EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the fourth in our September series highlighting the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and several notable faculty and alumni.
Zenobia Powell Perry was more than a famous composer, pianist, Civil Rights activist, and professor. She is linked to a moment in American culture when black American composers and musicians were beginning to be recognized for their unique contributions to the country's musical life. In the process, she influenced more than a generation of musicians.
Zenobia Powell Perry was born in 1908 to a well-educated middle-class family in Oklahoma. Her father was a physician; her grandfather had been a slave. She took piano lessons as a child and won a piano competition in 1919.
In 1925, Perry graduated from high school determined to study music. Her father did not approve, but her mother made it possible for her to continue, first at the Cecil Berryman Conservatory in 1929 and with private teachers, and eventually at the Tuskegee Institute, where she also studied education. At Tuskegee she studied with William L. Dawson who encouraged her to compose original work, and 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, Perry 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.
Perry’s first university faculty position was at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, later called University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), from 1947 to 1955. From 1949 and until she left UAPB, Perry toured with Kelton Lawrence as a piano duo in order to recruit students for UAPB. From 1952 to 1954, Perry worked on her master's degree in music in composition at Wyoming University. From 1955 until 1982, she was a faculty member and composer-in-residence at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Perry began writing her own music during the 1950s. She was a prolific composer, writing for orchestra and bands. She even composed a mass. Her opera about the Underground Railroad, Tawawa House, based on the history of Wilberforce, Ohio, premiered in 1987 and was revived in 2014. 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. Perry’s music is classical and incorporates contrapuntal, tonal, mild dissonance, with some jazz and folk influence. Her compositional style is deeply rooted in singing traditions, reflected in its melodic integrity, and in the length and balance of her phrasing.
Personal challenges weren’t enough to stop Perry from pursuing her dreams. Despite two divorces, the death of a son, and the challenges of raising a daughter on her own, she continued working towards advanced degrees while also working as a professor. In 1962, she joined the NAACP to aid in the civil rights struggle.
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.
Zenobia Powell Perry died in 2004 at the age of 95, leaving behind a rich legacy. She stands rightfully alongside other black composers of her generation.
Sources: ZenobiaPowellPerry.org, Wikipedia