Eva Jessye

Jessye in a 1923 magazine

(b. 1895, Coffeyville, Kansas – 1992)

Choir director, music director, activist, composer, journalist. Led the official choir of the March on Washington (1963) 

Jessye’s musical leadership during the 1920s and 1930s placed her at the helm of some of the most important significant productions during this period, on Broadway and in Hollywood. She was a music director for King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), the first Black cast sound film (though Vidor was white), and her choir, the Dixie Jubilee Singers appeared in the film. She was accepted to university aged 14, because she wasn’t allowed to enroll in high school education as a Black woman. She met and was inspired by Will Marion Cook, and after graduation worked as a high school teacher. In this article I’ve found some of her remarks in interviews and coverage of her work.

After teaching music in schools for a period, she began her career as a journalist for the Black newspaper, the Baltimore Afro American. She established her choir, the Dixie Jubilee Singers in Baltimore. By 1925 shew as the paper’s society editor, but she left her post to take the choir to New York where she had secured their first New York booking. Proud of their former staff member, the newspaper followed her journey closely. She was both choir director and business manager, and her bookings included the prestigious including at Marcus Garvey’s UNIA organisation.

By 1926, the choir was broadcasting on the radio, the program included H.T. Burleigh’s ‘Wade in the Water’, J. Rosamond Johnson’s ‘Morning, Noon and Night’ as well as Jessye’s own material. In 1927, she published a book of her own arrangements, My Spirituals. That same year, she began working on a second group concurrently the Swanee Crooners. By this point, her choir was represented by William Morris.

Like Alberta Hunter and several other Black artists, Jessye continued to report for the Afro, while running her groups and performing herself. As a result we know a lot about the choir’s journey, and her own work as an interviewer – including with Ethel Waters.  The Dixie Jubilee Singers performed with Julius Bledsoe in Philadephia. 

She clearly became well known for her arrangements, with her choir, she sang the live prologue for a 1927 film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jessye composed a special song for the piece ‘Sold Away to Georgia’ as well as music for the entire score. The song was ‘built from the fragment of a song Miss Jessye heard the granddaughter of a slave sing at Providence, R. I. This woman’s grandmother first heard it sung by chained slaves in the marketplace at Richmond, Va.’ 

In 1929 she was hired as music director for Hallelujah, only two years after the first sound film had been made. Coverage at the time was supportive if slightly suprrised – ‘Eva Jessye, famous composer, is musical directress’. She was one of the first ever music directors for a film and almost certainly the first Black music director. Yet this achievement is rarely remembered. She explained at the time ‘I did all the coaching, composing and arranging for “Hallelujah” which will mean much to me and I hope it will mean only the beginning of much activity in this field.”

By 1932 she was described as a ‘well known conductor and radio director’ She arranged ‘And I Cry’, a spiritual, for soprano Alyce Fraser’s Town Hall concert. 

In 1934, she and her choir played a central role in Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. She worked closely with Virgil Thomson who rehearsed the show near her house in Harlem. She had a days notice with the score, but she and the choir were immediately hired. She had a productive but challenging relationship with Thomson, and recalled ‘He was a musician, but I was a black person. I told him I had been a black person longer than him.’ 

She negotiated the unusual but vital step that her choir members would be paid throughout rehearsals – establishing a clear professionalised framework for the working relationship with the producers who were putting the opera onto Broadway. 

Eva Jessye, and her choir were an important part of the cast of Porgy and Bess. Jessye was choral director for the original production and its 1942 revival. She was known as ‘the Guardian of the Score […] she kept a copy of the original 1935 score, with handwritten instructions by Gershwin.’ 

Eva Jessye’s motto indicates her remarkable ability to say yes, and find her way into opportunities, becoming an important part of Broadway music making:

 ‘What I may not know today I’ll know tomorrow, because I always have the night between.’ 

Eva Jessye

Read More

She Filled Up the Saucer: The Story of Eva Jessye 

Dr. Eva Jessye: Make Way for the Dame » The Gershwin Initiative Website  

Wikipedia link: Eva Jessye – Wikipedia 
Seidman, Peter. “Eva Jessye.” The Black Perspective in Music, vol. 18, no. 1/2, None, 1990, pp. 259–63, https://doi.org/10.2307/1214904.

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