One degree of separation from the black experience in America

Feb 25, 2004 (Updated Mar 16, 2004)

The Bottom Line Jester Hairston - conductor, arranger, actor

I'm white.

I'm not black.

I grew up in a white suburban neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay area, and attended a private school.

I can distinctly recall five black students out of four hundred fifty students at my high school.

How much can I know about what it is to be black in America?


During my years at that private high school, I spent a lot of time in music classes - choir, and small and large vocal ensembles. Two of the black students were in choir with me in my sophomore year - they were brother and sister - at 6' 10", he played forward for our basketball team, while she was a little on the heavy side, ignored by most kids at school; both she and her brother could sing really well, and I remember her voice distinctly. It was a high clear soprano that helped to sweeten the entire sound of our choir.

Each year, the choir traveled to an all-state choir competition of the private school's parent organization, and we always did fairly well, though we never won anything. Each choir prepared a few songs of their own, and also came ready with five or six pre-chosen numbers that all of the choirs would perform together at the finale concert. The two-day competition always featured a guest conductor, someone famed for their contribution to choral work. This conductor worked individually with each choir for about an hour - this was part of the judging process, and also a chance for the conductor to work out any particular problems we had with the music for the finale. We'd had a renowned professor of choral music from USC the year before; Dr. Snow was well over eighty years old, and he knew exactly what he wanted, taking us to task over every little imperfection in each song. We sweated the details for what seemed an eternity, until by some magical instinct, Dr. Snow declared us ready for the combined choral performance. The day of the performance was more of the same, as all the choirs came together to rehearse the songs under the conductor's tutelage.

In my sophomore year, we were particularly excited to attend the competition - we had a better than average choir, and we had several kids with solo quality voices, including our tall athlete and his sister. When we received word of who would guest conduct the competition, we knew that we had a chance for something great. Being part of a private Christian school, we performed a lot of gospel music and the occasional spiritual - our soloists had opportunity to shine with these songs. We were eager to start our work for the competition as it would feature spirituals composed and arranged by none other than the conductor himself - Jester Hairston.


Jester Hairston died at the very start of this century at the age of 98, after having spent the entire length of the twentieth century devoted to the furthering of black culture in America. Though some would deride his methods at times, he pressed ahead with whatever he could in a society that limited his scope. He was the grandson of a slave, growing up in Pittsburgh where generations of his family now worked in the steel mills. He graduated from Tufts University in 1929, having received a grant for his musical education from a woman who had heard him sing. He became an assistant to Hall Johnson, a conductor and arranger of spirituals - Hairston dedicated himself to the preservation and continuance of this art form. His association with Johnson led to recognition in the entertainment fields, and in the mid-thirties he began to work with choirs for the film industry, finding nearly instant success with Lost Horizon, which won the Oscar for best film score of 1936.

This fame would lead him into places that few black persons could go in that era - he was able to form the first integrated choirs in Hollywood history, conducting for Red River, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Land of the Pharaohs. He parlayed his name into bit parts in several Tarzan films, filling the stereotypical "Negro" roles when asked. Hairston would go on to perform in the Amos 'N Andy radio and television shows - these roles would haunt him his entire life. Hairston always defended his decision to play these unflattering characters - many years later, he would say "We had a hard time then fighting for dignity. We had no power. We had to take it, and because we took it, the young people today have opportunities."

Throughout the middle of the century, Hairston's influence in Hollywood continued to grow. He appeared in the films The Alamo, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, Lady Sings the Blues, The Last Tycoon, and Lilies of the Valley, for which he composed the song Amen. In Lilies of the Valley, it is Hairston you hear, dubbing the vocal lead of Amen for Sydney Poitier. In his eighties and in the 1980's, Jester appeared on television yet again, this time as Rollie Forbes in the NBC sitcom Amen. Over his lifetime, Hairston would compose well over 300 spirituals, and arrange many more, greatly contributing to the wide popularity the form enjoys today among many modern choirs.


