Grammy-Nominated Musical Work Tells Story Of Northward Migration

Jan 23, 2020

It was a fateful trip to the art museum.

That trip decades ago, when Derek Bermel was just a kid - long before he became an award-winning composer and clarinetist -  that has landed Bermel on the list of Grammy Award nominees.

On that trip through the galleries of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Bermel first saw Migration Series, a series of 60 paintings by the 20th century African American painter Jacob Lawrence, and telling the story of African Americans’ migration from the rural south to the north during and just after World War I.

Inspired by those paintings, Bermel’s Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra is a nominee for the 2019 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Bermel’s second Grammy nomination and comes on the heels of the 2019 release of Migrations (Naxos), a recording of three of Bermel’s works, including his Migration Series, performed by the Albany Symphony, the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra and soloists, David Alan Miller conducting.

Commissioned by legendary trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra, Bermel’s Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra at once translates and interprets Lawrence’s richly hued, dramatic telling of the story of the Northward Migration into what the composer describes as “a concerto for jazz band” – an ever-shifting virtuosic mixture of classical music and jazz.

“(Lawrence's Migration Series) just stayed in my head – not just that story, but also the shapes, the colors, very bold colors, and a sense of painting that was almost like choreography because it referred to posture and the movement of the body in so much stronger a way than it did to, say, detail of the face,” Bermel said in a recent phone interview, “so that there was a kind of anonymity at the same time as there being a kind of collective sense of movement and of color and shape.”

Lawrence painted all 60 paintings in Migration Series simultaneously, unifying them by way of a weighty palette of dark green, deep red and orange, rich ochre, earthy brown, murky gray and black, and by way of an expressively raw and angular approach to the human figure. Explanatory captions for each painting help knit all of the panels in the series together into a cohesive narrative.

Many of the expressive elements of Lawrence’s Migration Series found their way straight into Bermel’s music.

“While I started working on this piece, I suddenly found that I was writing things that reminded me of the Migration Series just in the form, in the way that Lawrence put together shapes and colors,” Bermel said. “I felt like I was putting notes together in those same kinds of forms and with that same kind of direction.”

Rossen Milanov leads the Princeton orchestra and the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra in Derek Bermel's Migration Series for Jazz Band and Orchestra:

Bermel’s score takes listeners first through a collage of musical landscapes, changing texture, color and mood as the land might when seen from the window of a northbound train.

“There are a number of landscapes that Lawrence depicts in the paintings,” Bermel said. “Some of them are quite specific, and some are almost landscapes that you’d see from the train, because a lot about this piece has to do with trains.”

Two of the paintings in Lawrence’s Migration Series - “There were lynchings” and “After a lynching the migration quickened” – inspired the second movement of Bermel’s Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra, “After a Lynching,” which channels the despair embodied by the figures in those paintings in a Gospel-inspired supplication.  

“When Lawrence writes ‘There were lynchings’ under the painting as a kind of a subtitle, he chose just a noose and a person sitting there below it who’s bereft,” Bermel said. “And clearly that’s not showing a lynching, but showing what happens after, the devastation that’s left in its wake.”

Continued Bermel, “And there are several pictures like that, that just show people who are bereft and who are dealing with the kind of despondence that makes you leave your homeland or your home state or your home city. Because no matter what, if you leave where you’re from, there’s got to be something very big behind that.”

An interlude transitions into the third movement, “A Rumor,” a cleverly woven series of conversational fragments whispered and chattered among the instruments, gaining, as rumors often do, the urgent force of truth.

“There are many, many pictures of people talking, discussing different things, possibly whispering to each other about going north, what might be out there? A better life, chaos, something different, losing the old traditions, losing the old ways, going to something new, work – all those kinds of things,” Bermel said. “So ‘A Rumor’ is meant to just toss these kinds of conversational sounds between different members of the orchestra and the jazz band.”

The work’s fourth movement, “Riots and Moon Shines,” is a bebop-infused, Janus-faced tableau intermittently languorous and unsettled, conveying the extremes faced by African Americans newly arrived in the north.

The captions for a number of Lawrence’s Migration Series paintings convey both the benefits and some of the extreme challenges African Americans experienced – unhealthy living conditions, a dearth of opportunities to work, race riots – once they arrived in northern cities.

“That movement is meant to show this tranquility and at the same time excitement and chaos that they found on going north,” Bermel said.

Lawrence concludes his Migration Series with the painting bearing the caption “And the migrants kept coming.” Bermel’s finale, “Still Arriving,” corresponds with Lawrence’s final painting in a mesmerizing tone painting equal parts jazz and John Adams.

Since the world premiere of Bermel’s Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra, the work has been performed coast to coast and has brought exposure to Lawrence’s paintings and the story they tell.

“The African American migration might have been a paragraph in my history book when I was growing up in the ‘70s, ‘80s,” Bermel said, “and (Lawrence’s Migration Series), though, was a much, much more robust telling of a story that was a deep dive into this history. This is another important part of American history and it must be told.”