Jester Hairston (1901-2000) worked as composer, arranger, singer, conductor, and actor. He is known primarily as one of a small number of African American composers whose work transformed African-American spirituals into an accepted genre of choral music.
Hairston was born July 1, 1901 in Bellows Creek, North Carolina, near the plantation where his grandparents had been slaves. Not long after his birth, the Hairston family moved to a steel mill town near Pittsburgh by the name of Homestead. Of this town, Hairston said, "There's nothing to do there but work in steel mills. That's the reason I got out of there as quickly as I could." Hairston attended University of Massachusetts in Amherst on a two year church scholarship, but was unable to continue for lack of money. He began working and met Northampton schoolteacher, Laura Anna Kidder. She was so impressed with his musical talent that she was willing to pay for his education with her savings. He subsequently repaid her for her loan. Hairston had applied to Tufts University, which was know for its music department, and was turned down. After his rejection, Hairston ran into a friend in New York, who was also African-American and who had been admitted to Tufts for his athletic skills. This student advised Hairston to write a letter to the music department and to "lay it on thick!" Hairston followed his advice and auditioned for Leo R. Lewis, the head of the music department on Lewis' front porch and was subsequently admitted. Hairston graduated from Tufts in 1929 and went on to study music theory at Julliard for two years.
After leaving Julliard, Hairston became the assistant director of the Hall Johnson Choir in New York and it was there that he developed his interest in African-American spirituals. For a short time he organized the African American 'The Jester Hairston Singers,' one of whose members was Margaret Isabel Swanigan who became his wife in 1939. In 1934/35 WPA hired him as assistant director of one of the largest music schools in New York City for African American children and adults. In 1935, the Hall Johnson Choir went to California to perform in the film, "Green Pastures." The next year Hairston made his break as a composer in Hollywood with the film "Lost Horizons" and also performed with Shirley Temple and her choir. The Hall Johnson choir also performed with Irvin Cobb on the Paducah plantation radio program for the Oldsmobile people for 26 weeks which was sponsored by GM and canceled eventually due to GM's prolonged difficulties with the famous sit down strikes in Michigan which invigorated the UAW. In 1937, the Hall Johnson choir gave a private concert for Stravinsky at Paramount studio after which Stravinsky planned to compose a group of choral works for the Hall Johnson Choir, mentioned in a contemporary letter by Hairston. Throughout the 1940s, he arranged choral music in over 40 films such as "Dual in the Sun," "Friendly Persuasion," and "Red River." He became one of Hollywood's most respected choral directors during this time period. When filmmakers stopped using large choral ensembles, Hairston performed as a character actor (often uncredited) in television and films, including "The Alamo," "Carmen Jones: "Tarzan," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "So This is Love," "Tanganyika" (an African movie), "Gypsy Colt," "Tarzan's Secret Jungle," St. Louis Blues and "In the Heat of the Night," "Lady Sings the Blues," "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka," "The Bingo Long Traveling All, Stars and Motor Kings," "Tender Killing Care," and "Being John Malkovich" . Hairston also portrayed Henry Van Porter and Leroy Smith in the controversial radio and television show "Amos 'n Andy." By 1951, he had also performed as Johnny in the Beulah Show and at Humphrey Bogart's new radio show, Bold Venture, as a Cuban singer. The US government sent him and an integrated choir on a good will tour to Asia in the 1950s.
Most importantly, Hairston was a prolific composer. He is most famous for "Amen," a spiritual so "authentic" many did not realize Hairston had composed it. The song was made famous through the film "Lilies of the Field;" Hairston performed the song, dubbing for lead actor, Sidney Poitier. In addition to composing film scores, Hairston composed or arranged more than 300 choral spirituals, including popular compositions such as "Elijah" and "Mary's Little Boy Child." Hairston, an expert in the history of African-American folk music and Negro spirituals, became one of the foremost interpreters, arrangers, and composers of this music, once stating ''I decided that I wanted to make my mark in folk songs because my grandparents were slaves […] I wanted to keep that music alive.''
Numerous music records include Jester Hairston as singer, composer, or conductor such as "Calypso Christmas" on Victor with the voices of Walter Shumann, "Christmas in the air" and "Great Getting' up mornin," "The Afro-American slave song: its African roots and American development" (Jester Hairston Metropolitan Choir), "A profile of Negro life in song," "Mary's boy child" (Venezuela), "Tarzan and the Mermaid" (Jester Hairston Choir) among many others.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Hairston was honored for his work across the US and he was frequently invited as guest conductor at high schools, colleges and church choirs. He also made several State Department sponsored goodwill tours to Africa, Asia, Europe and South America, once stating, "I will bring more love to China through American Negro folk songs than anything Kissinger can write." Throughout his lifetime, Hairston broke down many racial barriers in the United States. He was, for instance, the first African-American to be invited to conduct in the Mormon Tabernacle choir. Occasionally criticized for taking film and television roles that stereotyped African-Americans, Hairston said, "We had a hard time fighting for dignity. We had no power. We had to take it, and because we took it, the young people today have opportunities."
Late in his life, Hairston was active in organizing national reunions of the Hairston family, which traces its lineage to the Antebellum American South and sponsored reunions for both black and white descendents. The family, and Jester Hairston in particular, was the subject of Henry Wiencek's 1999 book ''The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White.'' Wiencek wrote of Hairston, ''He never let go of his anger over slavery, but he also forgave. Still, he insisted that you should never forget your history.''
Hairston married Margaret Isabel Swanigan in 1939 and became stepfather to her daughter, Jeanne-Marie Swann. In recognition of his contributions to film and television, Hairston received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6201 Hollywood Blvd. Hairston died in Los Angles on January 18, 2000 and is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery in California.
This biographical note comes from the finding aid for the Jester Hairston Collection. You can view the finding aid in the Tufts Digital Library: https://dl.tufts.edu/catalog/ead/tufts:UA069.001.DO.MS040