Eva Jessye

Often referred to as “the grand dame of Black music,” Dr. Eva Jessye was a composer, singer, choral conductor, teacher, actress, author, and poet with a rich career. In her numerous positions as choral director—such as with the Eva Jessye Choir and the Gershwins’ opera Porgy and Bess—Jessye demanded fair performer compensation, fought for theater desegregation, and supported the careers of countless Black musicians. Her major contributions to Black American music were lauded by Coretta Scott King, and the Eva Jessye Choir performed as the official chorus of the 1963 March on Washington.

Photo: Eva Jessye Portrait, Framed Photos, Box 9, Eva Jessye Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

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Dr. Eva Jessye was born on January 20, 1895 in Coffeyville, Kansas to formerly enslaved parents Albert Jessye and Julia Buckner. Four years after her birth, Jessye’s parents separated, and from then on she lived primarily under the care of her maternal grandmother Mollie Buckner and several of her aunts. Life with her maternal family was joyous and musical, and Jessye was first exposed to music through her Great Aunt Harriet singing Spirituals. Aunt Harriet’s songs, as well as tunes performed at Jessye’s church, gave Jessye an early interest in music. Her mother recognized the young Jessye’s talent and bought her a piano, and Jessye first learned to play by ear. In a draft of her writing piece “My Career,” Jessye reflects on her early aptitude for composition: “When only six or seven I played a game to astonish friends.. ‘If you can play for me,’ I would boast, ‘I can make up and sing a song about anything you name..’..to me it was fun..I [h]ad not idea of talent…”

Jessye’s formal musical education began at age thirteen when she began attending Western University in Quindaro, Kansas, where she majored in poetry and oratory, with additional required piano courses. Jessye was invited to join the school choir after demonstrating remarkable sight-singing abilities, and she quickly rose the ranks and became choir director R.G. Jackson’s assistant, where her responsibilities included rehearsing small ensembles. She also worked as an orchestral copyist, which led composer and conductor Will Marion Cook to discover Jessye. Impressed with Jessye’s musical talents, he called her his “little protégé” and mentored her in music theory and music management, which strongly motivated Jessye to pursue a musical career. Jessye graduated from Western University in 1914 and continued her studies at Langston University, where she received a teaching degree and subsequently taught for a few years in segregated public schools in both Baltimore, Maryland and Tulahassee, Oklahoma. She moved back to Baltimore from Oklahoma in 1925 to write for the Baltimore newspaper The Afro-American.

In 1926, Jessye became the director of the Original Dixie Jubilee Singers—one of the first all-Black professional choirs in the U.S.—which she renamed the Eva Jessye Choir in 1930 to differentiate the group from other choirs who also went by the name Dixie Jubilee Singers. From Spirituals to ragtime to jazz, the Eva Jessye Choir performed songs from nearly every genre and regularly appeared on radio shows such as “The Major Bowes Family Radio Hour” and “The General Motors Hour.” Jessye and her choir were also featured in films such as Harry A. Pollard’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927) and King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929)—Hollywood’s first all-Black sound film. 

In 1934, Jessye became the choir director for Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s work Four Saints in Three Acts. While working on this opera, Jessye demanded that her choir receive compensation for their rehearsals, not just their performances. This was a major economic advance for professional choirs, as prior to this singers were expected to rehearse for free.

The following year, composer George Gershwin—familiar with Jessye from her radio shows— hired the Eva Jessye Choir for the premiere production of his opera Porgy and Bess (1935), with Jessye serving as choral director and also playing a small role as the Strawberry Woman. The Eva Jessye choir toured the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, and New Zealand with subsequent productions. During their tours, the group often faced discriminatory practices. While performing in Washington D.C. in 1936, Jessye and the cast refused to perform in the segregated National Theatre until its management team agreed to temporarily remove the segregated seating policy. Management eventually gave in, and the Eva Jessye choir got to perform for the theater’s first ever integrated audience, though the theater would not become officially desegregated until 1952.

