HARRISONBURG — Fringed dresses and cloche hats splattered on a colorful foreground enlivened by a sound that reeked of soul and high spirits. The Harlem Renaissance was a century ago, but the energy of the culture still resonates in many of the sounds and styles of today.
A century ago, artists congregated in Harlem to share and inspire art. Each member of the jazz group Mwenso & The Shakes has resided in the historic Manhattan neighborhood and is traveling the states to share the impact of the life and style from 100 years ago.
“The past is still alive, you know, so the past is still alive through them through the continuum of the music,” said Jono Gasparro, band manager.
Each member of the band has lived in Harlem and credits part of their journey of style to the community there. Michael Mwenso, founder of the band, lived in Africa and Europe before coming to the United States. He said his travels have taught him various depths of emotion behind music and inspired him to share the lively spirit of jazz with the world.
“Being a person of the world, it gives you a unique perception. You love people. You know, you want people to be affected and you want people to be impacted by what you do,” Mwenso said. “Music was the way I realized I could affect people. So for me, it’s really the people and how to make them be happy and elevate them.”
On Friday, Mwenso & The Shakes is performing at James Madison University’s Forbes Center with special guests Brianna Thomas, Vuyo Sotashe and Michela Marino Lerman. In partnership with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and JMG Live, this stage presence will deliver more than sound; the event is a visual and audial demonstration of Harlem’s continued influence on artists.
The sounds of jazz icons like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday will be accompanied with imagery of the decade, and the band is bringing along various additional talents to bring the story and emotions of the Harlem Renaissance to audience members.
“There’s a lot of elements beyond just the concert, which we were really excited to work with the creative director this time to make it more a theatrical presentation, than just a two-dimensional music show,” Gasparro said. “You don’t even have to be a music lover or jazz advocate to know what’s happening and to enjoy it. It won’t be too cerebral. It’s going to be very accessible.”
Original songs from “Emergence,” the band’s latest album, will also be performed to show the distinct parallels of Harlem’s sound then and now. The band has received national praise for its ability to combine narrative, historical storytelling with an immersive sound.
Music critics from The New York Times described the band in The Playlist as “a prowling, proselytizing bandleader, Michael Mwenso, whose job is to minister to the audience and call the band to action as much as it is to sing... Hear how the band toggles between cooled-off swing and a thrashing rock beat on ‘Big Spender.’”
Contemporary and traditional are not antonyms in this performance that pays homage to one of America’s most iconic creative hubs.
The performance is in the Concert Hall at 8 p.m. on Friday. Tickets are $42 for general admission, $38 for Forbes Center subscribers, $40 for seniors, $40 for JMU faculty and $25 for JMU students. Students must buy their tickets at the box office. Others interested in the show can purchase tickets online, at the box office or by calling (540) 568-7000.