Zenobia Powell Perry
|Zenobia Powell Perry|
3 October 1908
Zenobia Powell Perry (October 3, 1908 – 2004) was an African American composer, professor and civil rights activist. She taught in a number of historically black colleges and universities and composed "music with clear, classic melodies." Her work has been performed by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and West Virginia University Band and Orchestra.
Early life and education
Perry was born in what was once a predominantly African American town of Boley, Oklahoma to a physician, Dr. Calvin B. Powell and Birdie Thompson Powell (who had some Creek Indian heritage). Her family was well-educated and middle-class. Her grandfather, who had been a slave, sang her traditional spirituals as a child, which later influenced her work.
As a child, Perry met Booker T. Washington and sang for him at his appearance in Boley on August 22, 1915, where he "declared she was a future Tuskegegian." Perry took piano lessons as a child with Mayme Jones who had been taught by Robert Nathaniel Dett. She won a piano competition in 1919. Perry also learned to play violin as a child. One of her biggest musical influences, however, came from the experience of hearing Hazel Harrison in concert, after which she knew she wanted to study music.
In 1925, Perry graduated from Boley High School. Her father was not supportive of her decision to study music, however her mother allowed to pursue music, sending her to Omaha, Nebraska and studying at the Cecil Berryman Conservatory in 1929. After her return to Boley, Dett visited her family to ask them to send her to the Hampton Institute, where she could study with him. However, soon after, Dett left Hampton for the Eastman School of Music and Perry decided on her own to study privately with Dett in Rochester, New York. Perry studied with Dett until May 1932.
In 1935, she went on to study the Tuskegee Institute, and, because of her family's connection with Washington and a promise from Perry to study education as well as music, she was allowed to attend. At Tuskegee she studied with William L. Dawson who encouraged her to compose original work; she was already preparing arrangements for the Tuskegee Institute Chorus. Perry graduated in 1938.
After Tuskegee, Perry became part of a black teacher training program which was headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt would become a mentor and friend to Perry and even helped sponsor her graduate studies. In 1941 she took classes at the Colorado State Teachers College and started teaching first grade in 1942. In 1945, she received her Master of Arts degree from Colorado State College.
She began "earnestly" writing her own music during the 1950s. From 1952 to 1954, Perry worked on her master's degree in music in composition at Wyoming University, where she studied under Allan Arthur Willman, Darius Milhaud and Charles Jones.
Perry worked as a professor for much of her life and began seriously composing when she was in her forties. From 1941 to 1945 Perry taught while attending the Colorado State Teachers College. Two years later, she held a faculty position at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), where she remained until 1955. During the years of 1949 and until she left UAPB, Perry toured with Kelton Lawrence as a piano duo in order to recruit students for UAPB.
From 1955 to 1982, she was a faculty member and composer-in-residence at Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio. She continued to volunteer "on behalf of the African American community" after she retired.
In 1998 she was honored by the University of Wyoming, winning the Arts and Sciences Outstanding Alumni Award.
Perry's opera, Tawawa House, premiered at Central State University in 1987. However, the first fully staged production with sets and complete score was not performed until 2014 at the Townsend Opera in Modesto, California. Tawawa House's score, reflects the influence of her teachers, Dett, Dawson and Mihaud. Perry's daughter, Janis, performed as a singer in the first performance of the opera. Tawawa House features a "unique fusion of traditional Negro Spirituals and western classical music." Reception from audiences for the performance was mixed, which may have been because it was a new opera.
The story is about a historical Ohio home which was part of the Underground Railroad. It was located on the land where Wilberforce University would be built in Xenia Springs, Ohio. Tawawa House was a summer resort which was "notorious for its popularity among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses" during the 1850s. Travelers and vacationers were drawn to the natural springs in Xenia and stayed at the resort owned by lawyer and state legislator, Elias Drake.
Zenobia Powell Perry's papers are held at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. The collection is titled Zenobia Powell Perry Scores and Music Manuscripts. The collection as a whole consists primarily of original compositions and manuscripts produced by Powell herself.
