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Black News and News Makers in History: Eva Jessye

African American news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Eva Jessye this week in Black history.Eva Jessye, singer, actress, choral director, author, and poet, devoted her life to the arts. One of her goals was to preserve the tradition of African American music for future generations.

Eva Jessye, born on January 20, 1895 in Coffeyville, Kansas near Oklahoma. Her father supported the family as a chicken picker. She was an avid reader who sang as a child, writing her first poem at the age of seven; winning a contest at thirteen.

As a small child, Jessye slumbered as her Aunt Harriet sang spirituals. During the pre-teen years, she organized a girl's quartet, the first of many singing ensembles she established and directed. She believed that the "Negro" spirituals of her ancestors were a distinct type of music unique to the African American heritage.

Jessye saw a similar rhythm in spoken word, and began writing poetry at an early age.

She studied choral music and music theory at Western University (formerly Quindaro State), graduating in 1914. She also received a degree from Langston University. She taught at an elementary school in Taft, Oklahoma and spent classroom time in Haskell and Muskogee as well.

In 1919, she began work as the choir director at Morgan State College in Baltimore. Jessye returned west to teach at an AME Church school in Oklahoma. But, in the mid-20s she went back East to Baltimore where she began to perform regularly with her group, the "Eva Jessye Choir." She had originally named them the "Dixie Jubilee Singers."

In 1922, she went to New York to work for an African American newspaper. Music motivated her, and she continued to organize and direct singing groups. Spirituals remained the basis of her musical undertakings.
While jazz offered one voice for African Americans, Jessye used another form to express her cultural heritage. The tradition of spirituals is believed to have arisen as a distinctly African American response to the specific needs and goals of the culture. Jessye saw the opportunity to preserve this music by arranging and recording them in concert tradition.

In 1926, Jessye and the group, pursuing a career in music and theater, got their first break at the Capitol Theater playing with Major Bowles.

They were also a frequent presence on NBC and WOR radio in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. They recorded on Brunswick, Columbia, and Cameo records in the 1920s.

In New York, she worked with creative multiracial teams in groundbreaking productions that experimented with form, music and stories. It was in New York that she met and became a protégé of Black Classic composer Will Marion Cook.

In 1927, Jessye published "My Spirituals," a collection of arrangements of spirituals with stories about growing up in southeast Kansas.

In 1929, Jessye went to Hollywood as the choral director for the MGM film "Hallelujah" directed by King Vidor.

In 1933, she directed her choir in Virgil Thomson's and Gertrude Stein's opera, "Four Saints in Three Acts," produced as a Broadway theatre work.

In 1935, George Gershwin chose her as his music director for his opera "Porgy and Bess." She is regarded as the unofficial guardian of the musical score. "Porgy and Bess" is considered the first true American opera. Jessye's authentic touches to the piece deepened it cultural flavor of the black experience for the fine translation by Gershwin.

African American news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Eva Jessye this week in Black history.Jessye composed her own choral works, including her folk oratorio "Paradise Lost and Regained" (1934), "The Life of Christ in Negro Spirituals" (1931), and "The Chronicle of Job" (1936), which combined spirituals, religious narrative or biblical text, and her own orchestral compositions.

Later, the Eva Jessye Choir toured internationally giving concerts in war-torn Europe.

She was featured in the 1944 first annual "I Am an American Day" initiated by the (then) mayor of New York City.

The Eva Jessye Choir performed in concert at major universities and colleges throughout America and worldwide for more than forty years. The choir performed many styles of music including spirituals, work songs, mountain ballads, ragtime, jazz, and light opera.

An active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Jessye walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and directed her choir for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Her group was the official choir for the event.

She was active into her 80s and taught at the University of Michigan. The Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Michigan awarded her a Degree in Determination in 1976.

In 1987, after receiving an honorary Doctor or Art from Eastern Michigan University at the age of ninety-two, she wrote, "You see I am still cuttin' cane and choppin' cotton-with might and main-with wide acclaim!"

Dr. Jessye was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.

During her lifetime, she shared her wisdom and talents. Her resonant voice, twinkle in her eye, and alertness and depth of mind spoke of her greatness. An expert in harmonics, Jessye's literary and musical accomplishment spanned over 75 years. She was world renowned as a poet and composer.

The first black woman to receive international distinction as a professional choral conductor, she is notable as a female choral conductor during the Harlem Renaissance whose professional influence extended for decades through her teaching and performance. Her accomplishments in this field were historic for any woman regardless of ethnicity.

Shortly before her death in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she established the Eva Jessye African-American Music Collection at the University of Michigan. She left most of her personal papers to Pittsburg State University in Kansas.

Eva Jessye, the "grand dame of Black music in America," died on February 21st 1992.

Compiled from http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/eva-jessye/12100 and Wikipedia.