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Eva Jessye

choir director

Eva Jessye

Eva Alberta Jessye was born in Coffeyville, Kansas, on January 20, 1895. She attended public schools in Coffeyville and then Iola, Kansas. During her pre-teen years she organized a girl's quartet, and also began writing poetry. At the age of thirteen, she entered Western University in Quindaro, Kansas; she graduated from Western in 1914. She went on to Langston University in Oklahoma, where she received a lifetime certificate in teaching. She spent the next several years teaching in segregated classrooms in elementary schools in Taft, Haskell, and Muskogee, Oklahoma.

In 1925, Jessye became a reporter and columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American.

In 1926, Jessye joined a choral group in New York called the Dixie Jubilee Singers, which subsequently became the Eva Jessye Choir. The choir performed spirituals, work songs, ballads, ragtime, jazz, and light opera in a variety of mediums including radio, film, and stage. It performed regularly on the "Major Bowes Family Radio Hour" and the "General Motors Hour." In 1927, the choir appeared in Harry A. Pollard's film, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Wanting to preserve the tradition of African-American music, especially "Negro spirituals," for future generations, Jessye compiled and published a critically acclaimed collection of songs titled My Spirituals, in 1927.

In 1929, King Vidor directed Hallelujah, the first musical motion picture with an all-Black cast. The film featured the Dixie Jubilee Singers, with Jessye as choral director.

In 1934, Jessye was appointed choral director for the New York production of the Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts. In 1935, she was selected by George Gershwin to be choral director for the original production of his 1935 folk-opera Porgy and Bess. For the next thirty years, Jessye was associated with almost every Porgy and Bess production worldwide, earning the unofficial title of "curator and guardian of the score."

During the 1960's, Jessye appeared in the motion pictures Black Like Me and Slaves.

Jessye was also involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960's, collaborating with such African-American notables as Marian Anderson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Julia Davis, Eubie Blake, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Paul Robeson. In August 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., selected the Eva Jessye Choir as the official chorus of the historic March on Washington. Tom Mboya, founder of Kenya's Independence Movement Council and the president of the People's Convention Party, later used recordings of "We Shall Overcome" and "Freedom is the Thing We're Talking About," made during the March, during Kenya's fight for independence.

Returning to academia in the 1970's, Jessye established the Eva Jessye Afro-American Music Collection at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1974. In 1977, she established the Eva Jessye Collection at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, and served as that university's Artist-In-Residence from 1978 to 1981.

During her lifetime, Eva Jessye received honorary degrees from Wilberforce University, Allen University, and Southern University. In 1981, Kansas Governor John Carlin declared Dr. Eva Jessye to be Kansas Ambassador for the Arts. She also received numerous citations from government, educational, and musical organizations.

Dr. Eva Jessye died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on February 21, 1992.

The Eva Jessye Collection

George Gershwin
Marian Anderson

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This page was last updated on 09/22/2017.