Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, historian Isabel Wilkerson related the story of a black American soldier from South Carolina who joined the army in World War I to escape the oppressive conditions of Jim Crow. After the war, he returned triumphantly to his hometown, in uniform. At the train station, he was met by a group of white supremacists who demanded he take off his uniform and walk home in his underwear. The soldier refused. A few days later, he was lynched. The murder was never investigated.
As Wilkerson finished with the narrative, singer Alicia Hall Moran and her jazz pianist husband, Jason Moran, launched into a blithe, whistling take of the old vaudeville hit How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree). That crushing sarcasm spoke to the evening’s theme: the legacy of the Great Migration, where six million black American citizens wound up following the road and the train tracks north to escape the hideous antebellum conditions that the southern states reinstated after Union troops withdrew in 1877. We all know the ugly story: until the Civil Rights Movement, it was almost as if the Confederates won the war.
The Morans assembled a vast lineup of over sixty musicians and speakers from jazz, classical and gospel music to commemorate that escape, and the incredible impact it had on American culture, politics and the arts. It’s probably safe to say that even without the influx of southern blacks into the northern states, the raw materials that musicians would combine to create jazz and then rock music were already in place. There’s no question, however, that the Great Migration enabled both to gain critical mass.
The Morans chose an apt venue to debut this star-studded extravaganza, titled Two Wings: The Music of Black Americans in Migration. A century ago, Carnegie Hall was a hotspot for African-American culture: anybody who was anybody in music, almost from the venue’s inception, most likely played here at some point. Alicia Hall Moran’s great-uncle, the great musicologist, choir leader and musician Hall Johnson, was one of them, having made his own Great Migration some eighty years before Jason Moran, proud son of Houston’s Third Ward, also decided to become a New Yorker.
Much of the music on the bill was chosen for its utility and solace to four generations of refugees from the south, although the program deviated jubilantly from that script at the night wore on. The only style that Alicia Hall Moran has been steeped in that she didn’t approach this particular evening was the avant garde. Otherwise, she spanned from jazz, to ragtime, to gospel, to the classicized approach to 19th century spirituals that Hall Johnson is arguably best known for. And the single strongest song of the night might have been an original of hers, Believe Me. Backed by her husband and the Harlem Chamber Players, she delivered what might be best described as noir cinematic art-soul with a brooding, fixated lower-register intensity.
Likewise, Jason Moran may be best known as one of this era’s foremost jazz pianists, but he’s also a first-rate classical composer, evidenced not only by his film scores but also his historical suite, Cane, two segments of which he played, bolstered by the Imani Winds. Emphatic rhythmic insistence gave way to intricate swirls that brought to mind Carl Nielsen, Moran lowlit in the background. His most breathtaking moment was when he brought out all the eerie Messianic close-harmonied phantasmagoria in James P. Johnson’s Carolina Shout – much as Johnson no doubt did on this same stage a century before.
One after another, the cameos kept coming. Toshi Reagon sagely rocked out a Sister Rosetta Tharpe number. Pianist Joseph Joubert made jackhammering jazz out of a gospel standard, while Pastor Smokie Norful showed off not only his spectacular vocal range but also impressive piano chops. James Carter validated his rep as the last guy you want to have to face in a cutting contest, machinegunning through his valves, overtones whistling from every conceivable spot on his tenor sax, throughout a ruthless shredding of Illinois Jacquet’s solo from Lionel Hampton’s Flying Home. Violinists Ashley Horne and Curtis Stewart engaged in a more wryly sympatico exchange in their take of the cakewalk Louisiana Blues Strut.
Metropolitan Opera veteran Hilda Harris shared her stories of breaking the color barrier, matter-of-fact and assured. Rev. James A. Forbes Jr.’s benedictory introduction to Alicia Hall Moran’s shivery take of Lord, How Come Me Here was grounded in here-and-now politics and historical context that would have made Dr. King proud. After a tantalizingly brief, brooding, lushly orchestrated segment from Jason Moran’s score to the film Selma, his wife capped off the night, joined by the entire orchestra and wind section, for a triumphant take of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.
The Morans are bringing this program – presumably with the same cast – to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC on April 14 at 8 PM, with other national dates to follow.