The Harlem Renaissance, which took place in the ‘20s and ’30s in Harlem, New York, gave birth to some of the greatest music of the 20th century.
Imagine seeing the legendary Duke Ellington playing in Harlem’s renowned Cotton Club or hearing Fats Waller performing the classic, “The Joint is Jumpin’.”
On November 4, Wolf Trap will be presenting “Harlem 100,” featuring Michael Mwenso and his group Mwenso and the Shakes, a prolific music collective based in Harlem.
Part vaudeville, part cabaret and part musical theatre, the show celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance and sees Mwenso & The Shakes recreating the songs and sounds of this important time in history. It begins with a power outage that helps the group discover their connection to the historical figures and great American artists that inspire them today.
“It’s a whole musical celebration of the Harlem Renaissance from music, song and dance,” Mwenso says. “We’ll do some songs that are connected to the period by great artists and also present some information about the artists and the impact they’ve had on the world.”
The idea for the show was first developed in 2019 but as it started to tour around the country in early 2020, the pandemic halted things for a while. Mwenso is thrilled the show is back and that more people will learn the incredible music that came out of the Harlem Renaissance.
The works of Bessie Smith, Langston Hughes and Billie Holiday are just some of the musical icons featured throughout the night, as the show pays homage to the presentations made famous in the Cotton Club, Apollo Theater and other celebrated venues of the Harlem Renaissance.
“This period has always had an impact on my life,” Mwenso says. “Most of those performing came out of my own group, the Shakes, and I like to use the same people to create this new sound. It’s reconnecting people that we were meant to visit.”
Mwenso’s band includes Vuyo Sotashe and Brianna Thomas on vocals, Mathis Picard on keys, Russell Hall on bass, Kyle Poole on drums, Julian Lee and Ruben Fox on saxophone and Michela Marino Lerman on tap.
During the show, Mwenso serves as a host and leads his band through the most beloved songs of the time period.
“We want people to come on out and hear some beautiful music, to be better informed and to just enjoy the night,” Mwenso says. “This is music that all music lovers should know and understand the history of.”
Mwenso was born in Sierra Leone, grew up in London and learned his craft by visiting jazz clubs. This led to him meeting James Brown, who invited him to sing and dance at his London shows. After playing with the King of Soul, the piano player decided to study trombone at the Sylvia Young Theatre School to enhance his musicianship.
It wasn’t long before he was playing with his own groups, and while playing at Ronni Scott’s jazz club in 2012, Wynton Marsalis saw him and invited Mwenso to New York to book acts under the Jazz at Lincoln Center umbrella.
Once in the U.S., Mwenso formed The Shakes, and the band’s debut album, “Emergence,” met critical success in 2019.
“We have our own original music that we perform and it’s very empowering,” Mwenso says. “We also visit universities and talk to the students about black music and we also have a residency around the states, changing the way artists connect with institutions.”
He shared that it’s important to him that black artists — both before and after the Harlem Renaissance as well — not be forgotten and their music is celebrated, and he’s going to continue doing his part to ensure the great legacy of music lives on.
“Harlem 100” was created in collaboration with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and JMG Live.
The show takes place at 8 p.m., Thursday, November 4. Tickets are $52.
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