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.

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Margaret Rosezarian Harris

Margaret Harris (1943 – 2000) is slightly better remembered for her work as a conductor than her contemporary, Joyce Brown. She had a long association with the musical Hair and conducted over 800 performances, on Broadway and as MD for its national tours . 

There’s much more to Harris’s career, and retracing newspaper coverage of her work reveals interviews with her, and the prospect of several Broadway shows she was never credited for. Footage of Harris conducting and playing the piano has also been found, and shared here for the first time. 

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‘I have a reservoir that hasn’t been tapped’: uncovering the groundbreaking work of Joyce Brown

Joyce Brown (1920 – 2015) – is regarded as both the first Black woman to conduct any Broadway show (in 1965) and to open a new show as conductor (1971). Her contribution was phenomenal: to music and music education; to building up Black community on Broadway; and to making opportunities for Black musicians at every stage of their career was phenomenal. Yet when she died in 2015, there was no obituary that recounted her achievements on the pages of a national newspaper. To date, she has no Wikipedia page, and Google turns up only a few articles that lay out her achievements.

This article builds on the little that is known about her by searching through digitised newspaper records of her work. It lays out Brown’s career alongside her own words, retraced from the many interviews she did during her career.

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“But no one is doing the reading!”: exploring journal articles as lecture prep

In my earlier post I explored how to read and use academic articles, with some clear ways in for students. This time I wanted to slightly switch tactic – and put some questions for lecturers to think about in addressing why they are setting reading in the first place. Then there are some strategies for how we might find new directions instead of simply setting one or two articles a week.

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Reading academic articles: a how to guide

One of the most important things as a teacher is to challenge the idea that anyone should be able to do anything. It has always frustrated me that lecturers can think that reading academic articles is just something that students are meant to be good at, without really spending any time in addressing what is a weird and fairly unique kind of writing.

So in this article, I’ll break down some of the key steps. This is primarily focused on humanities articles but may be useful to other kinds of work too.

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The first RNCM cohort – snapshots of lives in music

In the last post – I talked about how we could research the people listed in the 1893 RNCM register, most of whom are women. I’ve shared some of the research findings here – with some intriguing, but sometimes incomplete findings. It is very difficult to find details on women’s professional careers because their names often changed at marriage – and not just their first name as some women became professionally known as Mrs [Husband’s first name] [Husband’s last name]. It is worth noting that the Married Women’s Property Act had only come into effect in 1882.

So here are 16 mini-biographies where women can be traced – more may be added if I find anything else!

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Women in Music – RNCM 1893

Back in the *before times* I did quite a lot of research on the 1893 register of the first intake into what was then the Royal Manchester College of Music.

I’ve come back to this dataset to think about how we can understand who was part of this first group of students, and how they began their professional careers. The first intake into the school in October 1893 was 82% female – and some later historical accounts of the school emphasised the idea that it was a kind of finishing school for nice, middle-class, ladies looking for good husbands. But the reality is very different, and the evidence clearly demonstrates the school was a vital part of training musicians and teachers, right from the beginning. The assumption has been made that because it was for women, it couldn’t possibly have been serious, but of course, that’s just not the case.

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Part 6: The Megamusical and Whiteness

So this perhaps the most tricksy part of all of this – how do we know that this musical engages with whiteness? Part of the answer is because it doesn’t engage with anything else. To be unconcerned with race in the autumn of 1985 is a luxury only whiteness could allow; being indifferent is a privilege only whiteness would embrace.

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Part 5: Les Mis, white optimism, and Autumn 1985

The musical as a form relies on a relatively straightforward dramaturgical structure, broadly used in the majority of musicals, where a set number of characters, usually relatively small in number, go through some kind of conflict or experience and their story is resolved by the end of the show, ideally with some kind of happy ending. The happy ending in Les Mis might be fairly thin on the ground, but there is some kind of hopefulness. In this part I’m going to explore how the musical is structured, and consider what does this have to do with Autumn 1985, and narrative whiteness?

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Part 4 – Staging revolution in Handsworth Songs

Handsworth Songs opens with an image of a Black security guard looking at a large engine (perhaps in a museum), intercutting with a series of unsettling images and sirens (birds roosting, a rotating clown face), before settling on the civic centre of Birmingham and the statues of the ‘great noble men of Birmingham’ outside the city’s library buildings. Images of the morning after street protests are intercut with the same clown; then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd visiting the residents of Birmingham. (Hurd had to leave the area quickly after his arrival, news footage records his unwelcome visit).

In one of the most distressing sequences of Handsworth Songs, which comes only minutes in, a young Black teenager is chased by police, we seem him violently restrained as other young Black people look on – watching but not surprised by what they are seeing. The film then moves into a series of archival footage of earlier Caribbean immigrants to the UK, of hopeful wedding photos and ballroom dancing. Homi Bhabha argues that Handsworth Songs resists time because it stages ‘the historic present of the riots’[i], it explicitly presents fractured time:

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