Eva Jessye was a pioneer in the world of African American music and is recognized as the first black woman to receive international distinction as a choral director. She was born in Coffeyville, Kansas on January 20, 1895 to Albert and Julia Jessye, but was raised by various relatives after her parents’ separation. Influenced by the singing of her great-grandmother and great-aunt, Jessye developed an early love of traditional Negro spirituals. At the age of thirteen, she attended Western University in Kansas City, Kansas where she studied poetry and oratory. In addition to singing in Western’s concert choir, she gained experience coaching several male and female student choral groups.
Jessye graduated in 1914 and then earned a second bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate at Langston University in Oklahoma. She began her career as a music teacher in Oklahoma public schools, working in them for five years. In 1919 she became the head of the Music Department at Morgan College in Baltimore, Maryland.
In pursuit of more professional opportunities, Jessye moved to New York in 1926 and directed a spirituals, jazz, and light opera choir called the Dixie Jubilee Singers. Under her direction, the group, later named the Eva Jessye Choir, enjoyed a successful career which lasted more than thirty years and included a regular spot on the radio program “Major Bowes Family Radio Hour.” In 1935 the Eva Jessye Choir auditioned for and was cast as the official choir of the first production of George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess. Jessye and her choir toured with the show, earning international acclaim. They were even named the official choral group for the March on Washington in 1963.
Most well known for her prestigious career as a choral director, Jessye helped launch the careers of many black concert artists. However, Jessye’s career was not limited to choral direction. In 1927 she published a book of songs called My Spirituals, inspired by the folk music of her childhood. Her acting credits include such onstage roles as Strawberry Woman in Porgy and Bess and Queenie in Showboat. She was seen in films including Black Like Me (1964) and Slaves (1969). After her choir disbanded in the early 1970s, Jessye returned to writing, teaching, and composing at universities.
In addition to honorary doctorates from several major universities, Jessye was awarded a Doctor of Determination Certificate from the University of Michigan’s Department of African American Studies in 1976. Kansas governor Robert Bennett declared October 1, 1978 “Eva Jessye Day” and in 1982 she was named the “Kansas Ambassador for the Arts” by Governor John Carlin.
Jessye married twice and had no children. She died in 1992 at the age of ninety-seven in Ann Arbor, Michigan.