A renowned tenor is coming to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to perform a one-person show on the stage that bears the name of the musician who first presented the music.
Jackson Caesar will perform music by Roland Hayes in the style of Hayes in “Spirituals: Celebrating the Music, Life and Legacy of Roland Hayes” at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 13, in the UTC Fine Arts Center’s Roland Hayes Concert Hall.
The free concert, open to the public, is sponsored by the UTC Department of Music and the Division of Diversity and Engagement.
“It’s important to understand the rich history that we have with the local music community,” said Dr. Kenyon Wilson, interim department head of Performing Arts at UTC. “Jackson Caesar’s research has primarily been about Roland Hayes. The program is going to be talking about the life and music of Roland Hayes and singing the music in the style of Roland Hayes.”
Hayes, a lyric tenor and composer, spent his formative years living in Chattanooga—and was awarded an honorary degree from the University in 1968. The Fine Arts Center was completed in 1980 and the Concert Hall was dedicated in Hayes’ honor in April 1981.
“I first learned about Jackson Caesar and his project right around the time we vacated the Fine Arts Center for the renovation,” Wilson said. The Fine Arts Center reopened in September 2022 after nearly four years without performances due to renovations and COVID-19 protocols. “I have been patiently waiting for us to get back into the Hayes and to be able to bring him in.”
Caesar, who received a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of the District of Columbia in 2011, is a singer, songwriter, recording artist, arranger, producer, lecturer, educator, documentarian and author.
Caesar was introduced to the music of Hayes while in college. He began an annual tour performing Hayes’ songs during Black History Month in 2010.
“When I first read up on him, I was blown away with his story and his life,” Caesar said, ‘and I thought, ‘How is it that we don’t know about this guy with this fascinating story?’
“When we think about famous African Americans during the 1920s and 1930s, the names that come up include Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson and Duke Ellington. No one mentions Roland Hayes, yet he was part of that period, so I was like, ‘You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to make him my story.’”
Caesar said he’s always looking to uncover nuggets about Hayes that he can incorporate into his performance so that concertgoers can “experience big storytelling throughout. In between each section, you’ll hear Roland Hayes give more insights into how he interpreted the spirituals.”
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So, who was Roland Hayes?
Thanks to UTC Special Collections, that question can best be answered.
Archived physical holdings preserved by Special Collections include a program from the Roland Hayes Concert Hall dedication ceremony—which took place April 20, 1981—and an undated photograph of Hayes. A digitized Feb. 27, 1981, edition of the University Echo contained the press release announcement announcing the upcoming ceremony.
According to the archives, Hayes, the son of formerly enslaved people, was born in the unincorporated community of Curryville, Georgia, in 1887. After arriving in Chattanooga during his adolescent years, his singing in a church choir led organist and choir director Arthur Calhoun and Chattanooga Times employee William Stone to persuade him to develop his voice. Money was raised to enable Hayes to enter the preparatory program of Fisk University in Nashville.
After spending four years there, Hayes accompanied the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Boston, where he performed with them in concert.
He remained in Boston to further his musical career and hone his craft. He gave his first concert in the Boston Symphony Hall in November 1917 at the age of 30.
Hayes soon traveled to Europe and gained international acclaim. As a soloist, he performed with orchestras in Vienna, Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam and other foreign capitals, giving command performances before royalty.
Until returning to the U.S., he performed with symphony orchestras across the country before retiring in 1947. He continued to give charity concerts for special causes into his 80s.
At its June 1968 commencement, the University of Chattanooga conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters upon Hayes. “The prolonged standing ovation was in recognition not only of a distinguished musician but of a truly great human being,” cited the dedication ceremony program. He returned to Chattanooga in March 1969 to express his gratitude for the honorary degree by performing a University-sponsored concert at the Tivoli Theatre.
Hayes passed away in a Boston hospital on Jan. 1, 1977.
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When he arrives on UTC’s campus, Caesar will be performing both in Chattanooga and on a stage named in Hayes’ honor for the first time.
The trip came with a targeted date—Feb. 13—in mind.
“When I started to do the tour,” Caesar explained, “I wanted to hit up all of the places that he’s lived and that he was known for.
“And then the dates, I’m trying to have them significant to something so we have something to talk about. For example, the date for this visit had to be between the 12th and the 14th. Why? Because that’s significant to Black History Month; those days are particular because of Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays.”
Caesar continues to reimagine how he can bring Hayes’s words and music to different generations.
“I realized there were no children’s books out there on Roland Hayes, so I’ll have a four-book series on Roland Hayes that will be out later this summer,” he said, “and then in February of next year, I’m going to have those books turned into a mini cartoon collection for the kids. That’s what I’m working on.”