ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON – Bard SummerScape celebrates the uplifting spirit of Black music with Black Roots Summer, presented in association with Electric Root and organized and led by the rousing vocalist, bandleader, cultural commentator, and anti-racism educator Michael Mwenso and his longtime collaborator Jono Gasparro, former curator of Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem. Over two weekends (July 23 & 24 and July 29-31) on an outdoor stage at Bard’s Montgomery Place campus on the Hudson River, the Sierra Leone-born, London-raised, NYC-based Mwenso and a predominantly BIPOC lineup of more than 20 artists, singers, musicians, and dancers will premiere three original concerts providing healing, enlightenment, and inspiration after a year of lockdown and uprisings for racial justice.
On the outdoor stage at Montgomery Place in July, they will share with the public three original shows they have created over the course of the engagement:
* Love Will Be the Only Weapon: The musicians and dancers comprising Mwenso and the Shakes hail from places as wide-ranging as Madagascar, South Africa, France, Hawaii, and Jamaica. In two performances, on July 23 & 24, they will take listeners on a journey through the kaleidoscope of Black ancestral diasporic music and traditions, by way of Fats Waller, Muddy Waters, James Brown, and other musical legends.
* Genius Mother Mary: A Sonic Retrospective of Mary Lou Williams: A Black woman in the male-dominated field of jazz, Grammy-nominated American pianist, arranger, and composer Mary Lou Williams (1910–81) wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements, some of them for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. She also made more than a hundred recordings and served as a friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and many more. As NPR put it, it was she who “mastered the language of swing and pushed the genre towards more expansive, experimental sounds.” On July 29, music director Chris Pattishall(whose recording of Williams’s Zodiac Suite was released to critical praise this year) leads a lineup of special guest vocalists in a performance of Williams’s compositions.
* The Sound of (Black) Music: The hills come alive with “Edelweiss,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” and other favorite songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved final musical, as reimagined through an Afrofuturistic lens by 20-plus BIPOC vocalists and instrumentalists assembled by Mwenso and Gasparro, on July 30 & 31.
Artists collaborating in Black Roots Summer include curators Michael Mwenso and Jono Gasparro; music directors Chris Pattishall and Mathis Picard; choreographer Naila Ansari; directors Shariffa Ali and Kamilah Long; vocalists Brianna Thomas, Charenee Wade, Vuyo Sotashe, and Zhanna Reed; musicians Jalen Baker, Jason Clotter, Giveton Gelin, Dom Gervais, Julian Lee, Alexis Lombre, TJ Reddick, Chris Smith and more; and dancers Elijah Person and Netanya Thomas.
Following the SummerScape performances, Mwenso and Gasparro, through their mission-driven company Electric Root, plan to take these works to cultural and academic institutions worldwide, effecting change within and through them.
The origins of Electric Root lie in years of mentorship by Wynton Marsalis, whom Mwenso and Gasparro both met, in separate countries (Mwenso in England, Gasparro in the U.S.), as teenagers. When they were first introduced to one another, in their early twenties, at a music festival in Italy, they realized they were both protégés of Marsalis and, after hours of conversation, decided they “wanted to change the world through Black music together,” according to Mwenso. Their friendship developed further once they were both in New York; Gasparro had become Marsalis’ right-hand man, and, at Gasparro’s urging, Marsalis brought Mwenso to Jazz at Lincoln Center to join its programming team and head the After-Hours series at Dizzy’s Club.
Once they had both left Jazz at Lincoln Center, they formed Mwenso and the Shakes, a genre-spanning band The New York Times has called “intense, prowling, and ebullient,” and whose music NPR has described as “an explosion of ideas and sounds” radiating “infectious joy.” And because they were by now both accomplished curators—Gasparro went on to program Ginny’s Supper Club at Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in Harlem—they started developing themed concert programs that could cultivate appreciation of Black music, its history, and its relevance, such as We Shall Overcome and Harlem 100, which have toured nationally.
Mwenso explains that in the midst of the pandemic, and in response to the murder of George Floyd, they realized, “Now is the time to push the doors down.” They established Electric Root and set out to collaborate with universities and presenting institutions in order to “revolutionize how Black music is presented, expose lesser-known artists, decolonize music curriculum, provide artist-led anti-racism training, and heal people.” Black music had healed Mwenso from an early age, when his mother was in a car crash and her husband perished in the accident. To support Mwenso while his mother processed the trauma in her own way, Mwenso’s godfather began taking him nightly to concerts in London by artists including Ray Charles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, John Lee Hooker, Betty Carter, Solomon Burke, and B.B. King, to name a few.
Gasparro says that for the company he and Mwenso led before the pandemic, Jazz Management Group (JMG), the business model was simply “quantity of performances”—of which they programmed or performed upwards of 1,000 a year. Electric Root embodies what they want to do for the next 20 years: develop what they describe as “a new model for Black music: recentering it, re-crafting people’s relationship to how they see, hear, and feel it.” Gasparro elaborates, “Black music was sacred before commercialization. We want to get people back to understanding music as something that nourishes the soul.”
Electric Root’s engagement with the Fisher Center at Bard over the last year exemplifies the deep, multi-pronged collaboration Mwenso and Gasparro aim to have with institutions going forward. What was initially going to be just a weekend of concerts last summer has grown to include beyond-performance work such as anti-racism training, developed and led by Mwenso, Gasparro, Shariffa Ali, and Kamilah Long for the Fisher Center staff. Mwenso emphasizes “the residency we and our collaborators have had with Bard has been an ideal opportunity for Black artists to create, free from the stresses of the commercial world.”