise Jones Wilson, Donald Black, and Lynell Jenkins—have, however, written valuable dissertations on Jessye’s life, work, and programming. It is heartening to see increased scholarship on Jessye, and greater recognition of her contributions to American music. We therefore encourage everyone to take the time to explore the Eva Jessye Collection and its sister collection at Pittsburg State University, to their fullest extent—to learn from this integral American music archive, to honor the pioneering work of Black musicians, and above all, to experience the warmth and wisdom that radiates from the pen of the incredible woman that was Eva Jessye.

***

While the Bentley is temporarily closed to the public due to the pandemic, our Alfred and Jane Wolin Managing Editor, Dr. Andrew Kohler, has compiled digital images of documents from the Bentley’s collection, many pertaining to her work with Porgy and Bess, in this digital archive. Pittsburg State University’s Eva Jessye Collection also has many publicly accessible materials available on their website.

 

Further Reading:

Black, Donald Fisher. The Life and Work of Eva Jessye and Her Contributions to American Music. PhD. diss., University of Michigan, 1986. 

Eva Jessye Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 

Jenkins, Lynnel. The Evolution of Eva Jessye’s Programming as Evidenced in Her Choral Concert Programs From 1927–1982. DMA dissertation, University of Arizona, 2016.

Kohler, Andrew S. “She Filled Up the Saucer: The Story of Eva Jessye.” 2020. https://arcg.is/uqDbr.

Napoleon, Davi. “All the World’s a Stage: The Legacy of Eva Jessye.” The History of the University of Michigan, December 4, 2019. https://historyofum.umich.edu/all-the-worlds-a-stage/

“Ragtime Artist Eubie Blake to Speak at Campus Ceremony.” The Michigan Daily, January 10, 1974. https://digital.bentley.umich.edu/midaily/mdp.39015071754464/23

Seidman, Peter. “Eva Jessye.” The Black Perspective in Music 18, No. 1/2 (1990): 258–63.

Special Collections, Leonard H. Axe Library, Jessye, Eva (1895-1992) Collection, 1885-1994 (2016). Finding Aids. 9. https://digitalcommons.pittstate.edu/fa/9.

Wilson, Doris Louise Jones. Eva Jessye: Afro-American Choral Director. PhD. diss., Washington University, 1989.

3 Comments
  • Derek on March 5, 2021

    Great post, Sophia! Really interesting insights. It is too bad that her memoir was never published!

  • Mark on March 5, 2021

    I would have loved to see her memoir too. Do you know what her first teaching post was at Michigan in 1974? I’m curious if she was teaching at the School of Music (as it was known then) or somewhere else…

  • song lyrics on September 9, 2022

    Great post, Sophia! Really interesting insights.

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