The Melody of Movement

Composer Derek Bermel, on the inspiration for his jazz concerto, Migration Series, a tribute to the art of Jacob Lawrence

Composer Derek Bermel composed a jazz concerto based on the painter Jacob Lawrence’s
famous Migration Series (1940-41);photo by Richard Bowditch, courtesy of Dworkin Company

When composer Derek Bermel was just a teenager, his mother took him to the 1974 Jacob Lawrence retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York. It was the first time Bermel encountered Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-41), a 60-panel painting series about the great migration of African-Americans from the agrarian, Jim Crow South to industrial Northern cities like New York — and to neighborhoods like Harlem, where Lawrence’s family had settled. The work affected Bermel deeply, and stuck with him into adulthood.

About 30 years later, jazz legend Wynton Marsalis commissioned Bermel to write a jazz concerto for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra. As Bermel’s composition ebbed and flowed, The Migration Series came flooding back into his imagination: the music and the art shared a common rhythm, a common sense of movement. Bermel’s original jazz concerto, Migration Series, was completed in 2006, and premiered that November at the Rose Theater, in New York. (The Albany Symphony has just added Bermel’s Migration Series to its 2014-15 schedule.) Christie’s Senior Editor, Austin Considine, spoke with Bermel ahead of an online-only sale of Lawrence’s work, where Bermel shared his feelings about Lawrence’s influence on his music.

You’ve said that when your first encounter with Lawrence’s Migration Series as a teen changed your life. How so?

Well, I think I was drawn to the fact that Lawrence did not place so much emphasis on portraying the face but the body, the gestures, in a way that was like the paintings were dancing. They were full of movement. In some ways there is a relation between the very late, cut-out work of Matisse and Lawrence’s work, but I think Lawrence’s work came first. [This is true of Lawrence’s early work, including The Migration Series (1940-41) — ed.]

I think because I was learning classical music and jazz simultaneously — while also being immersed in pop music — Lawrence’s work felt symphonic. Things would come, disappear, and then come back in a slightly altered form in The Migration Series. The [series] has a mosaic quality to it that appealed to me as a composer — you know, being used to hearing themes, gestures, motifs that return in an altered form, having been embellished and recreated as the work progresses. There was something temporal and linear about the work that I really related to as a musician.

You didn’t start with Lawrence’s Migration Series in mind, the composition just evolved that way, right?

As I was writing the different fragments, I realized that I was writing The Migration Series. It was not that I started off and said "I want to write a piece about Jacob Lawrence’s work"; [the piece] just suddenly started to make me think about the way Jacob Lawrence worked. It started to just creep into my head more and more. And then I started to think "wow, this would make a great piece."

I talked to Wynton [Marsalis] and, interestingly enough, he had met Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight, [Jacob’s] widow, who passed away shortly before the piece premiered. So he found it very moving to do [the concerto] also, although it was not what [the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra] were used to doing — this big piece with a symphony orchestra [the American Composers Orchestra].

Was that a challenge, bringing the jazz and traditional orchestras together?

The question of how to merge those traditions was foremost in my mind. You have a jazz band — which has a tradition of no conductor, really, and a rhythm section composed of bass, drums, piano, and keyboard, and maybe guitar —whereas the symphony orchestra follows a conductor: They are not listening for someone behind them, they are looking [at the sheet music] in front of them.

Another challenge is, of course, that jazz players improvise — so I wanted to leave them room to play solos. When you are dealing with different traditions — one of them being primarily an African-American tradition, the other being a European-transplanted-to-America tradition — this is something a lot of American composers like [George] Gershwin or [Aaron] Copland or [Duke] Ellington have wrestled with over the years. But it’s part of the hybridity of the American tradition of making art. We have the responsibility of trying to deal with different traditions, and I think that that is what makes us American.

I’ve heard you talk before about the titles of Lawrence’s works — the texts that often accompanied them — and how they have a kind of cool detachment. In my mind it sort of helps the paintings function better as critiques because they have that extra distance.

Yes, but what’s beautiful about it is that it’s not didactic. He doesn’t tell you what to think, he tries to just present it, almost like a newsreel.

Jacob Lawrence, Games — Curtain Time (1999), gouache and pencil on paper;
© Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Foundation / Christie’s Images BID NOW

Or like a Raymond Carver story. Did you try to incorporate any of that coolness, that detachment, in your composition — letting people interpret things on their own?

Well, I think art has to allow room for the audience because I think the difference between art and propaganda is that propaganda tells you what to think and art doesn’t. Once the audience has no choice in deciding what they think about it, then you’ve closed the circle without them, and they’re on the outside. I would say, yes, there is a detachment with that, but I think it allows you as the viewer to kind of own your own feelings about the work.

A couple of decades passed between the time you were a teenager and the time you started writing that composition. Had you sustained a relationship with Lawrence’s work in the meantime?

Luckily my mom had bought [a monograph at the 1974 retrospective], so I always had that book. I looked through it on many occasions because it was work that really struck me. Sometimes it’s hard to say why, and I don’t know that I ever asked myself many deep questions about why I was so interested in the work until I started to write the piece. Then I really dived into it more.

I think when I first saw the pieces I was surprised how small they were.

I’ve talked to other people who’ve said the same thing.

In a way there’s something very modest about Lawrence. He didn’t create these gigantic panels, they were small pieces that all went together. I think that in the faceless-ness [of many of his subjects], there’s something about collectivity. I think one of the things that appealed to him about portraying life — and, in particular, African American figures — was the collective spirit. He probably felt that the collective spirit buoyed the spirits of the people. Collective motion and action kept this community going, which was so oppressed. Collective action mediated those difficult struggles. There was a de-emphasis of the individual [in his work]. It could be anybody. It could be you. The depersonalizing allows for more imagination.

Christie’s is selling Lawrence’s work in a variety of mediums in an online-only auction, running from Feb. 21 to March 4, 2014. (Click here for more details.) For more on this and other online-only auctions at Christie’s, see www.christies.com/onlineonly.