In two previous blogs, we presented an abbreviated look at John Coltrane’s life, including the years he lived in High Point. In the late 1930s, Coltrane joined Boy Scout leader Warren B. Steele’s community band. The success of the community band inspired William Penn High School principal Samuel E. Burford to start a school band in 1940, and Coltrane joined as one of eight members under the direction of Grayce W. Yokely, supervisor of music for the African American schools in High Point. As we end the High Point Museum’s traveling exhibit “A Love Supreme: The Jazz of John Coltrane through the Eyes of Chuck Stewart” curated by the Grammy Museum®, we learn more about Coltrane’s first band teacher, Grayce Rivera Waddy Yokely.
Grayce Rivera Waddy was a talented musician, teacher, and community leader in High Point for nearly 60 years. A daughter of a Greensboro and Durham medical doctor, she attended Slater Institute, now Winston-Salem State University, and later graduated with a degree in Musical Performance from Hampton Institute. There, she was a member of the famous Hampton Concert Choir that toured Europe in 1930, under the direction of Nathaniel Dett. The choir performed in 11 countries on that tour.
After her 1938 marriage to High Point native and educator, Clarence E. Yokely, she began teaching music at William Penn High School.
Article from The Students’ Pen, the school newspaper for William Penn High School, November 14, 1940.
Mrs. Yokely started the band program with only a few students in1940, but by the end of the school year in 1943, the student newspaper reported that it was a 27 piece band. John Coltrane was a member of the school band. We can only wonder what influence she had on the future jazz legend. She also led the Girls’ Glee Club and the Girl Scout Troop at William Penn. Later, she directed the music programs at the three African American schools in High Point, William Penn High School, Leonard Street School, and Fairview Street School. Mrs. Yokely also taught music at her alma mater, then renamed Winston-Salem Teachers College, for eight years. While her husband completed a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, she also took graduate courses. She retired after more than 30 years leading musical education in the High Point schools.
Photograph of the William Penn High School band from The Students’ Pen, June 1945. Grayce Yokely is on the front row, far left.
Grayce Yokely, left, leads a first-grade music class at Leonard Street School in 1956 with the assistance of teacher Georgia Dunlap. This photograph appeared in the November 8, 1956, edition of The High Point Enterprise.
Aside from her musical and educational accomplishments, Mrs. Yokley was active in many women’s and community organizations in High Point including the Alpha Arts Club, Chavis YMCA and Mary McLeod Bethune YWCA boards, and Salvation Army and United Way boards. She was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. She was an active member of Memorial United Methodist Church, leader in the United Methodist Women and Church Women United. She led the choir at her church, but also served as a guest musical director at other churches and for special community music programs in High Point.
High Point’s Yadseut Club, featured in The Federation Journal, vol. 11 no. 2, published by the North Carolina Federation of Negro Women's Clubs, April 1954. This edition highlighted a number of African American women’s civic clubs in High Point. (Glenn R. Chavis Local History Collection)
Mrs. Yokely’s obituary stated, “She was simply a beautiful person, both physically and spiritually. She loved and was loved by all who knew her.”
To get in the holiday spirit, listen to the 1967-68 William Penn High School chorus perform “The Messiah” (Glenn R. Chavis Local History Collection).
Contributed by Marian Inabinett, Curator of Collections at the High Point Museum. Contact her at email@example.com.