While singing Negro spirituals in elementary school in her native Charlotte, North Carolina, Jacqueline Hairston thought of those haunting melodies as play songs.
In high school, having mastered the piano and learned the religious and historical significance of spirituals, she began writing her own arrangements. Decades later, such renowned opera singers as Kathleen Battle, Grace Bumbry, Denyce Graves and William Warfield would perform Hairston’s arrangements in concert and on record.
A framed photo of Hairston conducting a 300-voice choir at Carnegie Hall in 2012 is mounted in the hallway of her elegantly appointed Sacramento home. The concert featured her composition “Echoes of Jester Hairston” – a tribute to her late cousin who is perhaps most remembered for rearranging and recording the spiritual “Amen” for Sidney Poitier in the 1963 motion picture, “Lilies of the Field.” She has been invited to return to the prestigious New York venue next year.
Hairston studied at Juilliard while still in high school before earning degrees from Howard and Columbia universities. She lived in Oakland from 1973 to 2005 and taught at Merritt College for 15 years, becoming chairman of the music department for the last four years. She also mentored such singers as Brenda Vaughn, Terrance Kelly, D’Wayne Wiggins and future En Vogue member Maxine Jones in the New Traveling Voices, an outgrowth of her gospel and jazz choir at Merritt.
“At that point, I could not play gospel,” Hairston says of the time when she first formed the jazz and gospel choir. “I could play spirituals, classical and popular music, but I could not play that get-down gospel.”
One of Hairston’s students taught her how to play gospel-style piano; she, in turn, taught him how to read music. “The guy tore it up,” she recalls.
Hairston has offered private piano and voice lessons ever since her days as a schoolteacher in Charlotte and continues to do so in Sacramento. Among her many piano students was author Alice Walker, who was then living in Berkeley.
“‘I want to learn how to play ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ and anything on the black keys,’” Hairston remembers the writer saying when they first met. Walker didn’t have a piano of her own at the time, so Hairston loaned Walker her own cloth roll-up piano keyboard. Today, it rests on the floor next to the Steinway piano in Hairston’s music room.
Hairston returns to the Bay Area every fifth Sunday to the Church by the Side of the Road in Berkeley where she directs the choir and plays piano during services. She will take part in the 11 a.m. service on Sunday, May 31, and plans to perform her arrangements of the spiritual “Give Me Jesus” and Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” among other selections.
The Church by the Side of the Road is located at 2108 Russell St. in Berkeley.