The upcoming Harlem 100 show at the Peace Center on Monday is far more than just a concert. It’s a tour through the African-American artistic explosion known as the Harlem Renaissance. It’s been roughly 100 years since the beginning of a New York-centered explosion of African-American culture that spawned writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, artists like Aaron Douglas, political leaders like Marcus Garvey and masterful musicians like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and many more.
It is a tribute to those musicians, and clubs like New York’s Apollo Theater and The Cotton Club, that forms the spine of the Harlem 100 show. Host, vocalist and bandleader Michael Mwenso, who created the show in collaboration with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and JMG Live, will lead his dynamic soul-jazz band The Shakes through reimagined versions of songs by Waller, Ellington, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and more, joined by vocalists Brianna Thomas and Vuyo Sotashe and tap-dancer Michela Marino Lerman.
The stage set will resemble a 1920s Harlem apartment, and as the show progresses with Mwenso as the audience’s guide, images of Harlem’s artistic heyday will be projected onstage.
“We’re taking you on a journey,” says the Sierra Leone-born, London-raised Mwenso, who has performed around the world with a host of acclaimed artists including James Brown, Maceo Parker, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Wynton Marsalis. “And it’s like the audience is in the middle of the journey. It’s going to be unique; it’s going to be something that hasn’t been done before. You’ve heard the term, ‘period piece?’ This isn’t a period piece. We focus on the music from that time, but we’re going to play the music in the way that The Shakes play. It’s not going to sound like 1922.”
If The Shakes’ debut album, “Emergence,” is any indication, the musical repertoire for the evening should be electrifying. Recorded live in Baltimore, the album is a tight, joyful fusion of jazz, funk and soul, with the 10-piece band sounding at times as if Prince, Miles Davis and The Temptations were onstage at the same time, merging into a joyous, genre-spanning wrecking crew. It’s exciting to imagine the endlessly tight band on “Emergence,” led by Mwenso’s dazzling, dynamic vocals, taking on the icons of American jazz.
“All of us in the band have been individually very attracted to this time,” Mwenso says of the Harlem Renaissance period, which lasted from roughly 1918 through the early 1930s. “And the aim is to make sure people understand the artists of that time. We believe it’s an important thing to deal with this music, but it’s not just a concert; it aims to have some sort of narrative, with me hosting the evening and giving you the historical points of the show as that narrative.”
Serving as the host of Harlem 100 is something of a natural fit for Mwenso, who fell in love with Fats Waller as a young man learning to play the piano in the 1990s.
“I was able to see a musical called Ain’t Misbehavin’ that traveled the world that was based on his music,” Mwenso says. “Not his life but his music. That really attracted me, and he was a constant force in my life.”
He concentrates more on leading the band and serving as a frontman than playing piano these days, but Mwenso says that whether they’re part of Harlem 100 or playing their own music, he and The Shakes feel that they are carrying on the music and culture of the Harlem Renaissance in their own way.
“We feel like we’re carrying them on our shoulders as guardians and protectors and bringing them on with us spiritually,” he says. “I want you to leave with a larger understanding of who these people were. I’m sure a lot of people we perform for on this tour have never been to Harlem before, and we want you to realize that these people were important, and we are carrying on their legacy in our art. “
If you go
What: Harlem 100 featuring Mwenso & The Shakes: Celebrating The 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance @ Peace Center
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 14
Info: 864-467-3000, https://www.peacecenter.org/