Jester Hairston's life and music span the better part of a century, and not just his own.
"Even as a boy I was crazy about music," the 92-year-old composer, conductor and actor says from his home in Los Angeles. "Especially dialects, because that's all my grandmother could speak. She'd been a slave and didn't die till I was out of college, and that slave dialect fascinated me."As a result, this grandson of slaves went on not only to earn a degree in music in 1929 from Tufts University, but to establish himself as the dean of African- American choral music - a title he holds to the present day.
In that capacity, he comes to town this week for what is being billed as "A Festival of Afro-American Spirituals," to be presented Saturday, Feb. 5, at 7:30 p.m. in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. At that performance, which is free to the public, Hairston will guest-conduct the Rowan College Chamber Choir of Glassboro, N.J., in some of his own arrangements. (The balance of the program will be led by the chamber choir's director, Eugene Thamon Simpson.)
Then the following morning, Hairston, Simpson and the Rowan College choir will perform on that Sunday's Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast at 9:30 a.m. After the broadcast, Hairston will also conduct a mini-concert with the two organizations for the Tabernacle audience.
It won't be his first visit to Utah. During the '60s and '70s, Hairston was a frequent guest at high school choral festivals along the Wasatch Front. At one of these, he made the acquaintance of then-Skyline High choral director Donald Ripplinger, who since 1975 has been associate director of the Tabernacle Choir.
"I had met him previously at workshops he did in Ogden and at USU," Ripplinger recalls, "so in the fall of 1970 we invited him to do the same thing in the Granite District." Earlier that year, Ripplinger was also given charge of the high school and junior high school music festival held every summer at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, and he invited Hairston to join him there in 1971.
"That same year, we invited the composer Vaclav Nelhybel to take the instrumental side," Ripplinger says, "and he was really putting it to the kids because they weren't doing what he wanted - he was really ferocious. And after he finished his rehearsal, I said, `Do you want to walk over and watch Jester work with the choirs?' Well, Jester must have had about 150 to 200 kids and we watched for half an hour until the rehearsal came to an end. And Nelhybel turned to me and said, `He didn't yell at them once! Can you imagine that? He's so upbeat and positive about everything, he brings out the best in people.' "
It hasn't always been easy. Born in Belews Creek, N.C., in 1901, Hairston lost his father to pneumonia while still a child. Later, he, his mother and sister moved in with relatives in Homestead, Pa., where his mother worked as a domestic and he got a job making bricks at age 10.
Still, he managed to stay in school - where, despite his 5-foot-5-inch frame, he played basketball and was quarterback of his high school football team - before heading up to Massachusetts for college.
"Things are very different today," Hairston says with a chuckle, "but in those days the University of Pittsburgh wouldn't think of having a black on the football team. So I had to go 700 miles north to Amherst to get into the University of Massachusetts, which was called Mass Aggie then. I don't think I weighed 125 pounds, but I made quarterback on the freshman team - the only black on the team. I was also the smallest one on the basketball team - I played guard, which shows you how tough I was."
Tough enough that, when the money ran out, he took some time out to work in the steel mills in Homestead so he could go back. Then, after finishing at Tufts, he headed for New York and Juilliard. And that's where he met Hall Johnson.
"I'd heard about this black choir in Harlem, which was where I lived," Hairston says of the legendary Hall Johnson Choir. "So I went and sang. I think the fact I could sing in slave dialect helped me, along with knowing the right notes, so he made me assistant director of the choir."
A short time later, Hairston made his Broadway debut when the Johnson choir was engaged for "The Green Pastures" ("my first big show"), which ran two years before being snapped up by the movies. That brought them to Hollywood in December 1935. "We were supposed to stay six weeks," Hairston says, "and I've been here ever since."
Those were exciting years for him and for the film industry. "That was my first picture conducting," Hairston recalls, "because Johnson didn't like to stop and start like they did in pictures. So I got to conduct all those songs - we just did the background music - and after that I went out for myself."
Before then, however, Russian composer Dimitri Tiomkin attended one of the choir's concerts in California and determined this was the sound he wanted for the score Frank Capra had asked him to do for his upcoming film of "Lost Horizon."
"You never saw a score like that," Hairston says of Tiomkin's lavish evocation of never-ending Oriental monody. "It didn't even have key signatures. It was the hardest piece of music I ever saw in my life."
Nonetheless, the score won Tiomkin an Oscar nomination and led to a 20-year collaboration in which Hairston served as Ken Darby to Tiomkin's Alfred Newman - i.e., as choral director on nearly all his movies. That included such films as "It's a Wonderful Life," "Duel in the Sun," "Portrait of Jenny," "Red River," "Land of the Pharaohs" and "Friendly Persuasion," all without a line of screen credit, because, Hairston maintains, he was black.
"How you gonna fight it?" he says, looking back. "If I had said I wouldn't do it, they would have got somebody else."
Hairston's first screen credit came belatedly in 1963 with the Oscar-nominated "Lillies of the Field," in which it is his singing voice one hears in place of Sidney Poitier's when the latter launches into Hairston's setting of "Amen." He also acts in that movie, something else that began after he decided to stay in Hollywood.
"I had done little parts as an extra," he recalls, adding that "you can see me running around half-naked with a spear in nearly all the `Tarzan' movies." You can also see him - if you can get hold of them - on videotapes of the old "Amos 'n' Andy" show, which he did on both radio and television, the last in two roles, that of the gentlemanly Henry Van Porter and the Kingfish's shiftless brother-in-law Leroy. Again, though, I've yet to see an episode in which he is actually billed.
Compared to his most recent series, "Amen," which ran from 1986 to 1991 on NBC, Hairston believes the older shows were racially demeaning.
"There wasn't one that showed the black man as having any intelligence - obviously Leroy wasn't a college graduate from Tufts - and, knowing what we did, you had to be a good actor to go ahead and act that. And we had no power - we had to take it. But because we took it, the young people today have opportunities."
Hairston, too. During the 1960s, the State Department appointed him an ambassador of goodwill, presenting concerts and workshops throughout the world. At the same time, his influence was widening here at home.
"He has probably guest-conducted more choirs than any other single choral director," Gene Brooks, the executive director of the American Choral Directors Association, has said of Hairston. Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley still remembers Hairston's first outing with that group, at a rehearsal he conducted when he was here for a high school choral festival at Brigham Young University in 1982.
"He was just alive and on fire, and thoroughly committed to the materials he was working with, which are, of course, the black spirituals."
"You don't have to be black to sing Negro spirituals," Hairston maintains, pointing out that both the music and the slave dialect communicate a power of their own.
Significantly it is a BYU graduate, Richard J. Hatch, who is attempting to capture that power by way of a TV documentary, "Jester Hairston - Lord, I Don't Feel Noways Tired," of which next weekend's concerts are to be a part. As for Hairston, he already has six honorary doctorates and recently was the subject of a doctoral dissertation himself, by a young woman whose father he worked with nearly 20 years ago at a high school choral workshop in Oregon.
"It looks like the Holy Bible," he proclaims proudly, "250 pages, all on the spirituals of Jester Hairston."
After next weekend, she may want to add another chapter.