‘Harlem 100’ show at Jorgensen displayed electrifying jazz music within thought-provoking historical context

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Various musicians perform in Harlem 100, a show celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, in the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts Friday night. Passionate rhythmic music provided heartfelt lessons in American music and culture. Photos by Kevin Lindstrom / The Daily Campus.

On Saturday, Oct. 26, the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts hosted the “Harlem 100” show, a night full of electrifying music, thought-provoking historical context and incredible live performance. 

“Harlem 100,” created in collaboration with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, JMG Live and IMG Artists, is a variety show that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance. Led by jazz vocalist Michael Mwenso and accompanied by his band the Shakes, the performance harkens back to the time period of the New Negro Renaissance as they play the music of legendary artists such as Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and more. 

Joining Mwenso & the Shakes on stage were three special guest artists: Jazz vocalists Brianna Thomas and Vuyo Sotashe as well as tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman. The performing members of the Shakes were Russell Hall on bass, Mathis Picard on piano, Kyle Poole on drums and Julian Lee and Ruben Fox on saxophone. 

The entire show had a sense of intimacy and camaraderie. This was apparent from the stage design itself: The performers were interspersed between comfortable recliner chairs with warm lamps scattered around the stage, creating the idea of being in a parlor room. 

The performers also continued this sense of warmth and friendship as soon as they came out on stage, interacting with the audience throughout the entire show. 

After their opening number, the group of artists began to highlight key figures in the Harlem Renaissance, providing historical context on the figure before launching into song. While some numbers included all members of Mwenso & the Shakes, other acts were done as a duet between two of the performers on stage while still others were performed as solos. 

While every piece was truly amazing, there were some performances in particular that really stood out. One of these was vocalist Vuyo Sotashe’s rendition of Marian Anderson’s spiritual “Deep River.” Sotashe’s musicality, like all of the artists onstage, was moving and pure; the soul and intention behind the piece was deeply felt. 

Another highlight of the show was tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman’s duet with pianist Mathis Picard. Lerman began her segment of the show by explaining the legacy of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a tap dancer and actor who was perhaps most well-known for his dancing with Shirley Temple. However, before dancing with Temple, Robinson danced with Jeni LeGon, the first African American female tap dancer to develop a career as a soloist. 

Jazz vocalist Brianna Thomas stole the show multiple times throughout the night. Thomas sang Billie Holiday’s “It’s A Sin to Tell A Lie” in a fun duet with tap dancer Lerman. The two bounced performances back and forth to one another, with Thomas singing a verse and Lerman doing a dance in response, before ultimately coming together in a collaboration of both singing and dancing. 

Thomas also sang Ethel Waters’ extremely moving piece, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” The song, about a lynching, put the Harlem Renaissance into the larger historical context of America as a whole during the time period.  

“Although there was a lot of creativity [during the Harlem Renaissance], there was a lot of struggle,” Thomas said in her preface to the piece. 

Pianist Mathis Picard brought a more playful side to the show by first describing and then playing in the Harlem stride piano style, often abbreviated to “stride.” As Picard explained, this style was used by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Waller and other great jazz pianists of the era. The style combined piano playing from all around the world.  

Picard then embodied what a cutting contest would look like. A “cutting contest” was a musical battle of sorts between different stride pianists. While Picard was the only pianist on stage, he was able to create the illusion of multiple pianos at once by incorporating modern technology, like synthesizers and keyboards, into the historical art form, creating an incredible blend of old and new. 

Another crowd favorite was the improvisation battle between tenor saxophonists Julian Lee and Ruben Fox as they played Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump.” While the audience was receptive to all of the performances, they especially got into this one, cheering for which saxophonist they thought did the best.  

Throughout the entire show, bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole provided the backbone of each and every performance. 

Mwenso acted as the perfect bandleader: He was always in control yet never overpowered the other performers. Throughout the show, Mwenso expressed his gratitude to the crowd, that they allowed him and his band to be “protectors and guardians of this cultural movement we’re presenting to you.” 

This balance and sense of encouragement amongst all of the artists on stage was what made the performance so special and beautiful to watch. It was clear that every performer on that stage was doing something they loved and something they believed in. To see such an incredible outpouring of artistry and love was both entertaining and extremely heartening, and the entire audience reacted in such a way. In short, the “Harlem 100” show provided everything promised, and then some. 


Lucie Turkel is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at lucie.turkel@uconn.edu.

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