Born Matilda Joyner in Portsmouth, Virginia, Jones moved to Providence, Rhode Island at an early age. Her father was the pastor and choir director of the Portsmouth, Virginia African Methodist Episcopal Church and her mother was a soprano in the choir. It is believed that Sissieretta Jones inherited her voice from her mother. She showed her talent as a singer as early as five years old.
Married at age 14, she started voice training in Providence. Although it is a matter of conjecture, most sources state that she continued her studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston. She made her professional debut in Providence, which led to a tour of Europe, South America, and the West Indies with the famous Tennessee Jubilee Singers.
James Weldon Johnson observed that she possessed "the natural voice, the physical figure, the grand air and the engaging personality," characteristic of a great singer. The Washington Post described her voice as: "A phenomenal attraction ... the upper notes of her voice are clear and bell-like...and her low notes are rich and sensuous with a tropical contralto quality...In fact, the compass and quality of her registers surpass the usual limitations and seem to combine the height and depth of both soprano and contralto." Critics concurred that Sissieretta coerced the "musical and theatrical worlds in the United States to accept the Negro in a new image."
Compared to the Italian soprano at the time, Adelina Patti, Jones was pejoratively dubbed the "Black Patti". She vehemently disapproved of the name, yet it stuck and it was used in the name of her vaudeville act. Black Patti's Troubadours was composed of singers and dancers, featuring Sissieretta, which toured the United States and abroad for 20 years. The company's repertoire included minstrel performances. Although Patti considered this aspect of the show demeaning, she sought to improve its overall quality and simultaneously extend her repertoire by including spirituals and arias in her finale. | Continued
And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera and Concert, Rosalyn M. Story, Warner Bros. Inc, 1994.
Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Darlene Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (eds.), Indiana University Press, 1994.
Vision and Reality, Willa E. Daughtry, Dorrance Publishing Co, 2002.
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