Zenobia Powell Perry's Biography

    [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,[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 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.[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 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
    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
    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.[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, 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 afterwards 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 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.[9]

    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.[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 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
    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 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.[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.

    All rights reserved. ©Jeannie Gayle Pool, 2014.
Zenobia Powell Perry when she retired
in 1985 at the age of 77.
Zenobia Powell Perry, on far left; Darius
Milhaud, seated. Composition class at
the University of Wyoming.
Zenobia Powell Perry in the fall of 2003,
at the age of 94.
Photograph by Beverly
Simmons.
Zenobia Powell Perry on her 95th
birthday in front of photograph of poet
Paul Lawrence Dunbar, The Dunbar
House, Dayton, Ohio.
Photograph by
Beverly Simmons
Zenobia Powell Perry with President
Garland of Central State University,
October 3, 2003, at a CSU luncheon
given for her 95th birthday
. Photograph
by Beverly Simmons.