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.
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.
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.