Annabella Beachner, reporter
Eva Jessye, a former professor of Pittsburg State University, was honored in a tribute concert on Feb. 8. The concert included various music pieces arranged by Jessye, as well as some of her poetry was read by PSU students, and other features of her long-standing Kansas and national history.
The concert began with a few poetry readings from Eva Jessye’s poetry works by select theatre students, and was followed by several vocal solos by music students from her work, ‘My Spirituals.’ Three pieces arranged by Jessye were performed by University Choir and Chorale members under PSU director Susan Marchant.
“When I started working here full time, one of my students was working in the special collections archives, his name is Xavier Moore, and he started working on the Eva Jessye collection. He was telling me about this person and then I got really interested in her. I said, ‘why I haven’t we done something to celebrate her?’ So I decided to organize this event with the help from my colleagues in the music department, special collections and the theatre department. Of course we can do it all at the Bicknell so we had a great venue to put something like this on,” said Lydia Bechtel, Associate professor of music.
Janeil Bryan, an attendee of the concert and previous member of Eva Jessye’s choir, commented on her experience working with her.
“(She was) very interesting because she had her own style. And she was able to bring the singers into the music in a way we had never experienced. And most of us had been in choirs with choral experience, but she brought us into that music in a way that we really realized what she wanted. And sometimes it was challenging, because she sometimes in the middle of a chorus or song would decide to go in another direction- and we would have to figure out how that direction would work, and learned to just really pay attention, to listen to each other, and the end result was always just really amazing,” said Bryan.
Eva Jessye was born on January 20, 1895, in Coffeyvville, Kansas. She was an american conductor, who was famous for being the first black woman to receive international distinction as a professional choral conductor. She is most notable during the Harlem Renaissance—a cultural revival of African American music, scholarship, art, fashion, and more in the center of Harlem, Manhattan, NY. Jessye also served as the music director for the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess in 1935.
“Well for me, I was young, I just learned who she was by the experience, and became totally enamored and in awe that I was working with her. But you know, it was very stressful for a young student, and there was a constant learning curve. Every day you’re learning something new. And I was a music student, a saxophone major back in those days, so singing was new to me. Playing the guitar… and I was a jazz guitar player. It was just a constant learning curve, and I was always learning something new. It was pretty busy and stressful for me as a young student,” said Lemuel Sheppard, community member and former member and student of the PSU choir.
“I am reading two poems tonight. One is called The Singer, and the other is called The Source,” said Michaela Henningsen, junior in communication. “The source is really beautiful because it talks a lot about what music meant to Eva Jessye- and through the struggles with slavery and oppression, and God, which I think is very moving. And the singer is very beautiful because she talks about the struggles of slavery and what it means to be black, as well as using beautiful words about nature.”
Jessye was an active supporter of the civil rights movement and participated with her choir in 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She established the Eva Jessye Collection at Pittsburg State University in 1977 and served as the PSU Artist-In-Residence from 1978 to 1981. She spent many years of her life also teaching at Pittsburg State University and the University of Michigan. She donated an extensive collection of her notes, writings, books, and other items to the University of Michigan as well as most of her personal papers to Pittsburg State. She was known as the “grand dame of Black music in America,” and died on Feb. 21, 1992, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“Interesting. She was highly principled, she knew what she wanted, and she would not be satisfied until she had it, and she was thoroughly professional and very demanding in a good way.” said Dr. Susan