In our latest post in Melodia’s blog series, ‘The Women Behind the Music,’ author Pam McAllister explores the life and music of African American Choral Artist Eva Jessye (1895-1982).
As she would later tell it, Eva Jessye was born in Coffeyville, Kansas on January 20, 1895, a bright Sunday morning, just as the “Amen Corner” in the Baptist church across the street reached a boiling point of “Hallelujahs.”
When her parents split up three years later, Eva began a nomadic life, residing with grandmothers and aunties and occasionally her mother. She loved staying with her Aunt Harriet who sang spirituals in a rich, soulful voice. These songs became the cornerstone of Eva’s life.
Years later, she heard Booker T. Washington admonish Black students, “Never forget to sing the songs of your mothers and fathers.” Eva Jessye took this to heart, devoting her life to collecting, preserving, and singing her ancestors’ songs, eventually assembling a collection titled My Spirituals (1927).
Following Her Muse
Jim Crow laws prevented little Black girls in Kansas from attending public schools, but Eva resolutely worked to fulfill her destiny. At age nine, she organized her first choral group, a girls’ quartet. At thirteen, she was accepted into Western University in Kansas City, the first Black school west of the Mississippi. There, she excelled at music studies. When the university orchestra conductor needed a score, he asked his “little protégé” to be the copyist. The choral director, too, noticed Eva’s natural ability and tasked her with rehearsing small ensembles.
Ms. Jessye graduated with honors, then earned a teacher’s degree from Langston University in Oklahoma. She taught in several schools, organizing glee clubs wherever she went.
Hers continued to be the life of a creative wanderer. She worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet, utilizing her musical genius when she could. For a time, she was a staff writer for The Baltimore Afro-American. When a local choral group, the Dixie Jubilee Singers, needed a conductor, she stepped up, renamed them the Eva Jessye Choir, and relocated to New York City.
The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing in the mid-1920s, awakening the nation to African American art and culture. Jessye’s reputation as a pioneer in Black choral music was secured as her choir regularly sang on the radio — spirituals, work songs, lullabies, and folk songs about Black heroes.
Broadway and Beyond
In 1934, Jessye was choral director for Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson. The next year, George Gershwin, familiar with her radio broadcasts, hired Eva Jessye and her singers to anchor the Broadway premier of Porgy and Bess, a new opera with a Black cast. (Listen to a recording of Eva Jessye Choir in Porgy and Bess, right.)
For the next three decades, Jessye, guardian of the score, toured with the show, gaining international fame as choral director and performer. In a letter to a friend, she shared her impressions of places she’d traveled, writing, “No more South for me … I liked London very much … Paris I found disappointing … Vienna I loved.”
She intended to write a book, a behind-the-scenes look at the show from a Black performer’s perspective. What a treasure that would have been! Despite endorsements from people like Ira Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein (“I wait impatiently for your book”), the publishing deal fell through.
Committed to the Creative Life
Called the “Grand Dame of Black Music,” Dr. Jessye was persistent and productive. She arranged many spirituals and composed several large-scale oratorios. After finding a tattered copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, she composed her signature oratorio, Paradise Lost and Regained, (1934) which aired on NBC Radio. She worked on a new version with dancers, which was performed to great acclaim at the Washington Cathedral in 1972.
A fount of creativity, she acted and sang on stage and film and toured with her concert choir, creating imaginative programs reflecting the range of African American music.
At the request of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Eva Jessye Choir sang at the 1963 March on Washington.
Through the years, Dr. Jessye accumulated honorary degrees and awards. She established significant music collections, one at the University of Michigan, another at Pittsburgh State U. in Kansas, where she served as Artist-In-Residence, 1978-1981.
Married twice, she had no children but remained dedicated to her muse. Industrious to the end, she joked “If Saint Peter says he’s coming to get Eva at 7 o-clock and he comes at 7:15, I’ll say ‘You’re late; I’ve made other plans.’” Peter finally caught up with the 97-year-old one night in Michigan and escorted her home.
“She Filled Up the Saucer: The Story of Eva Jessye” by Andrew S. Kohler, PhD., Feb. 11, 2020, on the Story Maps website
“All the World’s a Stage: The Legacy of Eva Jessye” by Davi Napoleon, History of the University of Michigan website (Bentley Historical Library)
Eva A. Jessye, Map of Kansas Literature website
“The Evolution of Eva Jessye’s Programming As Evidenced In Her Choral Concert Programs from 1927-1982” by Lynnel Jenkins, 2016, doctoral dissertation for The University of Arizona
Eva Jessye Collection 1885-1994, Pittsburg State University: https://digitalcommons.pittstate.edu/jessye/
“Remember the Ladies: Harlem Renaissance Choral Director: by Edwyna Synar, 3/15/19, Muskogee Phoenix website
“Daughter of Ex-Slaves Who Made Good on Broadway Recalls Life” New York Times, Oct. 7, 1979
Wisdom, Wit, and Will: Women Choral Conductors on Their Art, edited by Joan C. Conlon, GIA Publications, 2009