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.
“I had this idea in my mind that somebody had resigned at the last minute and they thought, ‘Well, we’ll get this person and next year we can take our time and get somebody who’s qualified,’” she said.
“Here we are 60 years later.”
Never having traveled south of New England prior to her abrupt move, Jenness describes her initial impression of Lexington as being a bit of culture shock.
“I had never thought of myself as a terribly fast-moving person, but they thought I was a real ball of fire,” she remembers.
The “ball of fire” that others spotted in Jenness is likely the same drive and initiative that led to her organizing, along with a handful of like-minded voice enthusiasts, a community choir that gave its first performance, with Jenness as conductor and director, in 1959, with just over 30 members. Fresh out of the gate, the group performed a challenging roster of 21 songs that included Brahms and Bruckner, drawing increased attention and interest from the community right off the bat and increasing exponentially in membership each year.
Within a few years, the group had collaborated with the Cincinnati Symphony, and was invited to play at New York City’s Carnegie Hall less than a decade after forming. Johnson, the group’s current conductor – and only the third conductor in the organization’s 52 years – said those early milestones were integral to growing membership and building a resume that has allowed the Lexington Singers to perform in such world-renowned venues as Notre Dame Cathedral, the United States embassy in Bucharest and Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Today, having celebrated her 90th birthday, Jenness remains active in the Lexington singing community, teaching two adult voice classes called “Be a Better Singer” at Christ the King Cathedral. One hundred percent of the student fees go to support international charities chosen by Jenness, which she finds to be a great system.
Johnson warmly interjected that it’s a “great system” for “someone with a heart like Phyllis, who says, ‘I don’t need to profit from this at all; the only thing I need to get out of this is the joy of teaching’” – to which Jenness just smiled and shrugged.
“At this point in my life, the fact of being somewhat useful is much more important than making money,” she said.
The Lexington Singers continue to recognize Jenness as Conductor Emeritus. The group will perform their annual holiday concert, Handel’s “Messiah,” at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 16 at the Singletary Center for the Arts. For more information on the group, visit lexsing.org.