Eastern Avenue between Second and Third streets, not far from the East End redevelopment project along Midland Avenue, is one of Lexington’s little-noticed blocks.
But in the 1920s and 1930s, it was home to two black children who would grow up to become internationally famous musicians of very different sorts.
I was familiar with one: Les McCann, the soul-jazz pianist and vocalist who had a string of hit records in the 1960s and 1970s. Now 80 and living in Los Angeles, McCann will long be remembered among the artists of jazz’s late golden age.
But I had never heard of the second, Julia Amanda Perry, until Yvonne Giles, a researcher and authority on Lexington’s black history, told me about her recently and loaned me a stack of biographical information.
Perry has received little attention since her death at age 55 in 1979. But in the 1940s and 1950s, she made an international name for herself as a composer and conductor whose works combined European classicism with African-American musical tradition and culture.
She was born in Lexington on March 25, 1924, and spent her earliest years at 216 Eastern Avenue. The 1800s brick house, which most recently was occupied by the New Birth Worship Center, stands across the street from the McCann home, which was demolished last year.
Perry came from an educated and musical family: Her father, Abraham Perry, was a physician and amateur pianist who once accompanied the great black tenor, Roland Hayes. Two of her four sisters also were musicians.
Beginning at age 6, Perry studied voice, piano and violin. While she was a child, her family moved to Akron, Ohio, where she attended the University of Akron for a year during World War II. A Knight Memorial Education Fund scholarship, created by the Akron Beacon Journal’s president, enabled her to go to Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., where she studied composition and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music.
Perry’s talent and accomplishments kept opening doors for her in a profession then open to few women, much less black women. She won many awards and competitions for her compositions and vocal performance.
She studied choral singing and composition at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Mass., and operatic conducting at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. In 1954, at age 30, Perry won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Italy to study and write an opera.
“In the group of black composers who developed careers in the mid-20th century, Julia Perry stands out as one of the most significant,” J. Michele Edwards, a scholar who focuses on women musicians, wrote in 1999 in a lengthy entry about Perry in The International Directory of Black Composers.
Edwards ranked Perry along with two men, Hale Smith and T.J. Anderson, as the top three black neoclassical composers of their generation.
Perry’s catalog of nearly 80 compositions is incredibly eclectic. It includes pieces for a variety of solo instruments, many kinds of small ensembles, chamber orchestra and full orchestra, many vocal performance platforms and even marching band.
Perry spent much of the 1950s working in Europe, where her compositions combined European influence with spirituals and other forms of black musical expression. In the 1960s, she conducted several major performances, including one with the New York Philharmonic.
Perry was also a teacher and a writer in both English and Italian. She produced several unpublished manuscripts, including a music dictionary, translated African folk tales from Italian into English and wrote an Italian libretto for her one-act opera, The Cask of Amontillado, based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story.
Edwards noted that Perry’s music had received little publication and performance since her death, which followed more than a decade of ill health and a 1971 stroke that paralyzed her right side.
“Certainly, poor health inhibited her public life as a musician,” Edwards wrote, “and her triple marginalized position as an African American, a woman and a person with disabilities cannot be overlooked as a factor contributing to the assessment of her work by the musical establishment.”