Music plays a big role in The Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North. Songs by a diverse range of musicians—Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, Josh White and Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong and William Grant Still, to name a few—fill the exhibition galleries. These artists, like the painter Jacob Lawrence himself, were keenly aware of the impact that the Great Migration, the multi-decade mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North, had on modern American culture. In songs performed and recorded in the North, they incorporated the sounds of the South into a new urban framework—using instruments like the banjo and guitar, drawing from the phrasing of work songs and folk tunes, and writing lyrics that speak to the experience of living under Jim Crow.
The performance event Migration Rhapsody: An Aleatoric Exploration of the Journey North through Music, Poetry, and Personal Narrative, which was held at MoMA on April 23, offered a dazzling display of the ways in which the musical innovations born of the Great Migration continue to inspire artists today. The show was organized by Terrance McKnight, the award-winning weekday evening host for WQXR, New York’s only all-classical music station. Terrance was invaluable in the development of One-Way Ticket: he was a member of the advisory committee that worked with the curatorial team in preparing the exhibition, and helped to select the exhibition’s playlist. For the performance, he assembled an all-star cast that brought a packed house in MoMA’s Titus Theater to its feet: Karen Chilton, James Davis, Jr., Nick Finzer, Ernesto “Lovercat” Gomez, Ricky Gordon, Alicia Hall Moran, Randall Haywood, Bill T. Jones, Joseph Joubert, Kevin Maynor, Jason Moran, Nicole Phifer, Bill Sims, Jr., Chaney Sims, Damien Sneed, Bob Stewart, Curtis Stewart, and Tuffus Zimbabwe.
Toting wardrobe bags and instruments of all shapes and sizes, the performers started arriving at MoMA around 11:00 a.m. After a long afternoon of staging and rehearsals, they worked alternately in solo and group configurations to put on a show that covered an impressive range of creative musical terrain—from blues instrumentals to opera ballads, from bravado piano improvisations to gospel praise songs with an astonishing vocal range, all punctuated by poignant readings of letters written by early-20th-century migrants. Terrance McKnight ended the evening by gesturing to the musicians and saying, “We are the children of the Migration.” It was one of the most thrilling and moving performances I have ever seen. You, too, can experience this remarkable evening through the video below.