Whether fulfilling the role of vocalist, emcee, showman, or impresario, Michael Mwenso conveys both the sophistication and spontaneity of hardcore jazz and the music’s folkloric roots with impeccable craft, creativity, and communicative flair.
Most frequently, Mwenso performs as leader—or ringleader—of Michael Mwenso and The Shakes, a revue comprising between three to five vocalists (they include himself, Brianna Thomas, Charenee Wade, and Vuyo Sotashe) and a rotating ensemble that includes rising stars like drummers Joe Saylor and Jamison Ross, pianist Chris Pattishall, trumpeters Alphonso Horne and Bruce Harris, and tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. From time to time, internationally acclaimed singer Cecile McLorin Salvant and pianists Jonathan Batiste, Aaron Diehl and Sullivan Fortner—among others—augment this close-knit musical family. All developed their ideas and accrued public visibility at late night shows booked and overseen by Mwenso since 2012 (when he joined Jazz At Lincoln Center as Curator and Programming Associate) at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at JALC’s complex in New York’s Time-Warner Center.
Mwenso, 31, developed his unique skill sets through the course of several eventful life journeys. Born in 1984, he lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa until age 10, when his single mother brought him to London, England. He began singing and playing piano, then trombone, and by 13 was touring with an old school swing band. During these formative years, he also immersed himself in recordings of American jazz and roots music. His learning curve rose dramatically after his mother, who worked as a nightclub hostess, decided to have him spend nights at the internationally prestigious Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, whose floor manager was a family friend. Mwenso took advantage of a singular opportunity to witness, talk to and learn from jazz giants like Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, Betty Carter, Benny Carter, Tommy Flanagan and Johnny Griffin, all attracted by his superior knowledge of their recordings. His charismatic blend of raw talent and precocious erudition also drew the attention of James Brown, who offered Mwenso the signal honor of a guest spot singing and dancing at his UK engagements when he was 14, 15 and 16.
At 16, Mwenso left school and turned professional. He played trombone in reggae and Afrobeat horn sections (including a group led by drum legend Tony Allen) and jammed with American expat drummer Clifford Jarvis and London’s strongest African- and Caribbean-descended hardcore jazz musicians. At 21, he started to focus on singing, most consequentially in a four-voice group, mixing well-wrought high-velocity bebop vocalese and scat, the blues, standards, and Black American folk music. They performed not infrequently at Ronnie Scott’s, where in 2007 Mwenso established a late-night jam session. Under his ministrations, it soon became a go-to spot not just for jazz musicians, but millennial generation dancers, actors, artists and general music fans.
In 2009, Wynton Marsalis—who met and befriended Mwenso in 1997—played a week at Ronnie Scott’s. After witnessing the vibrant scene that Mwenso had coalesced, he invited him to move to New York, with a mandate to attract a younger, broader audience to Dizzy’s and JALC, while retaining values consistent with Marsalis’ “all jazz is modern” mantra. Mwenso’s success in accomplishing this mission is evident: the Shakes were featured on the November 17, 2015 edition of Christian McBride's Jazz Night In America on NPR, and performed at the Kennedy Center’s 2015 New Year’s Eve Gala.
“You’re getting a generation of holistic musicians who love Louis Armstrong just as much as Woody Shaw, Sidney Bechet as much as Ornette Coleman,” Mwenso says. “They want to be free in all styles of music—free in themselves. We’re figuring out ways to play this music as art, but as entertainment, too.”