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Tue, 02.01.1921

Evelyn White, Choral Vocalist born

Evelyn White

*Evelyn White was born on this date in 1921. She was a Black vocalist, choral instructor, author, and educator.

From Charlotte, N.C., Evelyn Amanda Davidson finished high school at 15, studied at Barber-Scotia College in Concord, N.C., and graduated from Johnson C. Smith University. She began her career as an English teacher at North Carolina Central University before coming to Howard University.  She received a bachelor's degree in music education in 1946 and immediately joined the faculty. In 1950, she received a master's degree in music education from Columbia University and married James Patrick White.

She studied singing for more than ten years with operatic baritone Todd Duncan, who originated the role of Porgy in "Porgy and Bess." She was a nationally renowned choir director, clinician, and scholar of music who taught classes in choral conducting, music theory, and singing. As associate conductor of the university choir, White led rehearsals and helped prepare the choir for performances with the National Symphony Orchestra and a three-month international tour sponsored by the State Department in 1960. "She was the power behind the Howard University choir," said Michael Cordovana, former director of the Catholic University choir. "She worked for the good of music, the good of the choir, and the good of Howard University. It was one of the best music schools in the country."

Many of her students went on to have celebrated careers in music, including operas Jessye Norman, pop singers Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, composer Richard Smallwood, composer-conductor Harold Wheeler, and music producer George Butler. Dozens of her protégés became choir conductors at churches and schools throughout the country.

"She had a way of inspiring students to want to learn," said Veronica Johnson, who enrolled at Howard in 1982 to study with Mrs. White, who had taught Johnson's mother decades before. "She used every ounce of her body and soul to convey what she wanted you to do." White was an outstanding singer in her own right, a mezzo-soprano with a voice "smooth as satin," in the words of former Washington Post music critic Paul Hume. She was the author of "Choral Music by Afro-American Composers" (1981), an annotated index of thousands of compositions for the chorus that is scheduled for a third edition.

After her mentor Warner Lawson died in 1971, White led the university choir for three years. In 1972, she directed a Howard alumni choir in a memorable tribute concert to her longtime mentor and colleague. "Responding to Mrs. White with instant precision and a rhythmic inflection that can only come from both the will to sing perfectly and the willingness to follow a gifted leader," Hume wrote in The Post of the choir members, "they poured out sounds and words that conspired with spirit in a way no other choral ensemble today seems to be able to."

White resigned from her position as choir director in 1974 to care for her ailing husband and sister. Her husband, James Patrick White, died in 1983, but she continued teaching full-time at Howard until 1985. As a conductor in 1976, she formed the Evelyn White Chorale, followed by the Evelyn White Chamber Singers, which specialized in African American music. She also led choirs at Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ before retiring in 1993. White was on the Howard faculty for 39 years and worked closely with Warner Lawson to develop the Howard University Choir into one of the nation's leading collegiate vocal ensembles in the 1950s and '60s.

Evelyn Davidson White, who influenced generations of Howard University students as a choral conductor and music professor, died July 2nd, 2007, of heart disease at her home in Washington. She was 86.

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