“If I belong to anything, I belong to my music.” Eva Jessye (1895-1992)

If I belong to anything, I belong to my music. What you were born to do, you don’t stop to think, should I? could I? would I? I only think, will I? And, I shall!
Eva Jessye (1895-1992)

Eva Alberta Jessye

Although Eva Alberta Jessye was living in Ypsilanti when she died, she etched her place in American music history while living in New York City for nearly 50 of her 97 years. In 1934, composer Virgil Thomson put her in charge of the chorus for his opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” for its premiere. George Gershwin hired her as choral conductor for his premiere production of “Porgy and Bess” in 1935. 

… She was a teacher, composer, writer, actress, choral director and much more. In a country that practiced segregation and racial hatred toward Black people, Jessye blazed a trail for others and she did it with integrity.

In a 1979 interview, Jessye told a reporter: “There was a scene where the washerwoman walks out on the stage. No one would do it, so I volunteered. I told the other Blacks they were there doing opera because their mothers washed clothes, chopped cotton, bowed low, suffered and labored to get them there. Then they began to see. I believe in keeping the dignity of your background.”

She worked with world-renowned musicians, conductors, composers, actors, and other performers and received many honors and awards. The Eva Jessye Choir sang at the historic March on Washington in 1963, where Jessye marched right behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to working with Thomson and Gershwin, she helped score and was choral director for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Hallelujah” in 1929. Two years later, NBC aired her folk oratorio, “Paradise Lost and Regained’ based on John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” a copy of which she found in a trash can in Manhattan. 

In 1971, she moved to Ann Arbor and worked at the University of Michigan until 1978 when she returned to her home state Kansas. She moved back to Ann Arbor in 1988, partly due to her connection with the University of Michigan, where the Eva Jessye Afro-American Music Collection is housed. 

A few years before she died at Bortz Health Care Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Eva Alberta Jessye described her life saying: “I think there’s nothing greater than opening doors for other people and thinking you have fulfilled yourself.”

* Story courtesy of Verna Julimairis Hayes

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