“Pick a chord and I’ll be there,” Alicia Hall Moran told husband Jason Moran from the stage of a packed performance hall at Georgetown University. Moran, accompanying on piano, nodded in agreement.
The husband and wife duo – he an acknowledged jazz piano master, composer, and the Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, she an accomplished mezzo-soprano who recently appeared in the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess – unleashed their musical and intellectual prowess before a packed auditorium in advance of performances at Carnegie Hall on March 30 and the Kennedy Center on April 14.
The show is Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration, a musical revisiting of the Great Migration, the years from 1916 to 1970 in which six million or more African Americans migrated from the rural South to the urban North in search of freedom from racism, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws.
“The Great Migration was the mighty wind that carried Black music and style across the entire nation,” Hall Moran told DC Metro Theater Arts. “Towering and lasting artistic creations like the Blues in Chicago, Bebop in Kansas City, Motown in Detroit, Soul in Philadelphia, Swing in Harlem, and Rap and Hip-Hop in the boroughs of New York City are just a few examples.” Hall Moran explained that the birth of these styles would have been impossible without the geographic redistribution of Black Southern people and the infusion of their culture and talent into the thread of American culture.
The Morans are exquisite storytellers onstage, delving not only into familial connections to the Great Migration and its music but also the oral and written histories of this period. Hall Moran’s people migrated from Athens, Georgia, the birthplace of her great uncle, Hall Johnson (1888-1970), a noted composer, musician, conductor, and arranger who performed in the pit orchestra of shows including Porgy and Bess and Shuffle Along.
Two Wings offers a fascinating opportunity to hear the personal stories of an artist embracing her cultural and musical heritage, but “It’s really a universal story we’re telling,” Hall Moran insists. “Six million people took this trip. We invite people to envision their own lineage. My family educated me, and learning about my family line and its music inspires me and imbues my point of view with a certain energy, and a certain authority to forge ahead and tell this story with confidence. I know, from a very personal place what music can do and what happens when a community claims the freedom to make the music it wants to make.”
So much comes to play when Hall Moran and Moran collaborate onstage: history, aesthetics, feminism, race, the visual arts, and their personal narratives. To bear witness to Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran’s creative process is to reckon with the inability of language to articulate the subtle nuances and overt gestures of musical collaboration.
“Working with Jason on this migration project has built a special bond,” Hall Moran said. “In marriage, we’re navigating one another in the present. We don’t necessarily think about how we each got here. This concert asks us to look into the past, where there is a longer history at play.”
With cues, nods, utterances, instrumentality, vocality, storytelling, and at times thoughts suspended mid-sentence, the Morans demonstrate the conscious and subconscious ways that they work together onstage and coax each other into artistic greatness.
With two accomplished musicians at the helm, and with such a diverse body of music to draw on, the aesthetic and sensory possibilities presented by Two Wings are endless. The Morans strip away the veneer from songs in the American Songbook, not to unveil the less savory underbellies or histories of some tunes, but to contextualize them within the African American experience and the harsh realities of the push and pull factors of the Great Migration.
“This concert asks us to admit that our ancestors left where they were in search of freedom,” Hall Moran says. “We are acknowledging that opportunity is not equal everywhere and that they left because they had to. But by telling this story through Two Wings, it’s like, ‘look how they sailed beyond anyone’s expectations’! It is a tremendous story, set to music, but the story itself is music.”
Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran perform Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration on Sunday, April 14, 2019, at 8:00 pm, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-5600, or go online.