I am sitting at my desk among many boxes. We have just returned to Atlanta after an absence of forty years. It is four a.m. an darkness is all about me. In the distance, I see from my Peachtree Road apartment in Buckhead, the bright lights of downtown Atlanta. Slowly, I turn on a light and the cover of a recent issue of the journal, “The Triangle of Mu Phi Epsilon” catches my eye. An impressive photograph of Dr. Hansonia Caldwell is featured. I turn the pages and read of her distinguished career. Suddenly, the lines, “Anyone who has memories or experiences with Jester Hairston is invited to contact Dr. Caldwell”, draw my attention. It was inevitable that my mind went back to the year, 1972. As I reflected back, the enigmatic problems of date accuracy lay somewhere in those many boxes. Fear of error cloud my mind. However, the positivity of events and facts causes me to continue to write. 1972 was the year when a group of us premiered Scott Joplin?s opera, Treemonisha (1911) in Atlanta. Thanks to William Bolcom, Wendell Whalum, Katherine Dunham, Robert Shaw and others, this event was a grand success. We were also grateful to the Rockefeller Foundation for a grant. The world now had a chance to see one of the major accomplishment in American music. Dr. Edith Borroff, musicologist/composer and I noted that this work was the first indigenous opera composed in America. Operas written before Treemonisha were all copies of European modes and void of the American experience and popular American musical taste.
1972 was the year of the MENC national meeting in Atlanta. At that time I was a Danforth Foundation Visiting Professor at Morehouse College after serving as Resident Composer with Maestro Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for two years. Days before the convention I received a call from the planning committee. The committee was interested in inviting Jester Hairston to conduct an open session on the Negro Spiritual. I had known about Dr. Hairston?s extremely successful public appearances with this important music. My major concern was not this event but the absence of invitations to two major choral groups; the Morehouse College Glee Club conducted by Dr. Wendell Whalum and the Spelman College Glee Club under the leadership of Dr. Roland Allison. Both groups had developed a national reputation with their annual Christmas concerts. Anticipation of this exciting event continues to this day. I am sorry to report that neither Jester Hairston or the choruses appeared at the convention.
When the program for the national audience was presented, I along with other African Americans were indeed shocked by the lack of visibility of our music. A meeting was called at Morehouse and I was elected president of the Black Music Caucus. As I recall, the other officers for this fledgling organization were Eddie Meadows, Warrick Carter, Georgia Ryder, Bettye Cox, John Ross, Ted McDaniel and Carlesta Henderson. Our task was to even the playing field. It was 1972 when my family moved to Massachusetts. I had accepted a position as Professor and Chairman of the Music Department at Tufts University.
It was my relationship with Tufts that placed me in the position of becoming a brother to Jester! Maestro Hairston who had become a star of television, movies as well as a conductor and composer was a graduate of Tufts University. Jester took great pride in my new position at Tufts. Over the years we had many conversations about his life, achievements, and the honorary doctorate he received from his alma mater. Most touching was his story of coming to study at Tufts when he was penniless. He sat on the front porch of 3 Professors Row, the home of the Music Department with the chair, Professor Leo Lewis. Lewis became his mentor and sponsor. The professor recognized his talent and later presented him a pair of gold cufflinks. Many years later, I would attend any concert Jester presented in the vicinity of my home. These concerts were with local choral groups. Jester taught the style and meaning of Negro Spirituals and told stories to national and international audiences. He often ended his performances with his composition, “Amen”, a piece made popular with the film starring Sidney Poitier, “Lilies of the Field”. After the concert my wife,Lois and I went backstage and waited for the crowd of admirers to dwindle. I would go up to Jester and he would repeat his mantra- “ Man with your ability and my nerve we could have gone far”.
After my meditation I glance at my watch. It is now seven a.m. I walk out to my verandah, look out towards the street and see an American flag flying atop a Buckhead skyscraper. What does it mean?
For this writer, omens become an analogy for change . We are a better nation. MENC has changed over the years. The Black Music Caucus has become the National Association for the Study and Promotion of African American Music. This important organization continues to work for what Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community”. I believe in what our former Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky called in my composition, In Front of My Eyes, “better than before”.