Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran think deeply about how the past is preserved and kept vital through music and culture. 
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Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran think deeply about how the past is preserved and kept vital through music and culture.
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

'Two Wings: The Music Of Black America In Migration' Celebrates A Journey Millions Took

At the turn of the 20th Century, millions of African Americans moved from the rural South to the country's Northern cities in of a new beginning. That time of discovery, awakening and Renaissance came to be known as The Great Migration. Now, nearly a century later, singer Alicia Hall Moran and pianist Jason Moran have mixed original music with artistic work from that time period — spoken word, spirituals and recordings from Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone and more — to create an evening of music called Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration.

Two Wings got its start when Carnegie Hall invited The Morans to contribute to its recent Migrations Festival. It became a deeply personal process for The Morans. Jason says living in Harlem with their 11-year-old sons means that they're surrounded by art and culture born out of The Great Migration. "Looking up across the street at the hospital and see Charles Alston," Jason says. "Aaron Douglas paintings are in the YMCA on 135th St."

One of the songs in the show Alicia sings is the pop tune "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm," a song that in context is asking about a better life for African-American soldiers returning from World War I. Alicia says creating this concert has been a journey for her.

"I could not tell you the gratitude I've experienced because of doing this research; for the people who've stayed and the people who left and also, the people who made the journeys back and in between," she says.

Two Wings, the title of the performance, is inspired by ones of Alicia's favorite Negro spirituals: "The lyrics are, 'I want two wings to veil my face, Lord / I want two wings to fly away / If these two wings fail me then give me another pair.'"

The concert mixes moods, sometimes sustaining a feeling of peril. opera tenor Lawrence Brownlee sings this spiritual made popular by Lead Belly. During the show, performers and speakers follow one another sometimes overlap.

Two Wings premiered at Carnegie Hall in March, then went to Washington D.C., then to Hamburg, Germany, and now Chicago.

"James P. Johnson kind of made a piece of music called the Carolina Shout," Jason Moran explains. "In a way, it also acknowledge people who left the Carolinas to come up north and all of these musicians and especially pianists in Harlem would have to learn the song so that they could battle ea ch other on it."

The Morans — as artists and as people of color — think deeply about how the past is preserved and kept vital through this culture. They're keeping the great migration alive and breathing, through song.

Two Wings premiered at Carnegie Hall in March, then went to Washington D.C., then to Hamburg, Germany, and now Chicago. [Copyright 2019 NPR]