Musician Michael Mwenso leads celebration of Black Excellence with “Harlem 100”

Early connections with funk icon James Brown and jazz great Wynton Marsalis put Michael Mwenso on the path to revive the Harlem Renaissance.

Michael Mwenso (center) with his band, The Shakes. Photo: Elizabeth Leitzell

“Harlem 100” is the complete multimedia experience of song, dance and video on stage with Micheal Mwenso at the helm. Created in collaboration with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and JMG Live, Mwenso, along with his band members, The Shakes, are ready to deliver a high-energy evening celebrating the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance.

Attendees at the Oct. 15 performance can step back in time with big band sounds of artists like Fats Waller, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington accompanied by sights of legendary venues like the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club.

“I want everyone to come out and enjoy this night of magic onstage. You will hear songs of the period, witness the history of tap dance, as well as songs from my band’s “Emergence” album,” Mwenso said.

Related: Redeem an offer for BOGO tickets to “Harlem 100.”

A performance of this magnitude takes an artist who holds a worldly view of music, and Mwenso fits the bill. Born in Sierra Leone, Mwenso moved to London at the age of 10 and started to hone his musical abilities. He was a trombonist in marching bands and jump bands — known for playing an up-tempo style of blues — and started to get exposure to various African-themed music, playing in reggae and Afrobeat horn sections.

“I was an only child. When my father passed away, I felt really alone, and I turned to music to fill that void,” he explained.

That dedication to music led Mwenso to two key meetings for his burgeoning music career.

Growing up, Mwenso had studied James Brown’s supreme musicianship and stage performance. The funk icon performed in London and called a 13-year-old Mwenso on stage to join him. He sang Brown’s 1970 track “Give It Up or Turn It Loose” alongside the legend. It led to Brown allotting space for him to sing and dance at his London shows. It was a dream collaboration.

He spent his teenage years hanging out at the legendary jazz club Ronnie Scott’s in London where he was exposed to musicians such as Benny Carter, Elvin Jones, Ray Brown and Billy Higgins.

Fast forward to 2012, jazz legend Wynton Marsalis invited Mwenso to New York City to join him at the Lincoln Center as curator and programming associate. He says that’s when he began to learn the business side of the music business.

Living in New York City’s cultural melting pot, Mwenso formed musical relationships with other musicians with similar worldly experience. He began to collaborate with a variety of Juilliard-trained musicians; the group of international musicians would become Mwenso and The Shakes.

With Mwenso as the bandleader, The Shakes includes the vocals of Vuyo Satashe, Kyle Poole on drums, Russell Hall on bass, Ruben Fox on tenor sax, Mathis Picard on piano/vocals and Gabe Schnieder on guitar. To complete the visual aesthetic, Michela Martina Lemon tap dances. The band recently released its debut album, “Emergence (The Process of Coming Into Being).” It’s an aural representation of Mwenso’s life experiences: jazz, funk, dance and soul wrapped around boundless amounts of energy and undeniable passion.

Mwenso and The Shakes

The Harlem Renaissance was an important era to African American culture and music. Encapsulating 100 years of this movement onstage is a tall order, but Mwenso and The Shakes are on a 32-city tour connecting past to present and reviving one of the most culturally significant periods in human history.

In an Oct. 3 interview with The (Louisiana) Advocate, Mwenso said it’s a pivotal time to play music from the Harlem Renaissance.

“It’s a pivotal time, all of the time, to be able to represent black culture — anytime we have the opportunity to do that in the world and represent black music in a way people don’t really get to see,” he said.

Event details

Harlem 100

Date: Tuesday, Oct. 15
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.
Cost: Starting at $24.50, get your tickets


Born and raised in the DMV, the Carolinas are now home for Ryan Fleming. Family, music and writing are his passions.

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