For the next thirty years, Jessye led her choir in nearly every production of Porgy and Bess. She also had a brief acting career in which she advised the BBC’s For the Children: Huckleberry Finn and Down in the Valley (1952) and played the role of Hattie in the 1959 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Kiss Me Kate

In 1963, Jessye and her choir’s major accomplishments were recognized on a national scale when her choir was designated the official chorus of the March on Washington, D.C., organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. The group performed “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom Is the Thing We’re Talking About.”

Throughout her life, Jessye was deeply invested in Black music of the past, present, and future. Especially dear to her were Spirituals, to which she was determined to devote her life after a memorable choral audition with Will Marion Cook. Jessye recalls, “I sang: ‘My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.’ Many of the other students laughed in derision. They laughed and laughed. And I said to myself, ‘One of these days they’ll see how valuable spirituals are and what they can mean.’ I determined then that some day I would make this music more appreciated—and it has been my life’s work ever since.” Jessye went on to publish My Spirituals—a book of sixteen Spiritual arrangements for solo voice and piano—in 1927. The book is heavily inspired by her upbringing in Kansas, with each arrangement accompanied by a story relating to who Jessye heard singing that particular tune during her childhood. Jessye also composed three original oratorios: Paradise Lost and Regained (1935), The Life of Christ in Negro Spirituals (1955), and The Chronicle of Job (1978).

In her later years, Jessye dedicated herself to preserving Black American musical history. In 1974 she came to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where she established the Eva Jessye Afro-American Music Collection. The collection began as accumulated educational materials on Afro-American history, but quickly expanded to include Jessye’s own personal documents, such as her writing, photographs, programs, correspondence, and scores. Coretta Scott King wrote to Jessye in 1974 and praised this collection, stating, “This rich cultural legacy of America’s largest ethnic minority has too long been buried under the debris of racism, thus denying national and international citizens and [sic] opportunity to enrich their lives through a knowledge of the unique contribution that Afro-Americans have made to world culture. Now, exposed to the sunlight of time, I know that this long lost part of our heritage will prove itself to have been the missing ingredient to the completeness of humanity.” 

Jessye spent her final years in Ann Arbor, Michigan working on an autobiographical book titled Fill Up the Saucer, which was ultimately never completed after the book deal fell through. She died on February 21, 1992, when she was 97 years old. Though her book was never published, Dr. Eva Jessye’s desegregationist work, archival rigor, intimate compositions, thoughtful writing, and constant support for fellow Black musicians have nevertheless left an indelible mark on American music.

Sophia Janevic

This profile was created in 2022 as part of the Song of America Fellowship Program, a project of the Classic Song Research Initiative between the Hampsong Foundation and the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.


Black, Donald Fisher. “The Life and Work of Eva Jessye and Her Contributions to American Music.” Ph.D. Diss., University of Michigan, 1986.

Eva Jessye Collection. Bentley Historical Library. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bhlead/umich-bhl-2009184?view=text.

Jenkins, Lynnel. “The Evolution of Eva Jessye’s Programming as Evidenced in Her Choral Concert Programs from 1927–1982.” DMA Diss., The University of Arizona, 2016.

Shen, Clara. “Dr. Eva Jessye: Make Way for the Dame.” The Gershwin Initiative Website, March 2, 2021. https://smtd.umich.edu/ami/gershwin/?p=11196.

Related Information




Sheet Music

My Spirituals

Composer(s): Eva Jessye

Song(s): Who Is Dat Yondah?, Spirit o' the Lord Done Fell on Me, An' I Cry, Bles' My Soul an' Gone, I Been 'Buked 'an I Been Scorned, Stan' Steady, Ain't Got Long to Stay Heah, March Down to Jerdon, John Saw de Holy Numbah, I'm a Po' Li'l Orphan, When Moses Smote de Water, So I Can Write My Name, I Can't Stay Away, Tall Angel At The Bar, Got A Home At Las', I'se Mighty Tired


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