We worked hard to get these songs just right - our conductor was confident in our ability to sing the notes correctly, but he had a more difficult time with getting the feel correct. We were a primarily white choir singing about the experiences of black slaves over one hundred years removed from us. Our saving grace was the fact that we had a soloist who could do justice to the main selection for the competition - Hairston's Amen. Though he was so very tall, and made his presence best known in the bass section of the choir, he had a range none of the tenors could match, a genuine falsetto with power, and the ability to create amazing runs. In preliminary concerts at the school, he received wild acclaim for his performance, and we knew we had something special.

The day finally came for us to meet the legendary conductor in person - our first glimpse of the man was in the main auditorium as he was introduced. At eighty years old, he seemed small and frail to our eyes, a man in his waning years. When he slowly rose to address us, all doubts were erased; he spoke with power and grace, his words were simple and passionate. He told us of his life, and the hours spent at the feet of his grandmother, hearing her tales of her imprisonment as a slave. He shared with us his passion for sharing his family's experiences with the whole world through the songs of those trodden down, and the music born of the agonizingly slow redemption of black culture in America. He explained how important it was that this music be remembered by generations to come, and that we would be an important part of that process.

The competition began - we went through our paces, performing our prepared songs for the judges. As usual, we did well, but somehow less than what was expected of a top choir. Part of the competition was to perform one of the concert songs - we heard several renditions of Amen that day, a few were quite good, and others merely average. We were not asked to perform Amen - we were the only choir in our bracket asked to perform the classical number chosen for the concert. We did it well, and the judges were satisfied with our knowledge of the song.

The first evening session included performances by choirs selected by the judges - this would give the guest conductor the first opportunity to hear what he had to work with the following day. Several choirs performed their own numbers, others gave their renditions of the spirituals - Amen was performed with a white soloist fronting another choir - he did an admirable job, and Jester told him so. We were selected to perform the classical number again, and the judges were rewarded for their choice with our best performance of the day. As the applause died out, Jester rose from his seat and slowly walked up the steps to the stage. He stood for a moment in front of us, looking at each one of us. Finally he turned to face the assembled choirs, and began to sing Amen without any accompaniment. Our director, off to one side, looked startled, but quickly cued us for our entrance, and we began to sing along with our new soloist.

There are moments in your life you wish you could relive over and over - this is one of mine. A legend stirred to life in front of my eyes, drawing upon the ghosts of millions broken and bruised throughout long centuries of hateful atrocities committed by my own ancestors. Music flowed over, around and through me, and I sang, sang for the memory of long-dead slaves, sang for the healing of a hate that still thrived in the nation my ancestors created for all men.

The song ended, and Jester acknowledged the applause from the audience, then turned back to us. He looked up at our tall bass, and then asked our director, "He's the one that sings the solo?" Our director nodded in agreement, and Jester turned back to the young man, asking him to come down to the front as we would perform the song for him this time. As they stood next to each other on the stage, some small giggles could be heard from the audience as Jester craned his head to look up at our soloist, towering above him. "Sing it with your heart" is all he said by way of advice.

And so, we began again. Hairston conducted us, making some small changes from what we had learned, and as we followed his direction, somehow, someway, the second time was more glorious than the first. Our soloist hit notes he had never reached; at one point, an eyebrow raised in amusement on the wrinkled forehead of our new conductor. Jester brought the song to a close, and acknowledged the applause once more. He turned as if to leave the stage, but paused to say, "THAT is how it should be done."

And that was how we did it - all 600 of us, in a mass choir the next evening, our soloist leading the way, dwarfing the slight gentleman next to him on the podium - but to my eyes, there was none larger in the house that night than Jester Hairston. Greatness had touched us all, and a window had been opened onto the past - I had been given eyes to see, to see hurts, to see true struggle, and to experience the heartbeat of a man driven to change the world through the power of music.


This article is part of brendan2's Black History Month Write-Off
Read more about my choral experiences in my review of Morten Laurdisen's Lux Aeterna

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