The grandson of a slave, Hairston was born in Belews Creek, N.C., in 1901 but moved north as a child to Pittsburgh, where generations of his family worked in steel mills. As a child, Hairston heard his grandmother and her friends talking and singing about life on the plantations of the southern US. He escaped the mills through a scholarship from his Baptist church and enrolled in landscape design at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts). He dropped out of college for several years but returned to school when he met Anna Laura Kidder, an accompanist for his church choir. She saw his potential in music and offered him financial assistance to study music at Tufts University, from which he graduated in 1929. He was one of the first black students admitted to Tufts. Later he moved to New York and studied music at the Juilliard School.
In New York, he met Hall Johnson, a popular conductor of Negro spirituals whose choir was the most prominent black singing group of the 1930s. Hairston became his assistant. It was Johnson who taught Hairston to respect the Negro spiritual. The Hall Johnson Choir performed in many Broadway shows, which led to them being invited to California in 1935 to be a part of the film production of “The Green Pastures.” This production gave Hairston his entre into the world of Hollywood music. He conducted, composed, and arranged music for films for over 20 years, and was the choral director for Hollywood's's first integrated choir.
Hairston acted in over 20 films, mostly in small roles. As an actor, he is most well-known for his roles in the television shows “Amos ‘n Andy” and “Amen.” Though many of his acting roles were stereotypes, especially in the early years of his career, Hairston never made apologies for portraying racial stereotypes during his career, which he said embodied the black actor's struggle in Hollywood. "We had a hard time then fighting for dignity," he once said of his early roles. " . . . We had no power. We had to take it, and because we took it the young people today have opportunities." For his contribution to the television and film industry, Hairston has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Hairston was equally adamant about the need to preserve Negro spirituals, the focus of his other career. He was a sought-after choral director for half a century and composed or arranged more than 300 spirituals. He was best known for his arrangement of "Amen," which he dubbed for Sidney Poitier in the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field." His research and work have been documented for history. In recognition of his work, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from The University of Massachusetts in 1972, and another in music from Tufts in 1977.
In 1961, the US State Department appointed Jester Hairston as Goodwill Ambassador. He traveled all over the world teaching and performing the folk music of the slaves. In the 1960s he held choral festivals with public high school choirs, introducing them to Negro Spiritual music, and sometimes leading several hundred students in community performances. In 1985 he took the Jester Hairston Chorale, a multi-racial group, to sing in the People's Republic of China, at a time when foreign visitors were still quite rare in that country.
Hairston died in Los Angeles of natural causes in 2000 at age 98. He is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California. Explore the Jester Hairston Collection.