In 1932 she was married to violinist "King" Earl Gaynor. While she was pregnant, Gaynor left and she raised their son on her own. They later divorced in 1933. Her son, Lemuel died in 1944 at age 11 of a ruptured appendix. In 1941 she married Jimmie Rogers Perry and they had a daughter Janis in 1943. Perry was divorced again when her daughter was young. Perry raised her daughter alone while working towards her advanced degrees and studies and also while also working as a professor.
In 1989 she was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, and her health deteriorated until her death.
Her most important honors include:
- 1999 Woman of the Year Award, Paul Laurence Dunbar House State Memorial, Dayton, Ohio.
- 2002 Member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
- 2003 Elizabeth Mathias Award from the Mu Phi Epsilon fraternity of professional musicians.
Awards from Ohio institutions for her life achievements and contributions to Ohio culture.
- 1987 Honored with a Music Citation for distinguished service to Ohio in the field of music at the Ohioans Library Association.
- 1988 Honored by Ohio National Organization of Women at the NOW Banquet in Columbus, as a part of their second annual women's history celebration.
- 1991 Inducted into the Greene County [Ohio] Women's Hall of Fame
- 1993 Inducted in Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame
- 1998 Named as one of Top Ten women for 1998 by Dayton Daily News.
- 1999 Woman of the Year Award, Paul Laurence Dunbar House State Memorial, Dayton, Ohio.
- 2000 Named 2000 Outstanding Senior Citizen of Green County, Ohio.
- 2002 Cultural Arts Award for outstanding contributions in the field of Music Education, National Afro-American Museum, Wilberforce, Ohio.
- Lanier, Jo Ann (1988). The Concert Songs of Zenobia Powell Perry. OCLC 22150454.
- Pool, Jeannie Gayle (2008). American Composer Zenobia Powell Perry: Race and Gender in the 20th Century. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9780810863767.
- Pool, Jeannie Gayle (2003). "Zenobia Powell Perry, An American Composer". International Alliance for Women in Music. Archived from the original on 3 October 2006. Retrieved 2 July 2015.
- Pool, Jeannie Gayle (2009). American Composer Zenobia Powell Perry: Race and Gender in the 20th Century. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. pp. 1–3. ISBN 9780810863774.
- "Tawawa House by Zenobia Powell Perry" (PDF). Townsend Opera. 2014. Retrieved 3 July 2015.
- Pool, Jeannie Gayle (May 2002). "Zenobia Powell Perry Chronology". Zenobia Powell Perry Website. Retrieved 3 July 2015.
- McBride, Renee (December 2009). "American Composer Zenobia Powell Perry: Race and Gender in the 20th Century (review)". Notes. 66 (2): 313–316. doi:10.1353/not.0.0243. Retrieved 2 July 2015. (Subscription required (. ))
- Walker-Hill, Helen (2007). From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 39–40. ISBN 9780252074547. Retrieved 2 July 2015.
- "About the Dayton, Ohio Alumni Chapter of Mu Phi Epsilon". The Dayton Ohio Alumni Chapter of Mu Phi Epsilon. 15 August 2007. Archived from the original on 15 September 2007. Retrieved 3 July 2015.
- "A & S Outstanding Alumna 1998 – Zenobia Powell Perry". College of Arts and Sciences. University of Wyoming. Archived from the original on 26 December 2004. Retrieved 2 July 2015.
- Price, Deon Nielsen (January 2015). "Zenobia Powell Perry Opera Premiered". Triangle of Mu Phi Epsilon. 108 (4): 18. Retrieved 2 July 2015.
- Munro, Donald (14 February 2015). "Fresno Opera Takes New Direction". The Fresno Bee. Retrieved 3 July 2015.
- Parker, Lonnae O'Neal (21 January 2011). "A Tender Spot in Master-Slave Relations". The Washington Post. Retrieved 3 July 2015.
- Perkins-Valdez, Dolen (29 March 2011). "Real-Life Resort for Slaveowners and Mistresses Inspires Fictional Debut". Book Page. Retrieved 3 July 2015.
- "NOTEBOOK". www.ascap.com. Retrieved 10 August 2015.
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