Jessye, Eva (1895–1992)

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Jessye, Eva (1895–1992)

African-American composer, musician, and choral director. Born on January 20, 1895, in Coffeyville, Kansas; died in 1992; daughter of Al Jessye and Julia (Buckner) Jessye; attended public schools in Kansas, Missouri, and Washington; graduated from Western University, Quindaro, Kansas, 1914; received teachingcertificate from Langston University, Langston, Oklahoma, 1916; never married; no children.

Often referred to as "the dean of black female musicians," Eva Jessye was born in 1895 in Coffeyville, Kansas. Her parents separated when she was three, and she was brought up by her mother's family, who encouraged her to develop her natural gifts. At 13, she was accepted early at Western University in Quindaro, Kansas, and after graduation went on to receive a teaching certificate at Langston University in Oklahoma. She directed the music department at Morgan State College in Baltimore and was a newspaper reporter before moving to New York in 1926. There, she joined and later directed the Dixie Jubilee Singers, which eventually became the Eva Jessye Choir and performed regularly at the Capitol Theater. In 1929, Jessye took the choir to Hollywood to perform in King Vidor's film Hallelujah, the first African-American musical. "I knew how to put little moans and groans and things that would make it real," she later said about her work on the project.

In 1934, Jessye served as the choral director for the experimental opera Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein . Early in 1935, George Gershwin asked Jessye to be choral director for his new folk opera Porgy and Bess. Assisting Gershwin in authenticating the score, which she termed "quite white," Jessye and her choir performed on opening night (October 10, 1935), and she later became known as the "Guardian of the Score," having in her possession the original arrangement of the opera with Gershwin's handwritten instructions.

Over the years, Jessye combined teaching with her ongoing choir work, which included a fund-raising Victory Tour during World War II and a 1944 appearance at the American Soviet Friendship Day ceremonies at Madison Square Garden in New York and, later, at the Watergate Theater in Washington, D.C. (for which she also composed the theme music). In 1963, the choir performed for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington.

Eva Jessye established music collections in her name at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and Pittsburg State University in Kansas. Kansas was also the place where she did much of her composing, and her best-known compositions Chronicle of Job and Paradise Lost and Regained were performed there, along with smaller works. Jessye was named one of the six most outstanding women in Kansas history and in 1978 was honored at "Eva Jessye Day." Among her subsequent awards and honors was a tribute to her work held at the Apollo Theater in New York in 1985. Eva Jessye eventually settled in Michigan, remaining healthy and vibrant well into her 90s. In her later years, she wrote poetry and worked on her autobiography and a history of Porgy and Bess. She died in 1992, age 97.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts