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Musician Couple Tells Story of the Great Migration Through Song

Nearly every African-American family has one. No, it’s not an Xbox or any other device.

It is a story, and a specific kind of story — one of ancestors, relatives or immediate family members who made the arduous journey from the rural South, where they were coming up from slavery, and moved North and West for new opportunities and a sense of freedom. Or so they imagined.

Husband-and-wife duo Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, both accomplished musicians, wanted to tell their family story of the Great Migration in the language they both love: music. Their new concert, “Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration,” premiered in New York as part of the Migration Festival this spring.

“This work was commissioned of us by Carnegie Hall for their Migrations Festival, which I think is their largest citywide festival to date,” said Alicia Hall Moran, an operatic mezzo-soprano and composer whose spouse is the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz. “The Carnegie commission asked us to discover our own feelings inside the Great Migration history as musicians. It is some of the most fun I’ve ever had, nights up sitting with all my research and talking to Jason over the piano, crisscrossing our ideas in this way that we do. We are in a perpetual process.”

Courtesy of Jati Lindsay
Courtesy of Jati Lindsay

To tell the story, the Morans engaged numerous musicians, singers, speakers and ensembles to recount the journey that more than six million people of African descent made to cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City. Many headed West to California, Oklahoma, Washington and Oregon, where enclaves of African-American culture formed and created the musical genres we know today as the blues, jazz and gospel.

“For us to make a piece about how people got from one place [the South] to another [North and West] is just perfect for us,” Hall Moran said of the motivation to create “Two Wings.” “I met Jason after I graduated from Barnard College in New York City. I was raised in Connecticut and born in California. Jason’s family is rooted firmly in Houston, Texas, with roots in Cane River, Louisiana, and later offshoots in Chicago and Boston, also via the Great Migration.

“The fact that we are a couple and know all the triumph, pain, joy and risk of it, it’s made us intrepid, together, as musicians,” she said.

The concert came to the Kennedy Center on April 14, which was also Palm Sunday, a significant day on the Christian calendar that marks the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter. The Morans made sure to acknowledge the powerful role of the Black church in creating the spiritual sustenance for many African-American families by including Grammy-winning gospel vocalist/pianist Pastor Smokie Norful.

Narration by Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University and author of “Who Set You Flowin’?: The African-American Migration Narrative,” and Kinshasa Holman Conwill, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, connected the musical chapters of the migration stories.

Operatic tenor vocalist Lawrence Brownlee delivered the spiritual “There’s a Man Going Round Takin’ Names,” which was featured in Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed documentary “13th,” and James P. Johnson’s renowned piano solo piece “Carolina Shout,” masterfully interpreted by Jason Moran, added to the musical telling of the journey that Blacks made from the deep South, oftentimes carrying only the vestiges of their culture.

Of course, D.C. was a nexus for African Americans. The city was the first place in the United States to officially emancipate enslaved people, observed every year on the Emancipation Day holiday of April 16 to mark the anniversary of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act, which President Abraham Lincoln signed in 1862.

“This town, like New York City but for other reasons, is a perfect stage for ‘Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration,'” Hall Moran said. “We added a Duke Ellington tune, played with the D.C. bassist Tarus Mateen [also a member of Jason’s longstanding trio The Bandwagon], because we cannot be in D.C. making music about America and not visit ‘The Duke.’ It’s not possible.”

While people came from all over to hear the groundbreaking musical interpretation of that momentous time in American history (1916-1970) in both the New York and Washington performances, each was a one-night-only event.

“The audiences who come to ‘Two Wings’ are making a trip from somewhere — so many people told us that they flew into D.C. to see the show. That is the biggest compliment for a performer,” Hall Moran said. “People wonder what we are going to do, and they don’t want to miss what it will feel like to be there. As proponents of live music, that is always our goal: the live experience. And we work hard to make it worth their while to come.”

The production will now travel to Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, on April 30, and then to the Chicago Symphony Center on May 24.

“Every concert has a different lineup with Jason and myself adapting the repertoire around standards from the jazz pantheon, Broadway songbook and classical playlists, plus the stellar Imani Winds performing Jason’s brilliant woodwind quintet, CANE, which is about the epic origins of his Louisiana ancestors,” Hall Moran said.

“The orchestral ensemble, Harlem Chamber Players, who came to Carnegie Hall powerfully with 22 strings transformed into the intimate quartet of four at Kennedy Center,” she said. “In Chicago, we will be joined by Kenwood Academy Jazz Band. It is a revolving story, yes, with the parallel knowledge that six million people took the journey.”

The title is taken from the spiritual “Two Wings,” which Alicia Hall Moran sings to close the show in an arrangement by tenor and musicologist Roland Hayes. Its lyrics convey the sentiment of the migration, which the production captures in a non-linear, creatively innovative presentation.

“For my last album, ‘Here Today,’ I record the song ‘Two Wings’ with the band Harriet Tubman and we found a place inside of it that we now call home,” she said.

A short video on the making of “Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration” can be found on the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ website.

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