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*Eva Jessye was born on this date in 1895. She was a Black singer, composer, choral director, and actress.
Born Eva Alberta Jessye 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 poetry contest at thirteen. Jessye studied choral music and music theory at Western University in Quindaro, Kansas, 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 1926, Jessye moved to New York to pursue a career in music and theater, getting her first break at the Capitol Theater playing with Major Bowles. It was here that she met and became a protégé’ of Black Classic composer Will Marion Cook.
An expert in harmonics, Jessye’s literary and musical accomplishment spanned over 75 years. She was world-renowned as a poet and composer. In 1935, she was appointed the original choral conductor of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and is regarded as the unofficial guardian of the musical score. Jessye’s authentic touches to the piece deepened it cultural flavor of the black experience for the fine translation by Gershwin. 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 for more than forty years. In 1963, Jessye directed the official choir for the historic March on Washington. 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!”
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. Eva Jessye, who was one of the few musical phenomenons of the twentieth century died on February 21st, 1992.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York