June 24, 1933: Sissieretta Jones Died at the Age of 65

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June 24, 1933: Sissieretta Jones died at the age of 65.

Jones retired from performing in 1915. She devoted the remainder of her life to her church and to caring for her mother. Jones was forced to sell most of her property to survive, she died penniless.

Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, known as Sissieretta Jones, was a soprano. She sometimes was called “The Black Patti” in reference to Italian opera singer Adelina Patti. Jones’ repertoire included grand opera, light opera, and popular music.

In 2013 Jones was inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame.

Matilda Sissieretta Joyner was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, United States, to Jeremiah Malachi Joyner, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Henrietta Beale. By 1876 her family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where she began singing at an early age in her father’s Pond Street Baptist Church.

In 1883, Joyner began the formal study of music at the Providence Academy of Music. The same year she married David Richard Jones, a news dealer and hotel bellman. In the late 1880s, Jones was accepted at the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1887, she performed at Boston’s Music Hall before an audience of 5,000.

Jones made her New York debut on April 5, 1888, at Steinway Hall. During a performance at Wallack’s Theater in New York, Jones came to the attention of Adelina Patti’s manager, who recommended that Jones tour the West Indies with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Jones made successful tours of the Caribbean in 1888 and 1892.

In February 1892, Jones performed at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison. She eventually sang for four consecutive presidents — Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt — and the British royal family.

Jones performed at the Grand Negro Jubilee at New York’s Madison Square Garden in April 1892 before an audience of 75,000. She sang the song “Swanee River” and selections from La traviata. She was so popular that she was invited to perform at the Pittsburgh Exposition (1892) and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893).

In June 1892, Jones became the 1st African-American to sing at the Music Hall in New York (renamed Carnegie Hall the following year). Among the selections in her program were Charles Gounod’s “Ave Maria” and Giuseppe Verdi’s “Sempre libera” (from La traviata). The New York Echo wrote of her performance at the Music Hall: “If Mme Jones is not the equal of Adelina Patti, she at least can come nearer it than anything the American public has heard. Her notes are as clear as a mockingbird’s and her annunciation perfect.” In 1893, Jones met composer Antonín Dvořák, and in January 1894 she performed parts of his Symphony No. 9 at Madison Square Garden. Dvořák wrote a solo part for Jones.

Jones met with international success. Besides the United States and the West Indies, Jones toured in South America, Australia, India, and southern Africa. During a European tour in 1895 and 1896, Jones performed in London, Paris, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Milan, and Saint Petersburg.

In 1896, Jones returned to Providence to care for her mother, who had become ill. Jones found that access to most American classical concert halls was limited by racism. She formed the Black Patti Troubadours (later renamed the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company), a musical and acrobatic act made up of 40 jugglers, comedians, dancers and a chorus of 40 trained singers.

The revue paired Jones with rising vaudeville composers Bob Cole and Billy Johnson. The show consisted of a musical skit, followed by a series of short songs and acrobatic performances. During the final third of each show, Jones performed arias and operatic excerpts. The revue provided Jones with a comfortable income, reportedly in excess of $20,000 per year. Several members of the troupe, such as Bert Williams, went on to become famous.

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