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Jester Hairston

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Jester Hairston


Jester Joseph Hairston (1 July 1901, Belews Creek, N.C. – 18 January 2000, Los Angeles Calif.) was an American composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor.

At an early age Hairston and his family moved to Homestead, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, where he graduated from high school in 1920. Hairston, who gave up studies at Massachusetts Agriculture College in the 1920s, went on to graduate from Tufts University in 1928 and studied music at the Juilliard School. Hairston pledged Kappa Alpha Psi (Chi Chapter) in 1925. He worked as a choir conductor in the early stages of his career. His work with choirs on Broadway eventually led to his singing and acting in plays, films, radio programs, and television shows.

Mr. Hairston joined the Hall Johnson Choir in 1930, becoming its assistant conductor in 1933. The Hall Johnson Choir performed in many Broadway shows including Green Pastures. In 1936, they were asked to go to Hollywood to sing for the film Green Pastures. At that time, a Russian composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, heard Jester and invited him to collaborate with him. This led to a thirty-year collaboration, during which time Jester arranged and collected music for the movies. He also wrote and arranged spirituals for Hollywood films as well as for high school and college choirs around the country. Most of Hairston's film work was in the field of composing, arranging, and choral conducting. He also acted in over 20 films, mostly in small roles, some of which were uncredited.

Hairston was awarded honorary degrees by several universities. He was regarded as a leading expert on Negro spirituals and choral music. In 1961, the U.S. State Department appointed Jester Hairston as Goodwill Ambassador. He traveled all over the world teaching and performing the folk music of the slaves. His notable compositions include Amen, a gospel-tinged theme from the film Lilies of the Field and a 1963 hit for 'The Impressions,' and the Christmas song Mary's Boy Child.

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