In 1941, a 23-year-old Harlem artist named Jacob Lawrence produced the Migration Series, 60 paintings depicting the Great Migration, the epic movement of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North during the early decades of the 20th century. The series was an immediate success. Shortly thereafter, this collection was acquired by two museums, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, which divided the panels according to their even and odd numbers.
It has also yielded Migration Series, composer Derek Bermel’s sweeping, five-movement concerto for jazz ensemble and orchestra. Commissioned by Wynton Marsalis, the concerto is the centerpiece of “Migrations,” a Naxos recording of Bermel’s music by the Albany Symphony Orchestra and the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, conducted by David Alan Miller.
In a display of Bermel’s deep eclecticism, the album also features two other works rooted in non-Western classical forms — Mar de Setembro (2011), written for the Brazilian singer Luciana Souza, and A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace (2009), about Bela Bartók’s years in New York.
“I was really first intrigued and then impressed when I heard Migration Series,” says David Alan Miller, Albany Symphony’s Music Director. “It charted daring territory because few have done it successfully — this combination of jazz band and orchestra.”
Miller adds, “The idea behind the piece is so strong. It’s so clearly and beautifully inspired by the images. That helped it not seem like a pastiche project.”
Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series paintings trace a somber yet uplifting narrative through barren Southern landscapes, gospel churches, factories, urban race riots and a voting booth. Scenes of crowded train stations form a recurring motif.
Derek Bermel describes its form as a mosaic. “I realized there are different elements that ping-pong back and forth between the different paintings,” he said. “That gives you a larger composite view of a big story that he tells through lots of smaller stories, and I just found that fascinating. He does it with color, he does it with shape, he does it with texture.”
Derek Bermel was a young boy living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side when his mother took him to a 1974 retrospective of Lawrence’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Migration Series, with its cubist-inflected shapes and muted colors, stuck in his consciousness. Thirty years later, when Wynton Marsalis requested a piece that would combine the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra (ACO), Bermel returned to the series. He deploys a rumbling groove interwoven with gospel ballads, moaning blues, and sinuous solos for brass, saxophone solo (played by Ted Nash) and clarinet (Bermel himself).
Unlike composers who dabble in jazz, Bermel spent his childhood imitating Thelonious Monk records on the piano. “That was my way into playing piano,” he explains. “Monk was more of an influence than probably any composer on my harmonic language.” Another model was Duke Ellington, “because he was a composer who couldn't be contained.”
These influences coalesced during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan, where his teachers were the polymaths William Bolcom and William Albright. Bermel has also traveled to Ghana to learn the Lobi xylophone, Bulgaria to study Thracian folk music, and Ireland to learn the Uilleann pipes.
In approaching the Migration Series, Bermel was also drawn to its larger, social themes. “I'm from a family of European Jews,” he notes, “so when you think of these large movements of people who are driven by an imperative to start anew, in a different place, it's a very powerful work in that way as well.”
Honoring Bartók’s New York Years
Migration is also a central theme of A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace, a three-movement orchestral work that honors Bela Bartók’s move from his native Hungary to New York City after the outbreak of World War II. The piece was an opportunity for Bermel to consider his hometown with fresh eyes.
“I had just picked up a copy of Bartók’s letters in a used bookstore,” said Bermel. “I was fascinated, especially by the section with the letters he wrote home from New York. Bartók’s letters were full of this longing, much in the way that Lawrence describes the South.”
Bartók found life in New York rather difficult. He and his wife lived on money from his research fellowship at Columbia University, in which he transcribed Serbo-Croatian folksongs for cataloging and publication. He struggled with traffic and the subway system. Though he produced a handful of major works — including the Concerto for Orchestra — he gave few piano performances and the effects of leukemia began to take their toll (he died of complications of the disease in 1945).
Accordingly, the first movement of Bermel’s score explores a clash of cultures.
“Some of the harmonies don't match the rhythms,” said Bermel. “The harmonies are a little more New York while the rhythms are a little more Eastern Europe.”
After a second movement inspired by Bartók’s “night music” sounds, the finale imagines him as a ghost-like figure, haunting the city streets. “I thought of his ghost and then I thought of all the ghosts of people who lived here before. So that was kind of my way into a New York piece.”
A Portuguese Rhapsody
Just as Eastern European folk music underpins Bermel’s Bartók tribute, Brazil and Portugal are the focus of Mar de Setembro (September Sea), a set of five songs to texts by the late Portuguese poet Eugénio de Andrade and written for the Brazilian-born singer Luciana Souza.
One can’t accuse Bermel of under-researching his subject matter. He has made several trips to Brazil, where he studied caxixi percussion and even learned Portuguese (his wife also hails from Portugal). Lightly touching on bossa nova rhythms, the piece evokes Portuguese saudade, a feeling of intense melancholy.
“Luciana, being from Brazil, is fluent in those styles,” Bermel said. “She is an inspiration in the way that it was an inspiration to write for Wynton and his band. Like Ellington, she knows about classical music, she's a jazz singer, and she sings Brazilian music, so her world is very big.”
Then again, given the wide-ranging influences that Derek Bermel draws from, it’s clear that his musical world is pretty big too.
- Written by Brian Wise
Brian Wise writes about classical music for BBC Music Magazine, Musical America, and is the producer of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s national radio broadcasts.