The Negro spiritual is a core component of black cultural history and it has been at the core of Jacqueline Hairston’s lifelong journey of musical study, teaching and expression.
A concert on Sunday featuring Hairston’s arrangements of traditional spirituals will be the closing production of AfroSolo 18, an annual celebration of black performance and creativity curated by Thomas Robert Simpson.
The event is a prelude and a fundraiser to help finance a road trip for the East Bay-based Hairston and her 50-member chorus to appear at Carnegie Hall in February.
An elegant, soft-spoken woman, Hairston, an award-winning composer, pianist and arranger, was approached by the New York venue to stage an evening to feature musical groups from around the country.
“They said they’d like me to conduct my ‘trademark’ choral spirituals. That caught my attention,” she says, “because my trademark spirituals are actually ones I’ve arranged for solo artists like Kathleen Battle and Grace Bumbry. I thought it would be fun to put these solo pieces in a choral arrangement.”
As Hairston relates it, the spiritual as a musical genre relied on a tradition of oral history for its preservation and was nearly supplanted by gospel as a form of expressing religious faith through music.
A former college music teacher and student at Juilliard School of Music, Hairston says, “I had to consistently explain the difference between gospel, which became popular in the 1920s, and spirituals, which go back to slavery times.”
A major difference Hairston notes is that spirituals were most often sung a cappella and “if harmony happened it was often accidental and spontaneous, whereas gospel came to rely heavily on the kinds of instrumentation found in secular music of the day. Sometimes people would take a spiritual and really try to gospelize it.”
Part of Hairston’s appreciation for the form was inspired by her cousin, Jester Hairston, who became widely known as “The Amen Man” for his lifetime’s work in preserving the spiritual’s musical tradition. “I’m delighted to have a chance to present this music in its true form because it is so rich,” says Hairston.
A special feature of the concert will be the world premiere of collaboration between Hairston and novelist Alice Walker.
Hairston says, “AfroSolo has a focus on peace. A few years ago Alice wrote a children’s book called ‘Why War is Never a Good Idea.’ I told her I wanted to follow up with something about why peace is always a good idea. The next thing I know, she wrote all these words and sent them to me!”
IF YOU GO
Featuring the Jacqueline Hairston Ensemble
Presented by AfroSolo 18
Where: African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $50 to $100
Contact: (415) 771-2376, www.afrosolo.org