African American musician, actress, author. Born: January 20, 1895, Coffeyville, Kansas. Died: February 21, 1992.
Eva Jessye's life was devoted to the arts: she made contributions as a singer, actress, choral director, author, and poet. Jessye was acknowledged as the first African American woman to win international distinction as a director of a professional choral group. She directed the Eva Jessye Choir, which performed many styles of music including spirituals, work songs, mountain ballads, ragtime, jazz, and light opera. She also wrote poetry which she saw as another form of music.
A Baptist church choir serenaded Eva Jessye with "hallelujahs" as she entered the world, setting the tone for her life's work. The Coffeyville native soon set a goal to preserve the tradition of African American music for future generations.
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.
Born January 20, 1895, in Coffeyville, Kansas, Eva Alberta Jessye started her academic career in the public schools of Coffeyville and Iola, Kansas. Following studies at Western University in Quindaro (present Kansas City, Kansas) and Langston University in Oklahoma, Jessye became a teacher in several segregated Oklahoma classrooms. In 1922 she went to New York to work for an African American newspaper. Music motived 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. Her collection of traditional songs, My Spirituals, was published in the late 1920s. Jessye believed African Americans should have the choice to experience the creative sounds of the many talented jazz musicians and, at the same time, be encouraged to retain their ethnic musical roots.
In 1935 Jessye became the chorus trainer for George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the first true American opera. Later, the Eva Jessye Choir toured internationally giving concerts in war-torn Europe. Jessye walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 during his civil rights march; her group was the official choir for the event.
Jessye traveled the world sharing her Kansas roots through music and the rhythm of her poetry. She returned to Kansas late in life and continued to produce works of music and poetry well into her 90s. Eva Jessye, the "grand dame of Black music in America," died in 1992.
Entry: Jessye, Eva
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: March 2009
Date Modified: December 2012
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