Eva Jessye – Moving into Ownership

Eva Jessye was born in Coffeyville, Kansas on January 20, 1895. Her passion for music began with negro spirituals. Rooted in this passion for music was the influence of her great-grandmother and great-aunt. This generational impact her grandparents had on her learning In relation to music is emulative of the same shift which took place during the transition from spiritual music into folk and other prominent genres in the future. This transitional made an appearance in her professional career as she moved from a simple love of spirituals into a pursuit of more professional opportunities.  Jessye started as a music teacher in Oklahoma public schools and then directing at morgan college after earning a degree in poetry and oration at Western University . Jessye later moved to New York in 1926 and directed a spirituals, jazz, and “light opera” choir called the “Dixie Jubilee Singers”. Because of her direction, this choir was later named the “ Eva Jessye Choir”. She directed this choir for 30 years. During her time directing, her career mirrored the changing times and was featured on radio shows such as “Major Bowes Family Radio Hour”. Additionally, her choir was featured as the official choir of the first production of George Gershwin’s folk opera “Porgy and Bess”. Outside of her choral career she also published a book of spirituals titled “My Spirituals” which was inspired by the folk music of her childhood. Jessye saw the opportunity to preserve this music by arranging and recording them in concert tradition. This I find particularly impactful due to her insistence on the ownership of her experience. Because of this being a rarity during the time of her grandparents, I find this to be a prime example of the ways in which  black people, moving into the 1900’s, worked to take ownership of their ideas and contributions. Nearing the end of her career, Jessye walked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 during his civil rights march where her group was the official choir for the event. She also appeared in several films, including “Black Like Me” of 1964 and “Slaves” of “1969”  


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