How to Listen to Jazz…with a Jazz Vocalist

Patricia Tisak

Michael Mwenso began his early education in this most American of art forms after his family moved from Sierra Leone to England when he was 10. The vocalist, who also curates the late-night sessions at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, would sneak into London’s Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club when he was just a kid. “I was exposed to this music at a very young age,” he says. “I was fortunate to have seen so many great jazz masters who are no longer living.” Here, Mwenso shares some of his knowledge about the ways in which audiences can prepare themselves to best appreciate the myriad jazz offerings in New York City.

Why is jazz important to New York City? Michael Mwenso: Jazz has a very deep history in New York City. A lot of jazz musicians were born here. A large part of the history of the music was created here, especially the latter part of our music. There was the Harlem Renaissance, and of course the 52nd Street clubs that were open in the '40s and '50s. New York is still the mecca for jazz if you want to see jazz 24 hours a day and if you want to hear all types of different styles of jazz—it's still the place to be.

Why is Jazz at Lincoln Center a must for tourists or even New Yorkers? MM: The question really is, why is jazz a must? It's a must that you be around the spirit of this music. And the spirit of the music is Jazz at Lincoln Center. We are solely dedicated to the sound and understanding of jazz music. We have three venues—Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the Rose Theater and the Allen Room—that were built specifically for the acoustics and ambience of jazz. And in addition to our programming, we have education programs, from Jazz for Young People Concerts to WeBop for young kids. We feel it is important for people to have a place to go to understand this music and what it can do for you. . . . Jazz can help you understand yourself, because you have to concentrate on what a group of people are saying at the same time, so then it gives you a level of patience, a level of understanding. Jazz is one of the greatest human examples of expressing your own individuality while trying to get along with others.

Are the late-night sessions a good place for people to begin their exploration of jazz? MM: The late-night sessions have a different kind of vibration. I perform on Thursdays and Saturdays, and we invite a lot of guests. You never know who's going to turn up, you never know who's going to sit in, you never know what the night will turn into. We also started clearing the tables and chairs for dancing one Saturday a month, so that is adding a different dynamic, especially for younger people, to get into the music. It's affordable, it's much later, it's more informal and it's always swinging.

What are some other Jazz at Lincoln Center offerings this season you're looking forward to? MM: Ones to look forward to include Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration, a piece that Wynton Marsalis, our managing and artistic director, wrote a few years ago in conjunction with the Abyssinian Baptist Church's 200th anniversary. That's coming up in October. Then we also have Ladies Sing the Blues in November, which will feature three great, wonderful singers with different ranges and styles: Catherine Russell, Charenee Wade and Brianna Thomas—that's going to be great.

Can you talk about the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and its importance to jazz? MM: The orchestra is a New York City treasure. It's a group of some of the most gifted, talented musicians in our music today. A lot of them are extremely great soloists and writers, and they have taken it upon themselves to go out into the world, how many months a year, and represent Jazz at Lincoln Center, and that's a feat. They're one of the great big bands around today, and it's a blessing to have a group of men who are about being together and playing together—it takes a lot of humility to do that. They are our cornerstone. They are our foundation.

With that in mind, what is it like being a vocalist with such an emphasis placed on instrumentalists? MM: Well, most of the great instrumentalists, a lot of them were singers, too, especially the trumpet players, including the greatest jazz soloist of all time, Louis Armstrong, who was also one of the greatest singers of all time. We have a large canon of great singers and great instrumentalists in our music. Being a singer in jazz, it's a blessing. It's challenging. It's beautiful. It's testing. It's very hard work, but there's a lot of joy in it. I love to sing. I wouldn't want to do anything else. I love to be in front of people and to uplift them somehow. That makes me the happiest person in the world.

Having a background in music gives you an edge when you're listening to it—what advice would you give to people who don't have a background but want to learn more about jazz? MM: Go to concerts, speak to musicians, buy albums, listen to it! Involve yourself in music and art—all art. Art is encompassing of yourself and your own story, but also of the past, the present and the future.

Any recommendations on where to start listening? MM: Listen to Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven and Hot Five group recordings. I would say listen to Thelonious Monk, solo piano. Listen to Charlie Parker with Strings. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing together. Listen to a recording of Sarah Vaughan singing live at the Tivoli. There's so much, there's so much, there's so much, there's so much! But those are some recommendations that come to mind.