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zenobia powell perry


Dr. Jeannie Gayle Pool is Zenobia Powell Perry's biographer and publisher.


Composer and pianist ZENOBIA POWELL PERRY was born on October 3, 1908,[1] to a well-educated, middle-class family. Her father, Calvin Bethel Powell, was a black physician, and her mother, Birdie Lee Thompson, was Creek Indian and black. Originally trained in piano by a local teacher, Mayme Jones, who had been a student of black pianist-composer R. Nathaniel Dett,

Perry went, in 1931, to study music with Dett in Rochester, New York. Brief studies with Cortez Reece at Langston University in Oklahoma, encouraged her to think seriously about composition. Later she went to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where she assisted the famous black choir director, arranger, and composer William L. Dawson.  After completing her degree, she headed a black teacher-training program, supervised in part by Eleanor Roosevel, who became a friend, ally and mentor, and sponsored her graduate studies in education in Colorado. 


Additional studies in composition were with French composer Darius Milhaud, Allan Willman, and Charles Jones at the University of Wyoming and Aspen Conference on Contemporary Music in the late 940s and 1950s.

Her first university faculty position was at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College [A.A.M.& N.] (later called University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff), from 1947 to 1955. From 1955 until 1982, she was a faculty member and composer-in-residence at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, where she is now Faculty Emerita.[2] Her compositions have been performed by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, West Virginia University Band and Orchestra, and other performing ensembles, as well as by many singers. Her opera, Tawawa House, based on the history of Wilberforce, Ohio, completed with a commission by the Ohio Arts Council/Ohio Humanities Joint Program, was premiered in 1987.[3]

Her hometown, the all-black town of Boley, Oklahoma, provided a lifetime of inspiration and material for her work as a composer, long after the town, known for its black ownership, self-governance and autonomy, had been destroyed by Jim Crow politics. The history of Oklahoma and in general, the history of the United States, in the early 20th century, as it related to race relations, had a tremendous impact on Zenobia Perry's life. The philosophical outlook and political activism of Booker T. Washington, with whom she had a life-long family connection, was a major influence in her life and the institutions where she studied and served as faculty and administrator.

Zenobia Powell Perry's life story highlights a need to re-evaluate what factors determine a successful career as a composer in the United States in the twentieth century. She was not born into a family of musicians; she was not a child prodigy; and she has never lived in a major urban center. Being black, Creek Indian, mid-western, as well as female, contribute to a fascinating combination of factors that make her music reflective of a unique perspective, full of originality and inventiveness. Although she did not seek fame as a composer, her goal was to serve her community as a musician.

Perry began composing seriously in her forties. Although, while a young woman, she had been encouraged to compose by her teacher, R. Nathaniel Dett, and did some arranging as an accompanist and faculty at Tuskeegee Institute, she did not study theory and composition until she was well into her thirties.[4] She would never be considered one of the leading-edge composers of our time because her success thus far has been limited and her reputation extends only to a small community of people who hold a long-term interest in black American music and women composers.[5] She was very modest about her accomplishments and was not been aggressive in promoting her music. However, she was nevertheless an important black American woman composer of concert music.

In many ways, Zenobia Perry lived a blessed life: often seemingly in the right place at the right moment, always taking advantage of even the smallest of opportunities presented, and always meeting challenges with "can-do" attitude. As a young woman, she was abandoned by her first husband while pregnant, and then suffered the death of her 11-year-old son. Married a second time during World War II, she divorced again when her second child was only a preschooler. She successfully raised her daughter, Janis-Rozena Peri, who was not only a fine musician in her own right but a singer with a strong spiritual outlook and social conscience.[6] Zenobia Perry raised her daughter while pursuing advanced degrees in music, including studies in composition and orchestration while fulfilling her responsibilities as a college music instructor and administrator.

In addition to her extensive responsibilities as the eldest sibling in her immediate family, she supported her elderly mother for many years and helped raise her brother's children. For these and other accomplishments, Zenobia Powell Perry offers an extraordinary role model for women who hope to achieve success in their music careers, while being mothers and/or involved family members. Not only did she have a successful career in music, but she also was active in the civil rights movement, as a member of the NAACP since 1962.

