She “was the first black woman to receive international distinction as a professional choral conductor” reads the Wikipedia entry for Eva Jessye. But I hadn’t even heard of her and wondered why she and her chorale had been invited personally by Martin Luther King, Jr. to be part of the official program for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Jessye began her musical career as a teenager organizing choral groups in her hometown in Kansas where she attended college at age thirteen. In 1919, she was the choir director for Morgan State College in Baltimore. She formed the 16-member Eva Jessye Choir in 1926 performing regularly on WOR radio in New York and touring the country. In 1929, she was the choral director for the MGM film Hallelujah directed by King Vidor; in 1933, Jessye worked with composer Virgil Thomson and author Gertrude Stein on the opera Four Saints in Three Acts which opened with an all black cast on Broadway a year later. In 1935, Jessye began a two-decade collaboration with composer George Gershwin as his choral director for Porgy & Bess. She also appeared in several movies.
Ms. Jessye’s travels throughout the U.S. gave her first-hand experience with Jim Crow laws and she joined many of her contemporaries-including Mary McLeod Bethune, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson-as an active supporter of the civil rights movement. Perhaps King admired her for her profound talents as a composer, actress, poet and teacher, as well as her intellect.
Ms. Jessye-a creative force in American music for well over a half century-died in 1992 at the age of 97. A large collection of her personal papers including music, writing, correspondence, photos, newspaper clippings and legal documents are housed at Pittsburg State University in the Leonard H. Axe Library in Pittsburg, Kansas. A similar repository of Jessye’s works and papers are at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan where, in 1974, she established the Eva Jessye African-American Music Collection.
At the historic March on Washington, the Eva Jessye choir performed one of her own compositions, “Freedom is a Thing We’re Talking About.”
~Eva Jessye. I Dream a World, 1989 copyright Brian Lanker.
~Eva Jessye with Eleanor Roosevelt circa 1940. Kansas Historical Society
Wintz, Cary D., Finkleman, Paul. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance Volume 1 A-J. Eva Jessye (p. 617-618)
Conlon, Joan C. Editor. Wisdom, Wit and Will: Women Choral Conductors and Their Art. Eva Jessye chapter by Joan Whittemore (p 419-434).
Eva Jessye Collection. Pittsburg State University
website: WGBH Open Vault Say Brother (1 minute video) http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/sbro-mla001072-eva-jessye-black-american-folk-music