People Who Make NY Special

Michael Mwenso’s Music Is More Than Genre-Defying

To hear the tireless impresario tell it, the future of jazz is multicultural, multinational, and primed for a lively change.

Photo by E Leitzell/Courtesy of Michael Mwenso

Take a minute to talk with singer, musician, and bandleader Michael Mwenso and you’ll come to quickly understand how he’s a man who makes his living with his voice. It’s a warm and leonine instrument, front-loaded with the tone of a multicultural London accent, richly spiced with a variety of world-traveler inflections, and given breadth by a vocabulary and vocal range that’s as broad as his interests.

Mwenso spent his first years in New York not just performing jazz music but playing the role of the face of modern jazz as the nightly MC for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s late-night sets at Dizzy’s. Mwenso’s oversight of that space provided long-term dividends to the New York jazz scene by lending an early platform to some of the field’s most acclaimed voices, including Charenee Wade, Brianna Thomas, and multiple Grammy Award winner Cecile McLorin Salvant.

More recently, Mwenso fronts his own band, the Shakes, an internationally sourced collection of like-minded singers, instrumentalists, and dancers tasked with presenting the vast topic that is soul music. As far as Mwenso and the Shakes are concerned, that includes bop, Tin Pan Alley, opera, protest music, R&B, Gilbert and Sullivan, zydeco, funk, and anything else you can point to that contains an honest evocation of the human spirit. They’re a band best experienced live, in all their fiery, chaotic, and vibrant glory.

Luckily, there are more and more opportunities do so as Mwenso and the Shakes celebrate the eminent release of their debut album, Emergence (The Process of Coming Into Being), this month at Chelsea Music Hall and SummerStage’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Harlem. In the name of sharing that spirit, we sat down with Mwenso for an extensive conversation about his musical history, the future of music, and the “beauty” of code shifting.

mwenso and the shakes
Photo courtesy of Mwenso and the Shakes/Facebook

What Should We Do: The earliest live footage I can find of you performing is a one-on-one dance-off with James Brown. You can’t be older than 15 in that video.
Michael Mwenso: Yeah, man, probably younger! My mother brought me to London when I was 11, 12, and she was working as a hostess at some of the clubs there. Being an only child, precocious and very forward and inquisitive, I saw that nightlife world and said, “Yeah, man! That’s for me!”

I started out as a bit of a mascot, but I had musical chops and people took a shine to me. I got to see an amazing collection of great musicians in the early ’90s, the real shakers of the world in their final days. Betty Carter, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Aretha Franklin. I remember writing a fake sick note to get out of school so I could go see Ray Charles’s sound check, and then I lied my way backstage, saying my daddy was in the band. I was on a mission from a very early age to endow myself with the best of what music was. At the same time, I was performing, too; I had a rock-and-roll band that took me out on the road. That led to me connecting with James Brown and developing a real relationship with the man, playing with him when he was in London and joining him onstage. I was very lucky; I got to hear all these legends just before everyone started slipping off the mortal coil.

I remember writing a fake sick note to get out of school so I could go see Ray Charles’s sound check, and then I lied my way backstage, saying my daddy was in the band.

WSWD: With the benefit of hindsight, do you have any regrets about rushing onto the stage so fast? Do you feel like you might have missed your childhood?
Mwenso: Not really. Around the time I started playing out, my mother was deported. My stepfather had passed away a few years before. Music was sometimes the only happiness in my life.

WSWD: That sense of music as community appears to have carried through to the way you organize your band today.
Mwenso: Never having my own blood brothers and sisters and being raised by a single mother is what really gave me the drive to create all these communities out at Ronnie Scott’s, then at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and now with the Shakes. It’s been the loneliness in my life that’s pushed me.

WSWD: You spend a lot of time with the band onstage and off.
Mwenso: We basically live with one another, all of us not much more than a 10-minute radius apart. I live in the home of Michaela Marino Leman, our incredible tap dancer. We all cook together. We’re blessed to have found each other.

WSWD: What does it take to be one of the Shakes? If someone wanted to join the band, what are you looking for?
Mwenso: Spirit and a love for all music. We believe that everything should get a fair shake and we want to reference all musical styles and genres: modern R&B, New Orleans soul, the grooves of Clyde Stubblefield, the jazz of Fats Waller. You’ve got to have that openness of self and the humbleness to draw from all the ancestors that came before us. Most of us in the band are students of jazz, but we like to think that the music has developed into something larger and broader than just that.

A lot of what we’re doing with the Shakes in performance is to show the underlying connection of all music to the roots of African tradition.

WSWD: Modern jazz seems to be in a moment of expanding its boundaries and shape.
Mwenso: When people write about the Shakes, we often get a lot of “genre defying,” “genre busting.” We’re just working to get to where folk music connects to rock and blues and R&B and jazz, the attitude and the originality that made that music matter. We’re trying to play our music holistically and not in the same style of jazz that’s been done for decades.

