Hand color tinted photo of Roland Hayes
Roland Hayes (June 3, 1887 – January 1, 1977) was an American lyric tenor and composer. It is a common myth that Hayes was the first world-renowned African-American concert artist. He had a couple of predecessors who acclaimed fame. People such as Sissieretta Jones and Marie Selika were well known, but the nature of their performances were not minstrelsy and that made it not possible for them to be recorded by recording companies. The recording companies wanted a vaudeville type of singer. Hayes was able to break this barrier in his career and in 1939 he recorded with Columbia. Critics lauded his abilities and linguistic skills demonstrated with songs in French, German and Italian.
Early years and family
Hayes was born in Curryville, Georgia, on June 3, 1887, to Fannie (née Mann) and William Hayes. Roland’s parents were tenant farmers on the plantation where his mother had once been a slave. Roland’s father, who was his first music teacher, often took him hunting and taught him to appreciate the musical sounds of nature. When Hayes was aged 11 his father died, and his mother moved the family to Chattanooga, Tennessee. William Hayes claimed to have some Cherokee ancestry, while his maternal great-grandfather, Aba Ougi (also known as Charles) was a chieftain from the Ivory Coast. Aba Ougi was captured and shipped to America in 1790. At Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Curryville (founded by Roland’s mother) is where Roland first heard the music he would cherish forever, Negro spirituals. It was Roland’s job to learn new spirituals from the elders and teach them to the congregation. A quote of him talking about beginning his career with a pianist:
“I happened upon a new method for making iron sash-weights,” he said, “and that got me a little raise in pay and a little free time. At that time I had never heard any real music, although I had had some lessons in rhetoric from a backwoods teacher in Georgia. But one day a pianist came to our church in Chattanooga, and I, as a choir member, was asked to sing a solo with him. The pianist liked my voice, and he took me in hand and introduced me to phonograph records by Caruso. That opened the heavens for me. The beauty of what could be done with the voice just overwhelmed me.”
At the age of 12 Roland discovered a recording of the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Hearing the renowned tenor revealed a world of European classical music. Hayes trained with Arthur Calhoun, an organist and choir director, in Chattanooga. Roland began studying music at Fisk University in Nashville in 1905 although he only had a 6th grade education. Hayes’s mother thought he was wasting money because she believed that African Americans could not make a living from singing. As a student he began publicly performing, touring with the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911. He furthered his studies in Boston with Arthur Hubbard, who agreed to give him lessons only if Hayes came to his house instead of his studio. He did not want Roland to embarrass him by appearing at his studio with his white students. During his period studying with Hubbard, he worked as a messenger for the Hancock Life Insurance Company to support himself.
In January 1915 Hayes premiered in New York City in concerts presented by orchestra leader Walter F. Craig. Hayes performed his own musical arrangements in recitals from 1916 to 1919, touring from coast to coast. For his first recital he was unable to find a sponsor so he used 200 dollars of his own money to rent Jordan Hall for his classical recital. To earn money he went on a tour of black churches and colleges in the South. In 1917 he announced his second concert, which would be held in Boston’s Symphony Hall. On November 15, 1917, every seat in the hall was sold and Hayes’s concert was a success both musically and financially but the music industry was still not considering him a top classical performer. He sang at Walter Craig’s Pre-Lenten Recitals and several Carnegie Hall concerts. He performed with the Philadelphia Concert Orchestra, and at the Atlanta Colored Music Festivals and at the Washington Conservatory concerts. In 1917, he toured with the Hayes Trio, which he formed with baritone William Richardson (singer) and pianist William Lawrence (pianist).
In April 1920, Hayes traveled to Europe. He began lessons with Sir George Henschel, who was the first conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and gave his first recital in London’s Aeolian Hall in May 1920 with pianist Lawrence Brown as his accompanist. Soon Hayes was singing in capital cities across Europe and was quite famous. Almost a year after his arrival in Europe, Hayes had a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. The next day, he received a summons from King George V and Queen Mary to give a command performance at Buckingham Palace. He returned to the United States in 1923. He made his official debut on November 16, 1923, in Boston’s Symphony Hall singing Berlioz, Mozart, and spirituals, conducted by Pierre Monteux, which received critical acclaim. He was the first African-American soloist to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1924.
Hayes finally secured professional management with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Concert Company. He was reportedly making $100,000 a year at this point in his career. In Boston he also worked as a voice teacher. One of his pupils was the Canadian soprano Frances James. He published musical scores for a collection of spirituals in 1948 as My Songs: Aframerican Religious Folk Songs Arranged and Interpreted.
In 1925 Hayes had an affair with a married Bohemian aristocrat, Bertha von Colloredo-Mansfeld (1890–1982), née Countess von Kolowrat-Krakowský, who bore his daughter, Maria “Maya” Dolores Kolowrat (1926–1982). Bertha had been married since 1909 to a member of a German princely family, Hieronymus von Colloredo (1870–1942), who was 20 years her senior, and he refused to allow the expected child to bear his name or to be raised along with the couple’s four older children, managing to quietly obtain a divorce in Prague in January 1926, while Bertha left their home in Zbiroh, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), to bear Hayes’ child in Basel, Switzerland. Hayes offered to adopt the child, while the countess sought to resume the couple’s relationship, while concealing it, until the late 1920s. Maya Kolowrat would marry Russian émigré Yuri Mikhailovich Bogdanoff (1928–2012) and give birth in Saint-Lary, Gers, to twins Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff in 1949, who later attributed their early interest in the sciences to their unhampered childhood access to their maternal grandmother’s castle library.
After the 1930s, Hayes stopped touring in Europe because the change in politics made it unfavourable to African Americans.
In 1932, while in Los Angeles for a Hollywood Bowl performance, he married Alzada Mann. One year later they had a daughter, Afrika. The family moved into a home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Hayes did not perform very much from the 1940s to the 1970s. In 1966, he was awarded the degree of Honorary Doctorate of Music from The Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford. Hayes continued to perform until the age of 85, when he gave his last concert at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was able to purchase the land in Georgia on which he had grown up as a child.
He died five years after his final concert, on January 1, 1977.
Even when Hayes became a successful musician he faced the same prejudices as most African Americans at the time. During his tour of Germany in 1923, some people protested against his concert in Berlin. A newspaper writer criticized him as “an American Negro who has come to Berlin to defile the name of the German poets and composers.” The night of the concert Roland faced an angry audience who mocked him for 10 minutes. Hayes stood still until they stopped and then he began singing Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh”. Hayes’s remarkable voice and musical talent won over the German audience and his concert was a success.
The Chicago Defender (national edition of July 25, 1942) reported a case in which Hayes’ wife and daughter were thrown out of a shoe store in Rome, Georgia, for sitting in the white-only section. Hayes confronted the store owner. The police then arrested both Hayes, whom they beat, and his wife. (A poem by Langston Hughes, entitled “How About It, Dixie”, refers to the incident.) Hayes and his family eventually left Georgia.
On many of his concerts Hayes would attempt to abandon the use of segregated seating. At a concert in Atlanta, Georgia Hayes had the main floor of the auditorium as well as the boxes and first balcony halved between the races. The galleries were reserved for colored students at a special rate. No whites were allowed in them except the ones chaperoning the students.
Hayes taught at Black Mountain College for the 1945 Summer institute where his public concert was, according to Martin Duberman, “one of the great moments in Black Mountain’s history” (215). After this concert, in which unsegregated seating went well, the school had its first full-time black student and full-time member of the faculty.