MY MOTHER," said the 90-year-old man, "could barely read or write. She could barely spell her own name."
He is seated in the hotel lobby -- a small man with dark, warm, ebony-colored skin and an equally warm, melodious voice -- the picture of dignity and grace and style. He is dressed in a brown sports coat and tie. He is gripping a cane in both hands. A gray hat, with a little feather in the band, is resting on the coffee table.
The 90-year-old man continues his story, in his soft, warm, magnetic voice. His eyes are closed. He rocks gently back and forth, keeping rhythm with his words -- the born raconteur, an African-American griot. Hotel employees pause in their appointed rounds to listen. Guests and passers-by gather around and smile and nod.
"So when my mother registered me for first grade," he continues, "she spelled my name Jestie. J-E-S-T-I-E. All my life 'til then, that's been my name, Jestie. But after about six months, my teacher -- she was a white lady -- hands me this slip of white paper with J-E-S-T-E-R, and says, 'Tell your mother that this is how your name is supposed to be spelled.'"
The 90-year-old man chuckles and thumps his cane. "See, my mother didn't know Jester meant clown. Neither did I. But that's been my name ever since. And wouldn't you know it, every stage role I've had I've been a comedian."
L He chuckles again. "Isn't that something? Isn't that funny?"
Television and movie fans might recognize Jester J. Hairston immediately. For six years he was the sharp-tongued old man, Rolly Forbes, in the comedy "Amen."
Before that, he had roles in movies such as "In the Heat of the Night" and "Lady Sings the Blues." And earlier still, he played Brother Leroy in both the television and radio versions of "The Amos and Andy Show." His movie career goes all of the way back to the 1930s, when as a young man he played minor parts in the Tarzan movies.
But Hairston doesn't care about that stuff. His first name may be Jester, but comedy isn't his first love.
"I act in order to eat," he says simply.
The achievement he is proudest of, the achievement that has earned him international recognition, six honorary doctorates and an undoubted place in music history is his role in writing, promoting, and preserving African American spirituals.
Yesterday, Morgan State University honored Hairston with its Doctor of Humane Letters degree. As an added treat, Hairston directed and performed with the Morgan choir, doing some of his own works, including "Amen," the stirring spiritual he composed for the movie "Lilies of the Field."
For Hairston, the moment is especially poignant, because Morgan is the only traditionally black university to have honored him. In fact, throughout most of his career it has been white Americans, Europeans, Asians and Africans who have been most interested in learning about traditional spirituals -- anyone but his own people.
"I think they [African Americans] look down on the music of the Negroes," said Hairston. "But you see, my grandmother was a slave, so I'm not ashamed of it at all. All the kids I grew up with -- their grandparents were slaves. So I teach the music just like I heard it from my grandmother and the other old people, sitting right out there in the yard."
Hairston acknowledged that this traditional black discomfort with their cultural history is slowly changing. But he has found that much of that musical history has become almost as alien to black students as to whites.
"These kids today," he says, referring to his rehearsal with the Morgan choir, "they wanted to say 'cawn't' and 'shawn't', like Europeans. I had to teach them to sing in the authentic dialect, the way their great-great-grandparents sang the songs. I even ,, had to teach them how to clap."
African Americans, he noted, have always clapped on the second and fourth beats -- in spirituals, in blues, in soul music. Virtually everyone else claps to the first and third beats.
And this, of course, leads to the story about the time he taught in Africa and complained (good-naturedly) that his students were clapping on the wrong beat.
"No, doctor," said a man just as good-naturedly, "you have forgotten your roots. This is how we do it here."
Hairston chuckles and thumps his cane again.
Then one story leads to another, and the lobby fills, and people gather around, smiling and nodding, because Jester J. Hairston is a living piece of cultural history, and you just don't run into those every day.