Perry received numerous honors and awards, particularly after her retirement in 1982, related to her teaching, composing, and volunteer community work. But the most significant tribute is the continuing performances of her works by a devoted group of musicians, many of them former students, and by those who have only recently discovered her works. To date, only one piece has been published, although her name is beginning to appear in reference books, as well as in publications about black American composers and women in music.[7]

Through the years, Perry always demonstrated resourcefulness, determination, and perseverance. She knew how to get what she needed and pursued music throughout her life, despite her father's lack of encouragement, two marriages, two divorces, and two children. She tells a story of how she decided to follow R. Nathaniel Dett to the Eastman School to continue her studies with him. She took the funds deposited by her parents (required for all students) at Hampton Institute for her return ticket to Oklahoma and used it to settle in Rochester. Only afterward did she contact her father to ask for his support.[8] This was a woman who, once she knew what she wanted and needed, obtained it.

One discovers in Perry's music a fresh, clear, individual voice of a woman who lived a life of substance and breadth; a woman who carried with her throughout her life the love and strength of her own very proud and distinguished parents, and the keen guidance of her musical mentors. She was the beneficiary of an extraordinary network of friends, colleagues, and former students, whom she met along the way, including several generations of music students. She cultivated these protégés with care, and, especially after her retirement, was continuously asked for advice, reassurance, and recommendations.

Zenobia Powell Perry is a precious and articulate link to a special moment in American culture of the 1920s and 30s. This was a period when black American composers and musicians were beginning to be recognized for their unique contributions to the country's musical life. This is an influence that extends worldwide in all kinds of music through her teachers R. Nathaniel Dett and William Dawson's own experiences, reaching back to the music of pre-Civil War black American music of African slaves. She is linked to a musical tradition born of early African-American life, particularly the Spirituals. Among her colleagues, there have been black American musicians of earlier generations, some of whom made a living as virtuoso traveling performers with international concert careers.

Furthermore, her studies with French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud and white American composer Allan Willman brought her into contact with the international contemporary music community of the 1940s and 50s, allowing her to expand her musical language and make contacts among many first-class performers and composers. Their encouragement and support were critical in propelling her from a performance career to composition as the focus of her musical life. Both Milhaud and Willman knew, respected, and appreciated many successful women composers (including the famous French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger), and both were interested in black American music.[9]

Perry is also influenced by black American and Native American folklore, music, language, and poetry, traditions that are richly reflected in her own compositions, both instrumental and vocal, and in her original poetry. Poised between both traditions, she teaches us much about the nexus where black American and native American experiences converge. In this sense, her story is a uniquely American story, richly dense in substance, and steeped in the hopes of each generation of minorities in this country, as they have pursued creative expression.

Zenobia Perry lived a simple, healthy, modest life, deeply rooted in mid-western ways and common sense. Her values embodied the highest sense of what is right and wrong, what is just and unjust, what is fair and unfair, and a commitment to fight for what is right. At the core of black rural American life, these values have enabled several generations to survive and prosper in a country that has been prejudicial and often hostile. She has had control over her life and work by owning the roof over her head and the tools of her trade. She managed to provide for herself, her daughter, her mother, and others throughout her teaching career. Yet she could boast of having resources beyond what most of us have in terms of a fortified soul and a loveliness of being, which has particularly enabled her as one of the splendid teachers of our time.

Giving back to her community to repay what she has received over the years was of paramount importance to her. She teaches quilting at a senior citizen home, serves as Secretary of the local NAACP chapter, and often spoke in local schools. She was active in her church and was a member of the Greene County Women's History Project that documents the achievements of outstanding women in her area of Ohio.

There are many reasons to review the compositions of Zenobia Powell Perry.[10] For many years, particularly in the late 1950s and 1960s, not many contemporary composers wrote tonal music or music with clear, classic, melodies—two aspects that characterize her works. Her compositional style is deeply rooted in singing traditions, reflected in its melodic integrity, and in the length and balance of her phrasing. Beginning in the mid-1980s, many composers using a more traditional tonal resource, began to receive wider acceptance, although an international contemporary atonal idiom still prevails, to a certain extent, particularly among composers in academia. Zenobia Perry always found support for her music in black colleges where the black American singing traditions have been carried on within choral programs [and the training of amateur singers], and accordingly, she continued to write in one style that satisfied her own creative aspirations. Despite not fitting into the stylistic mold of the academic American composer of her generation, she never felt compelled to follow the criteria of the contemporary music community's taste. Rather, she composed to please herself and the performers for whom she chose to write, and thereby has always found an audience that appreciates her very personal, even intimate, expressions of emotion. Much of her music is straightforward and direct, yet elegant and profound.

Some may speculate that, had she been more widely performed, she may have gravitated to the atonal, more "modern," compositional style of her peers. However, her ambition was never to be a famous composer, but rather to express herself through her music, while serving her community. There are many gems in this body of work, each of which shines, even glitters, on its own, meriting repeat performances. Rather than complain that, as a composer in America in the late twentieth century, she had to teach to support herself, Perry found great joy in her teaching and was motivated by her students and academic life to compose.

