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An All-Star Jazz Lineup Explores the Great Migration in Berkeley

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A man in a suit and bowtie holds the hand of a woman in an opulent dress, on stage, in front of a piano
Jason Moran and Alicia Hall-Moran bring their concert dedicated to the Great Migration to Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall on Feb. 17. (Fadi Kheir)

Jason Moran is no stranger to incorporating his personal interests into his concerts. In the past decade, the 47-year-old jazz pianist has collaborated with skateboarders on a halfpipe, held open-floor dance parties and dabbled in hip-hop improvisation with rapper Q-Tip.

Now, Moran is exploring his personal family history in a concert called Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration, coming to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Thursday, Feb. 17.

The concert is a musical exploration of the Great Migration, the decades-long period in the 20th century when Black families fled the racism and lynching of the Jim Crow South. It’s co-led by Moran’s wife, the acclaimed mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, and the stacked program, organized specially for the Bay Area, includes trumpeter Ambrose Akinsmure, saxophonist Howard Wiley and the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church Ensemble.

It’s hard to overestimate the Great Migration’s effect on Black culture, and, by extension, American culture, Moran says.

“Six million African Americans departing the South for places North, Northeast, and to the West from 1910 to 1970 reshapes the way the country sounds,” Jason explains, in a joint phone interview with Alicia. “The songs that they make, and the stories they write, and the dances they dance, and the poems they recite, the prayers they lift up, the ceremonies they create.”

A man in a suit plays the trumpet, in side view
Oakland-based trumpeter Ambrose Akinsmure, whose latest album ‘on the tender spot of every calloused moment’ was nominated for a Grammy Award, is a performer at ‘Two Wings.’ (Artist Photo)

The songs performed in Two Wings span the Great Migration era, and include the jazz of the Harlem Renaissance, show tunes, gospel hymns, classical music and the Moran’s own compositions.

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The concert premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2019 and has traveled from city to city, but Alicia feels a special resonance in bringing it to the Bay Area. Alicia’s ancestors moved from Georgia to Philadelphia after emancipation, and her grandparents came to Pasadena after World War II for work. Her mother met her father at Stanford University, and she herself was born in Redwood City.

Alicia points out that along with employment opportunities, California offered education for her ancestors, who went “where they had to go to get the level that matched their intellectual and philosophical capacities.”

One song from the show, “Believe Me,” addresses the state directly. “You don’t need me to tell you / All the things that one can do / In sunny California,” she sings.

Those things include tennis, riding horses, surfing, scuba diving. “But really the subtext of that is also one can be in a non-segregated classroom in California,” Alicia says. “One can work at a tech firm in California. That’s what my parents did, and that’s what the song is about.”

Conducted by Tania León and including the chamber ensemble Imani Winds and the New York jazz trio Harriet Tubman, the concert also includes narration by professor Donna Jean Murch, whose book Living for the City traces the formation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland—and the ways the Great Migration brought its founders together.

The Bay Area, as many know, is now experiencing a Great Exodus, as rents skyrocket and new development pushes out the very same Black families that settled here during the Great Migration. The Morans, who’ve seen the same changes in their neighborhood in Harlem, are sympathetic to the challenges.

The best practical protection against gentrification for the working middle class is to “buy your house and don’t sell it,” Alicia says. “But you have to stay working and you have to stay middle class, and those things, for all Americans … they’re under attack all the time.”

Jason offers a reminder that older people—people in power—are the ones to be held accountable. “I’m loathe to say it, but we often try to lop it onto the youth. But the youth are the last to need the education. It’s the grownups. The grownups have hardened into a thinking that their way is right.”

At Two Wings, Jason says, the hope is to span that divide, as the concert brings different ages and backgrounds under one roof for a musical conversation.

“There are multiple languages spoken at many times,” he says, “and we must get better at how to translate it all.”

‘Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration’ is presented on Thursday, Feb. 17, at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Details here.

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