Zenobia Powell Perry
1908 - 2004
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 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 1940s and 1950s.
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 aggressive in promoting her music. However, she was nevertheless an important black American woman composer of concert music.
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.
Biography written by Dr Jeannie Gayle Pool. A longer version can be found on her website: