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JESTER HAIRSTON


Building a Musical Legacy

When Jester Hairston, A29, found himself back at Tufts in 1972 to receive an honorary degree, the occasion had a certain poignancy. He had been forced to pawn his first Tufts diploma; like many Americans following the stock market crash of 1929, he was broke, and he needed cold cash to move to New York City in search of work.

As President Hallowell handed Hairston his Doctor of Music degree, he promised to put a replacement diploma in the mail immediately. Hairston joked, "And make it cum laude." The recognition would have been well-deserved. Hairston, who died in January, was a pioneering musician, actor, composer and choral director.

Born in Belews Creek, North Carolina, and raised just outside Pittsburgh, Hairston came to Tufts in the late 1920s to study music theory. After graduation, he moved to New York City, where he found work as a member of the Howell Johnson Negro Choir, a group dedicated to singing Negro spirituals.

"I liked the Negro spirituals, and working with the Johnson singers made me more aware of the rich music that came from the slaves," Hairston once told a reporter. "It came out the same basic feelings that the classical composers had-pain, joy, suffering-and there was no reason not to know more about that music."

Hairston went on to research the origins of Negro spirituals, and would take direction of the Johnson singers in 1936. When the group moved to California to look for work with the movies, Hairston was asked to arrange music for motion pictures. For 30 years, he would arrange the music for many of Hollywood's classic films, including Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Gunfight at the OK Corral and Carmen Jones. His work on Lost Horizon helped secure the film an Academy Award for music. While Harry Belafonte brought the spiritual "Mary's Little Boy Child" to a wide audience, it was Hairston who penned the music and lyrics.

Hairston's movie career was launched with what he could find, including bit parts in Tarzan pictures. But he would soon be sought for larger roles in films such as The Alamo and To Kill a Mockingbird. An accomplished singer, Hairston also dubbed for Sidney Poitier in the 1962 film Lilies of the Field.

As a young actor, Hairston was forced to confront racism and prejudice. But although Hollywood's depictions of African Americans angered and disappointed him, he never quit. "We had no power," he once told the New York Times. We had to take it, and because we took it, the young people today have greater opportunities."

With the advent of television, other avenues opened up. An original cast member of the radio show Amos and Andy, he also appeared on the television adaptation. He was known to many Americans as checker-playing Wildcat on the That's My Mama television series, and, at 85 years old, the "punchlining" minister Deacon Rolly Forbes in Amen.

For almost 80 years, Hairston's love of music made him a singular music educator, interpreter, arranger, and composer. He introduced audiences in America, Europe, Mexico and China to black folk songs and other American folk music on his "goodwill tours." He led Hollywood's first integrated choir and he was a guest choral director with choirs such as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He also worked with countless church, school and camp choirs, including on at least one occasion the Tufts' chorale. It was in these smaller venues that he gathered his most loyal following.

When the news of his death at the age of 98 spread in late January, many of Hairston's students began to recall a man they say can never be replaced. They talk of his uncanny ability to inspire a choir with a few taps of his feet. They remember how he taught them to love music.

One of his former students wrote, "I know Jester Hairston is in Heaven, and if you want to find him there, look for the biggest crowd of young people ­ he will be in the middle. And before long you'll hear him start to sing . . . and everyone will sing with him."

Pete Sanborn, A99, is a public relations associate at Tufts.

   

 

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