These are convincingly the hands of a story-teller: masterfully narrating tales of the struggle, sacrifice, and survival of a community of enslaved people through diasporic Spiritual music.
These are assuredly the hands of a choral conductor: directing and leading spiritual pieces in such a way that would break down racial and cultural barriers that not only plagued music, but the American Deep South as well.
These are distinctively the hands of a composer: allowing his music to touch the lives of generation after generation, leaving behind an inheritable legacy, while building the kind of unity that can only be accomplished by a lover of all people and a disciple of spiritual music.
Now, it's time to tell his story; the life of Jester Hairston (1901 - 2000). Born in a time and place where Jim Crow laws prevailed and both the segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks was commonplace, the North Carolina native was born the grandson of slaves. Jester Hairston's grandparents worked the fields of the Hairston Plantation in Belew's Creek. His parents left the South in search of greater instructive opportunities for their young son, migrating north to Homestead Pennsylvania in the early 1900's.
Despite the systematic economic, educational, and social hurdles he faced, Hairston would go on to graduate as a cum laude music major from Tufts University, attend the famed Juilliard Institute of Music, and eventually become one of the greatest choral music directors of our time. As a composer, conductor, actor and educator, what Jester Hairston left behind was a gift to all people – music and film-buffs, seekers of equality and freedom, and more broadly, teachers and learners of "the arts" – we were bequeathed with his love of music.
This documentary moves to showcase Dr. Hairston's early training as an apprentice in New York City in 1931, where, for 13 years, he sang for the Eva Jessye and Hall Johnson Choirs. Having set his sights on Broadway as a director of music, he stumbled upon acting; a career that had, ironically, earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1992.
Dr. Hairston was most notably known for his work in assisting in the choral arrangement for renowned Broadway musicals like "Green Pastures," and "Carmen Jones," as well as the composition of "Amen" from Sidney Poitier's "Lillies of the Field." He landed roles on popular radio and television comedy series like "Amos and Andy" in 1951,"Tarzan's Hidden Jungle" in 1955, and "Amen" in 1986. Many of the characters he portrayed were seen as demeaning to African-Americans, but Jester Hairston made no apologizes for his choices. "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," said Dr. Hairston.
In his dynamic lifetime, Dr. Hairston composed or arranged over 300 gospel Spirituals for many popular Hollywood films, worked with famed actors and composers like John Wayne and Dimitri Tiomkin, and in 1937 became one of the founding Black members of the Screen Actors Guild.
The Jester Hairston story is one that is filled with triumphant highs and disparaging lows. His journey has led him to far away lands: transcending stereotypes and blazing the trail for others who dare to follow. But after peeling back all of the distinctions that have come from a lifetime of honors, awards, and achievements, you will find that Jester Hairston is still embraced, celebrated, and remembered as a lover of people with a melodic soul for spiritual music.