[The following is an excerpt from Dr. Jeannie Gayle 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. ]
Composer and pianist ZENOBIA POWELL PERRY was born on October 3,
1908, 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 Roosevelt, 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
1940s 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. 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.
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 of 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 which 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
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. 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. 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
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
a "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. 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, 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.
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 afterwards did
she contact her father to ask for his support. 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
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 was 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.
Perry is also influenced by black American and native American folklore,
music, language, and poetry, traditions which 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, which
documents the achievements of outstanding women in her area of Ohio.
There are many reasons to review the compositions of Zenobia Powell
Perry. 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 which 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
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 lifetime 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 Many composition prizes and awards are only available to young composers and
this represents age discrimination in the field of composition.
 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.
 Her daughter, faculty at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, has
become Perry's most ardent supporter and promoter.
 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).
 Zenobia Perry, by author, tape recording, Morgantown, West Virginia, 30 September
2001, Morgantown, West Virginia.
 This is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 10, "Becoming a Composer: Studies
with Darius Milhaud and Allan Willman."
 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
 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.
All rights reserved. ©Jeannie Gayle Pool, 2014.