Emme Kemp: Unsung Heroine of American Music


Photo by Janet Solesky

Emme Kemp has spent most of her lifetime creating beauty through music, whether on the piano, performing or singing. Her genuine spirit and delight in working with people, whether children, handicapped or seniors is evident from the light she emanates. Her music has given her a goal, a purpose, and a reason to wake up each day. A child prodigy and protegee of piano man, Eubie Blake, Ms Kemp had the opportunity to record with Eubie on his EBM (Eubie Blake Music Company) label.  Blake was an important figure in the early 20th century African American music scene.

I recorded with two other women who were my contemporaries, on a recording called Eubie Blake: Song Hits with Eubie and his Girls,” said Kemp, who was the composer of Bubbling Brown Sugar. Kemp appeared in and played piano for the shows “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” “Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope” and Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘Raisin.”

Born in Chicago at Illinois Research Hospital, she was one of 2 children. Her brother who was 10 years older than Emme, attended the Art Institute of Chicago on Saturdays. He also took tap dancing and piano. Emme did the same but she took to the piano early on. She plunked out the song “Home on the Range” when she was 3 years old. And later at 7 years old began composing short compositions and playing at recitals. Later in life, she studied American Music at Northwestern University and attended Berkley College and New York University.

Her family lived in the suburbs of Morgan Park where her church was the social institute and outlet for Black people. Unfortunately she experienced the rigors of segregation during that time. Although People of color needed an outlet, they couldn’t do the social things that were possible for whites in other neighborhoods other than their own.

I recall an occasion when a childhood seat mate I knew had polio. There was a pool very nearby just across the railroad track. She needed to exercise in the swimming pool but unfortunately she and her family were denied access,” recalled the singer. “This was reminiscent of the period of time I was growing up because segregation existed. For example, when I traveled south with my grandmother, once we got to Evansville, Illinois, we had to change seats and go to the back. A curtain was put up so the white diners were blocked from seeing the people of color. But Black people held themselves with dignity and knew that we were just as good as anyone else. We were stalwart in our demeanor. Even sometimes when we needed to go shopping downtown Blacks were made to feel unwelcome. Naturally there were occasions when we grew concerned that our children might return home upset because they weren’t treated well and suffered abuse by whites. But this was a way of life then,” explained the talented pianist.

Kemp’s father sold insurance and later went on the radio. Insurance was important for colored people then. If a family member died, insurance enabled families to bury their folks. “My father was very social. In fact, both my parents were involved with social topics. There were times people of color could not go to hotels, even if they had the money.  Therefore, women groups got together and purchased buildings so that Black people had a place to stay when away from home,” recalled Emme, who noted how gospel singer Mahalia Jackson would travel on Sundays to various churches where Mahalia was dedicated to spreading the word of peace and harmony. “She spread joyful gospel. She had the word, the music, the spirit and the love,” said Emme.

Ms Kemp appeared in Woody Allen’s movie, “Sweet and Lowdown” starring Sean Penn. She also did a stint in the army in 1956 where she took advantage of the GI bill’s job training. She was also commissioned to play the piano for Special Services where she performed for the enlisted men.

While in Monte Carlo, she performed before Princess Grace and had the occasion to meet and chat with Lena Horne. Ms Kemp is hailed by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (where she presently lives), as an unsung heroine in American Music. Like Emme says in her composition, “Eyes on Harlem,”… “Harlem makes you feel it’s great to be alive!”

In 1971, she played a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall under the direction of jazz master Jimmy Giuffre. Her Lincoln Center performance included a tribute to Louis Armstrong which featured Nancy Wilson and Hazel Scott on the bill. And recently during Black History month she performed at the Jackie Robinson Recreation Center before a delighted audience and was filmed by Angela Viscido of Eclectrix. Inc.  See:  https://vimeo.com/395278798

Ms Kemp is still going strong and can be reached for bookings via 212-281-4363, or via [email protected]




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *