Dana Suesse (1909–1987)
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Dana Suesse, a Kansas City native, was an American composer, pianist, playwright and lyricist, commonly referred to as the "girl Gershwin." Suesse grew up in Kansas City during its heyday. Suesse, a child prodigy, gave her first concert at Drexel Hall in Kansas City at just eight years old, and went on to tour and compose in the Midwest vaudeville circuit as a teenager. In 1926, at age 17, Suesse and her mother moved to New York City to further pursue her career in music.
Photographs courtesy of the LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries
While Dana Suesse moved to New York City in hopes of becoming a concert pianist, she instead went on to become a prominent Tin Pan Alley composer. Suesse explained that, “I had some notion I might concertize pianistically but I soon found out that in order to do this I would have to keep on practicing six hours a day which left me very little time, if any, for composing so I abandoned any idea of becoming a concert pianist.” Suesse never gave up the piano, though – she often performed her own compositions. Her works were conducted by some of the most prominent conductors of her time (Paul Whiteman and Ferde Grofé, most notably) in venues such as Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall. Suesse and her compositions frequently appeared on network radio, too. Her reputation as both a virtuosic pianist and popular music composer quickly gained her the nickname of “girl Gershwin.”
While Suesse was most known for her Tin Pan Alley era works, she composed much more than popular, commercial music. She strived to be recognized for her more serious works, but unfortunately she did not receive the acclaim she merited. Some of Suesse’s most popular works include: Jazz Nocturne, Blue Moonlight, You Oughta Be in Pictures, My Silent Love, Whistling in the Dark, and Ho Hum!, which was recorded by Bing Crosby.
After WWII, Suesse went to Paris for three years to study composition with the highly esteemed Nadia Boulanger. After her return to New York, she focused on writing musical comedies. In the 1970s Suesse strayed away from popular music and focused on the major symphonic concert she put on at Carnegie Hall in 1974.
In 1982, Suesse made her last visit to Kansas City for a Westport High School reunion. Here, Kansas City Mayor Richard Berkley proclaimed October 1st Dana Suesse Day.
Suesse's Jazz Concerto in D Major is a prime example of her more "serious" music that was overlooked.
Suesse's Evening in Harlem was composed in 1936, and was renamed to Afternoon of a Black Faun in 1938 for publishing purposes. This is a solo piano recording.
The BBC Orchestra performs the full orchestration of Suesse's Evening in Harlem.
"Dana Suesse, 76, Dies; Wrote 30’s Hit Songs.” New York Times, October 1987.
"Girl Gershwin." The New Yorker, December 16, 1933.
Dana Suesse, interview by Harold Bower, New York, 1973.
Pessen, Edward. “The Great Songwriters of Tin Pan Alley’s Golden Age: A Social, Occupational, and Aesthetic Inquiry.” American Music Vol. 3, No. 2.