When New York’s Carnegie Hall commissioned jazz pianist Jason Moran to prepare a program for its “Migrations” series two years ago, he and mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, his wife/creative partner, looked inward and toward an epic American journey. Their resulting “Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration” is a musical chronicle of the millions of African Americans who left the rural South for the industrial North during the 20th century.
“‘Two Wings’ is an idea not only of how the Great Migration affected music but how it affected our lives, our grandparents’ lives, our families and how it brought us into music,” said Jason Moran about the project, which premiered March 30 at Carnegie Hall and was repeated April 14 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “Two Wings” will be performed May 24 in Chicago as part of the SCP Jazz Series, which co-commissioned the work. “We wanted to sing about other music we wanted to touch and make sure that was also part of a concert that gave us a bit of a narrative and understanding of an entire population escaping terror in America.”
Rather than offer “a didactic history or a greatest hits jukebox,” the musical plan for “Two Wings” meant that its staging would “open a window for someone else when it could have just as well stayed closed,” added Alicia Hall Moran. “It’s about pulling something into the light when everybody is perfectly satisfied with that thing in the shadow.”
“Two Wings” illuminates how the Great Migration shaped spirituals, blues, swing, classical art song and poetry. “African American musicians have stepped onto the grand stages in the great American cities they helped to build,” Jason Moran observes in a program-book essay. It also highlights how these idioms influenced one another. This production includes new interpretations of composer Florence Price’s pieces and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry, alongside woodwind quintet Imani Winds’ rendition of Jason Moran’s Cane, a musical account of his family’s Louisiana origins. Jazz runs throughout “Two Wings,” not just in the chosen material, but also in how the Morans’ improvisational background influences each performance.
“Sometimes we think of big obvious stars in sky, like Nina Simone, but there are other people and places that are pivotal and sounded different,” Jason Moran said. “When you have 6 million African American people leaving a place, there are many different stories. They do not all sound the same.”
The program’s range of vocalists and instrumentalists, including cellist Seth Parker Woods, pianist Jason Tyson and guitarists Rico McFarland and Tony Llorens, emphasizes those differences. Alongside the Morans and jazz and chamber ensembles, Chicago-area gospel singer/pastor Smokie Norful presents his tradition as a crucial part of “Two Wings.”
“An honest revue of black American survival in this country has its blueprint in the black church,” Alicia Hall Moran said. “There’s no way to draw picture of how we got through the Great Migration without giving credit to the concrete yet completely malleable formation of black people’s attachment to God.”
A crucial destination during the Great Migration, Chicago also figures prominently in “Two Wings.” The Symphony Center performance will feature the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band, directed by Gerald Powell. Jason Moran began working with this South Side high school five years ago and the concert will feature his arrangement of their version of Roy Eldridge’s locally evocative tune from 1937, “Wabash Stomp.”
“Kenwood continues to be a school that I need to have a relationship with,” Jason Moran said. “Those students have become musicians, sculptors, writers and dancers — their future has something in store that remains to be written.”
The Morans’ ongoing plans include producing a website for “Two Wings” that will include interviews with its performers and links to books, articles and other texts that have been used as sources. They are also considering a new chapter that addresses the black diaspora’s African musical roots.
“You can carry an authentic history so far in your own body,” Alicia Hall Moran said. “Our story is broad, it’s the story of the world.”
Chicago-based journalist Aaron Cohen is the author of “Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace” (Bloomsbury) and “Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power” (University of Chicago Press).
TOP: Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran. | ©Photo by Dawoud Bey