Randy Weston said it already, but we forget that Africa is the birthplace of nearly all popular music. The greatest sin that the musical world—and the greater world in general, honestly—continues to perpetuate is that we do not recognize and appreciate the power, the artistry, and the heritage of Africa. So a lot of what we’re doing with the Shakes in performance is to show the underlying connection of all music to the roots of African tradition.

Michael Mwenso
Photo by E Leitzell/Courtesy of Michael Mwenso

WSWD: It’s certainly not just music that’s experiencing that shift. We’re living in a time of great cultural change, where people are questioning race and gender in new ways. Traditionally, jazz has always been on the cutting edge of new phenomena, but there’s a lot of chauvinism and entitlement among its gatekeepers. Do you think that the prevailing attitudes of the curators and musicians that associate with jazz have kept adequate pace with those cultural shifts?
Mwenso: That’s a deep question! I would say there is a good-size group of people out there—programmers and producers—trying to push the envelope. Yes, there are people who don’t understand what we see as the proper relevance of this music today, which is to say its spiritual impact and its function as a cultural mirror. But you know when you’re talking about any African-American driven art, and especially jazz, there’s the power of spirit behind it, and people take that spirit and what it means to them personally very seriously. From my perspective, I think there’s a deep misunderstanding of how we should contemporaneously apply ourselves to this music. There’s a
staleness that’s shot through modern jazz that comes from higher education eroding its spontaneity and openness. That has helped it survive, but academia’s energy is a big part of the engine behind the perception of jazz not maintaining relevance for a modern audience. Even so, there are artists and great curators in this field striving to save us from ourselves. The angels are winning.

There’s a staleness that’s shot through modern jazz that comes from higher education eroding its spontaneity and openness. Even so, there are artists and great curators in this field striving to save us from ourselves.

WSWD: Do you consider the way you make music and who you make it with a part of that progressive effort?
Mwenso: Absolutely. There are a few bands like us out there now and, if you want to talk about my time at Jazz at Lincoln Center and the curation work I put in, I think there were a great many musicians who came out of that matrix who went on to develop a practice in line with what we’re trying to do. A lot of them weren’t too keen on our style when they first saw us! But they’ve grown and adapted. We are definitely a band that pushes people to expand what they’re trying to do. The music, the message, the presentation can be different and still be jazz. Folks who don’t get that may not get us. But I think we’re gaining on them.

WSWD: Not to put too fine a point on it, but do you sometimes feel obliged to soft-pedal that approach so that you can be booked for high-culture gigs or not get pigeonholed as nothing more than “genre-defying”?
Mwenso: Because we are who we are, we’ve learned the beauty of musically and environmentally code switching. That comes out of having a broad repertoire to choose from, not being or playing any one thing exclusively. If you want us to play in front of hippies, we can do that. If we need to play to an older crowd that’s not as funky, we can do that, too. If you want to stand us up in a classroom, no problem. And see, that’s something that a young jazz musician fresh out of college, somebody on what I call “the recital trajectory,” is going to struggle with. From the age of 14, they’ve been in that horrible room, practicing and playing recitals, learning only one approach and one way to play, and then they graduate and they go out to the club and they can’t code-switch! They don’t know how to play any other way but a 20-minute solo, no connection with the audience, no elasticity of scope beyond the canonical pieces. What we’re doing onstage isn’t prebaked. We’re assessing the crowd, determining what they most enjoy in the music, and giving it to them, same as a DJ would do. Coming up in late-night spots and playing for all sorts of people has given me that skill, and it’s a blessing that informs the way the Shakes roll.

Michael Mwenso
Photo by E Leitzell/Courtesy of Michael Mwenso

What we’re doing onstage isn’t prebaked. We’re assessing the crowd, determining what they most enjoy in the music, and giving it to them, same as a DJ would do.

WSWD: I can’t help but see a connection between what your vision of a musician is and the struggle of being an immigrant. Both demand the skills of a polyglot and a polymath; the ability to not just code-switch but to understand music and poetry, and then reinterpret it to an audience of others without losing your personal experience.
Mwenso: You’re very right. I believe the future of music in general is not some vague sort of melting pot “world music” but the engendering of a deeper understanding of how sound connects us emotionally and artistically as one people. At the heart of that, I really believe we need to start by determining how we can better recognize the role of Africa in the musical world, so that’s where we’re starting. I’d like to think that, in a few years, we’ll be able to expand the Shakes to take in players from nations who can help mold our experience to be even broader and more inclusive and, effectively, better. That’s where I think music is going, and that’s where I want to be.

I believe the future of music in general is not some vague sort of melting pot “world music” but the engendering of a deeper understanding of how sound connects us emotionally and artistically as one people.

WSWD: One way I see you working to move the needle toward Afrofuturism is through fashion. I’ve seen your personal style run the gamut from smartly cut suits to batik overalls and dangle earrings. How would you describe your look these days?
Mwenso: It’s definitely evolved! Less ties for sure! I guess I’m drawing stylistically from artists I’ve been watching on videos lately: LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, Parliament-Funkadelic. These are artists who aren’t simply musicians but who injected political and sexual consciousness and theater into their presentation. Obviously that vibe speaks to me. It’s fun to wear beautiful clothes and look good in front of people. Everyone should do it!

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