Music legends come face to face

Legend met legend recently as Jester Hairston stepped onto the conductor's podium to face the Tabernacle Choir.

Mr. Hairston, 92, who has made his place in music history for arranging, promoting and preserving African American spirituals, directed the Tabernacle Choir in a weekly broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word" Sunday morning, Feb. 6.Mr. Hairston's career has spanned entertainment venues from vaudeville, radio, movies and television to live concerts and recordings. He was on the Tabernacle Choir's program with another guest conductor, Eugene Simpson, and New Jersey's Rowan College Chamber Choir, and Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley.

Mr. Hairston is credited with almost single-handedly preserving the African American spiritual. The six honorary doctorates bestowed upon him by universities throughout the nation and his invitations to lecture and be a guest conductor for choirs at home and abroad bespeak the high regard shown for his efforts to preserve the music of his ancestors while promoting racial harmony.

"My grandmother was a slave," he has told reporters in interviews. "I'm not ashamed of it at all. All the kids I grew up with - their grandparents were slaves. So I teach the music just like I heard it from my grandmother and the other old people, sitting right out there in the yard."

For years, many people have been singing Jester Hairston arrangements, although they may not have been aware of the man. Some are just now learning that it was Jester Hairston's voice, not Sidney Poitier's, they heard singing the rousing "Amen" in the movie "Lilies of the Field." Wherever he goes, Mr. Hairston invariably is requested to sing "Amen," which has become his musical signature. The movie's musical setting was done by Mr. Hairston.

In more recent years, he played the role of sharp-tongued Rolly Forbes on the television show, "Amen." He had roles in several movies of the 1960s and 1970s. He tells people if they look hard enough at some old "Tarzan" movies, they will see a younger version of him "carrying a spear." On the "Amos and Andy" radio and television shows, he played two roles, the shiftless Leroy and gentlemanly Henry Van Porter.

For years, he worked as a composer and choral director on numerous movies, including such films as "It's a Wonderful Life," "Duel in the Sun," "Portrait of Jenny," "Red River," "Land of the Pharaohs" and "Friendly Persuasion."

Mr. Hairston was "discovered" by Hollywood when Russian composer Dimitri Tiomkin attended one of his concerts in California and decided that was the sound he wanted for the score of the Frank Capra film he was working on. The film was "Lost Horizon." For 20 years, Mr. Hairston and Mr. Tiomkin collaborated on music for movies. Mr. Hairston received no film credit, however, until "Lilies of the Field," which was nominated for an Oscar in 1963.

Mr. Hairston has spent much of his time traveling the country - and the world - to conduct choirs. His work with the Tabernacle Choir is to be part of a documentary about his life and work in preserving spirituals. The documentary is being made by Richard Hatch, an independent filmmaker and high priests group leader in the San Jose 24th Ward, Morgan Hills California Stake.

"My wife [Julia] was singing in a choir that Jester came to guest direct," Brother Hatch said. "I went to a rehearsal and the concert, and when I saw him in action and heard his story, I asked if a documentary had been done on his life. It hadn't. I negotiated with his agent, and have been going around for the past year filming him.

"I thought, `Jester Hairston is known for his ability to teach white choirs how to sing black spirituals. What is the best-known choir comprised predominantly of white singers? It was only natural to try to get him and the Tabernacle Choir together. I contacted Jerold Ottley and Donald Ripplinger, who were enthusiastic about the idea, and we began working to get Jester and the Tabernacle Choir together."

After the broadcast, Brother Ottley said, "We've had Jester Hairston music in our library for a number of years. The choir likes performing his music. It's rhythmic and has a special ethnic flavor. They see it as part of our tradition as a nation."

The choir and Mr. Hairston first met in the early 1980s when he visited Salt Lake City and he conducted it as part of a music clinic during a Thursday evening rehearsal. A few choir members have had the opportunity to work with him on other occasions. Jane Fjeldsted, for example, met him in the early 1970s, when she was singing in a high school choir he directed in Wisconsin.

"Jester Hairston is a small man, but he is a giant in his field," she said. "Nobody out there knows spirituals like he knows them. When he arranges music, he puts them down true to their original form and sense. When he directs choirs, he tells stories about his grandmother and other slaves. He has preserved their language, their dialect. He tries to teach it to others. He loves music and is not inhibited at all. I don't know anybody who could loosen us up like he did. At one point in our rehearsal, he said, `My mother would be so proud of you. You sing just like Baptists!' He teased us and said we knew a lot about singing but we didn't know anything about rhythm.

"He conducts just the way he feels about his music. He mesmerizes a choir right off the bat."

After the broadcast, Mr. Hairston and Mr. Simpson led the Tabernacle Choir and the Rowan College Chamber Choir in a mini-concert in the Tabernacle. During that time, Mr. Hairston once again sang his signature, "Amen," until he came to notes his 92-year-old vocal cords no longer allow him to reach. At that point, he turned the song over to a soloist.

Of the concert, choir members and audience alike had one word to say: "Amen!"

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