On Nov. 9, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray made a pronouncement to the crowd who had gathered at Immanuel Baptist Church to hear the Lexington Singers’ veterans tribute concert, a rendition of Baber’s “An American Requiem.” Gray declared that day to officially be known as “Phyllis Jenness Day,” in honor of the University of Kentucky School of Music professor emeritus who served as the community choir’s founding conductor more than half a century ago.
With more than 170 members, Lexington Singers is one of the largest arts organizations in the state, and one of the largest and longest-running community choirs in the country. Jefferson Johnson, who has served as the music director and conductor of the Singers since 1999, relates much of the group’s longstanding success to the bricks laid by Jenness during her 17-year tenure leading the group.
“The main reason the Lexington Singers have experienced success is the fact that Phyllis set a very high musical standard from the beginning,” Johnson said. “I have tried my best to maintain that standard.”
Growing up in Boston, Jenness became interested in singing at an early age – although she admits she didn’t exactly grow up in a musical family.
“When it was time to bring out the cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ I think there were maybe two people in the room – out of a group of 40 or so – who could carry a tune,” she said with a smile.
Still, her parents were very supporting of her musical interests, and she always kept her aspiration to eventually pursue a music-related career close to her heart. After graduating with a teaching degree and spending a few years teaching junior high, Jenness decided to “chuck it all and have [her] try for fame and fortune” in New York City, where she stayed for six years studying voice and scraping together gigs and jobs to make a living.
“I learned a great deal and sang a great deal and studied a great deal, but I knew that I wasn’t going to have any career [in New York], and that it was silly to keep doing what I was doing,” she said.
Jenness submitted her teaching resume to a national staffing agency, and got a phone call from University of Kentucky music department chair Ed Stein just weeks before the 1954 fall semester was to start. She was hired the next day.
“I don’t think I lied to him, but certainly I must have given him the impression that I had taught some [voice lessons],” she said with a chuckle – in truth, she had never taught music-related classes before, though she says she felt “very secure” in doing so because she had taken so many herself.
With very little advance warning, Jenness packed up her bags and moved to Lexington to start a professional career that would carry her through to retirement.