I caught my first glimpse of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series as a teenager, when my mother brought me to the Museum of Modern Art. During the first decades of the 20th century, millions of African-Americans in the rural South had boarded trains headed northward, resulting in massive demographic shifts across the U.S. The Great Migration had been ignored in my school history books and was absent from classroom discussion, so Lawrence’s paintings were my first exposure to this important historical movement. But it was his personal artistic interpretation – his bold and urgent rendering of the story – that made such a singular impression and would keep me returning to his work over subsequent decades.
Through a confluence of technique and form, Lawrence responded to a major historical event in a way that was distanced yet highly stylized. The figures he drew danced, the gesture and posture of the bodies paramount, imbued with poise and attitude. Faces were nearly devoid of detail, but the shapes were crisp and the colors bright and blunt in shades ranging from burnt umber to cadmium orange. The paintings called and responded to one another – hues, angles, kinetic energy assembling disparate scenes into one narrative. By dint of this economy of means Lawrence fashioned a language, a rhythm, a perspective that focused the viewer’s attention like a laser.
Below each painting was displayed a short caption, largely informational in nature, e.g. “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.” Some were chillingly direct: “It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this.” But though the language could be severe, it was not preachy but rather descriptive, simple, and often understated, mirroring the directness of the paintings in The Migration Series.
In 2004 my dear friend Sheron Wray introduced my music to the brilliant trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis. Soon thereafter Wynton requested a piece for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra that would combine the forces of jazz band and orchestra. The instrumentation resembled that of his own composition All Rise, a striking oratorio that makes use of both ensembles plus chorus. I decided that the form of my piece would comprise five movements linked by three interludes, exploring various aspects of improvisation, drawing together and recombining melodic and harmonic motives, themes, and textures. I chose to cast the jazz band as “group soloist” subsumed within the larger sonic palette of the orchestra, a sort of concerto for big band. For inspiration and guidance I turned to the work of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Gunther Schuller, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bob Brookmeyer, and others. As I composed, I found that the interwoven form was recalling Lawrence’s The Migration Series, so my piece became a tribute to his epic work. I adorned the movements with titles that illustrated my impressions of overarching themes in the paintings: “Landscapes”, “After a Lynching”, “A Rumor”, “Riots and Moon Shine”, “Still Arriving”.
There’s a great deal I could, and should, document about the exhilarating and overwhelming experience of the premiere. It was a unique opportunity to work with brilliant musicians versed in different musical traditions; in the process I learned a great deal about the advantages and perils of melding the two ensembles. Often I found myself navigating a hazy boundary between two distinct genres, formulating a kind of Venn diagram where the languages overlapped. But documenting in detail those anecdotes of epiphany would require a separate essay; what I want to relate now alludes to a darker side of human nature.
In the years since the premiere in autumn 2006, Migration Series has been programmed by half a dozen orchestras and jazz bands around the country. This good fortune has allowed me to hunker down post-performance with the score, striving to make the work stronger, tighter, and clearer. As I’ve written about before, I’m a chronic reviser and a fervent believer that composers can glean a great deal from the musicians who make the music come alive. So during the revision process I consult not only the conductor’s score, but also the individual musicians’ parts, to seek out valuable info marked in the margins.
On one of these occasions I was perusing the violin parts, and I noticed some unusual penciled-in indications. Next to the title of the second movement, “After a Lynching”, appeared a crudely drawn, smiling stick figure with a rope around its neck. Following a section marked “Heavy Swing” was written ‘from a noose’. The title of the third movement, “A Rumor” carried an addendum: ‘That He Wrote a Very Pretty Movement About a Lynching’. Likewise in the fourth movement, following the tempo indication “Madly swung” was scrawled ‘by his neck’. The title of the fifth movement, “Still Arriving”, had been altered; ‘arriving’ was crossed out and replaced with ‘dead’.
I gawked at the drawings in disbelief. I felt disembodied, almost violated. What startled and disturbed me most immediately was the context and source. What motive had spurred an orchestral musician to deface their violin part? Was it an attempt at humor, fueled by a dislike of the piece, or a more general resentment? Was it a protest, a sort of anti-graffiti with intent to delegitimize the narrative of my – and perhaps, by extension, Lawrence’s – narrative? Could it be interpreted as an ironic commentary on my music, or was it simply an act of naked racism?
I tried to project my awareness backwards in time, to envision a 23-year-old Jacob Lawrence sitting down to mix colors in his Harlem Studio in 1940. What unspeakable indignities had he suffered at his young age? What ‘commentary’, not to mention other strange fruit, had already been hurled in his direction? What inner demons was he summoning, what burden was he casting off as he painted The Migration Series? And by what means was he able to resist both bitterness and humiliation and create a work so liberated from proselytizing and from cynicism?
Perhaps Lawrence was simply enthralled by the notion of documenting an untold story much larger than his own. Painting The Migration Series may have been the most incisive way for him to affirm that those unacknowledged lives mattered. “All artists are constantly looking for something,” he mused in an interview, “and they don’t always know what.” Hiding beneath the frugality of his lines, hues, and shapes, lurking behind the spare, elegant depictions of his subjects’ everyday lives, is the timelessness of the narrative, its continual rebirth; as his final caption proclaims, “And the migrants kept coming.”
I’ve kept the defaced violin part on my desk, and the hangmen continue to grin derisively at me. I had imagined that confronting their unsettling gaze on a daily basis might reveal some profound truth upon which I might expound in an enlightened discourse. But it’s hard to find truth in murkiness and innuendo, and therefore I feel compelled to relate this troubling episode, if only to add my voice to a vast and churning dialogue about the complexity of race in America. I decided against displaying the images here, as they could easily be appropriated in unpredictable ways. But consider encountering Lawrence’s Migration Series, which opens at the Phillips Collection next week – an American masterpiece whose theme is largely still absent from school textbooks seventy-five years later. As Wynton Marsalis once affirmed, “Art engages you in the world, not just the world around you…but the bigger world of ideas and concepts and feelings of history and humanity.”
with Sheron Wray and Wynton Marsalis, after the premiere of Migration Series