Perry has also found constant inspiration in her love of poetry and deep admiration of several poets, both past and present: most notably, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), Donald Jeffrey Hayes; Claude McKay (1890-1948), Frank Horne (1899-?), R.H. Grenville (no dates available), and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Her profound love of language and a keen ear for the many voices of her life is apparent in the texts she has written for her own compositions.

Thus, she stands rightfully alongside other black composers of her generation: Julia Perry (1924-1979); Ulysses Kay (1917-1996), Hale Smith (b. 1925), Thomas Jefferson [T.J.] Anderson (b.1928), Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989), Eva Jessye (1895-1992), George Walker (b.1922), Evelyn La Rue Pittman (1910-1992), Betty Jackson King (b. 1928), Arthur Cunningham (1928-1997), among others. Yet major scholars and researchers who have tried to document the history of African American composers of the 20th century have overlooked her, and she is only mentioned briefly in the literature.[11] Among the few black American women writing concert music today‹Dorothy Rudd Moore (b. 1940), Jeraldine Herbison (b.1941), Regina Harris Biaocchi (b. 1956) and Tania Léon (b. 1944). Perry was the most senior. Zenobia Perry passed away January 17, 2004 at the age of 95.

[1] This date of birth has been confirmed by 1910 U.S. Census Data, at P400 at 047 0136,0226 for Okfuskee County, Oklahoma: C.B. Powell, age 39, born Tennessee, Berdia, age 21 from Arkansas; Zenobia Perry, age 1, born in Oklahoma. However, this could not be confirmed by the Division of Vital Records, Oklahoma State Department of Health, Oklahoma City, which has no record of her birth as of November 16, 2001. Many sources incorrectly give 1914 as her date of birth. Her father was in fact 47 in 1910; he was born in 1863.
[2] This was confirmed by phone December 18, 2001, by Treva Rogers in President Garland's office at Central State University. Zenobia Perry was named "Faculty Emerita" in 1985.
[3] Vocalists who have sung her songs in concert in recent years include Janis-Rozena Peri (Perry's daughter), Sebronette Barnes, and Jo Ann Lanier (Lanyé).
[4] Many composition prizes and awards are only available to young composers and this represents age discrimination in the field of composition.
[5] Nicolas Slonimsky told me on several occasions that he decided to add new contemporary composers to Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Eighth Edition. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1992) only after the composer's music received three reviews in a single concert season in New York, Los Angeles, Boston or San Francisco. This methodology excluded many women and minority composers and composers in the Midwest and South.
[6] Her daughter, faculty at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, has become Perry's most ardent supporter and promoter.
[7] Helen Walker-Hill included Zenobia Perry's "Homage to William Dawson on his 90th Birthday" in the anthology, Black Women Composers: A Century of Piano Music, 1893-1990 (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania: Hildegard Publishing Co., 1990).
[8] Zenobia Perry, by author, tape recording, Morgantown, West Virginia, 30 September 2001, Morgantown, West Virginia.
[9] This is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 10, "Becoming a Composer: Studies with Darius Milhaud and Allan Willman."
[10] Jo Ann Lanier (later Lanyé) wrote a D.M.A. dissertation, "The Concert Songs of Zenobia Powell Perry," at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Illinois, in 1988, available through UMI Press. Unfortunately her dissertation contains misinformation, some of which was provided by Perry.
[11] Although Zenobia Perry is not mentioned in any of musicologist Eileen Southern's books, I am certain that I introduced the two of them at the First National Congress on Women in Music in March, 1981, at New York University. Other black women composers and musicians present at that session included Undine Smith Moore, Ora Williams (who performed music of Camille Nickerson, Florence Price, Lillian Evanti, Margaret Bonds, Dorothy Rudd Moore, and Azalia Hackley, accompanied by her sisters Dottie Stallworth, Barbara Williams, and Thelma Williams), Jacqueline Thompson, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Jeraldine Herbison. Zenobia Perry was asked to speak as well. Barbara Garvey Jackson, of the University of Arkansas, also spoke‹spoke about her important early research on Florence B. Price. Janis Rozena-Peri sang a song by Dorothy Rudd Moore. The session was chaired by writer and historian Abdul Raoul.

[This is an excerpt from Jeannie Pool's  Ph.D. dissertation "The Life and Music of Zenobia Powell Perry, An American Composer," completed in May 2002 at the Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California, and it is protected under U.S. copyright law.]

All rights reserved. ©Jeannie Gayle Pool, 2014.

zenobia with indian beads.jpg

Zenobia Powell Perry, c. 1985

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