The 30-year-old jazz singer Michael Mwenso sits in a back room at Lincoln Center. He is expected to take the stage in an hour or so, but he’s happy to spend some of his allotted practice time reminiscing about his first concerts, those formative experiences that made him the sort of singer that gets offered a Lincoln Center gig.
"I started playing with James Brown when I was young," he says. "I was hungry and I realized as a musician, you have a spiritual passport. If you know how to talk and you have your instrument with you, you can get into any door in the world.”
Brown was the man behind the door Mwenso, who grew up poor in Sierra Leone and not so poor in London – his mother married a millionaire – wanted to open. As a 13-year-old boy, Mwenso idolized the funkiest man alive and in 1996 he managed to get invited backstage at a show in Brixton Academy’s Auditorium. The meeting was brief and Mwenso wasn’t satisfied. Two years later, he weaseled his way into a sound check and got his big break, a chance to perform for his idol.
"I thought I blew it," he laughs. “I remember looking at my mother and I was about to burst out crying.”
In reality, he did the complete opposite: He impressed Brown with a harp solo then by singing his song “Give it Up or Turnit a Loose.” After his performance, Brown asked Mwenso to accompany him onstage at that night’s show.
“I started singing and doing splits and all kinds of moves,” he explains, smiling. “Then Mr. Brown stopped the band and goes, ‘you got a suit?’”
He did and for the next five years Mwenso accompanied James Brown during his London shows. The singer only nixed him when he was too old to be billed as a student or acolyte.
“I was on stage with an incredible performer,” he remembers. “Mr. Brown was looking at me. It was scary; I knew he was watching everything I did.”
And he wasn’t afraid to point out the young musician’s faults. If a note was out of place, Brown was the first to bring it to everyone’s attention, publicly berating Mwenso or – as he did before a 2000 show – telling him he wasn’t going to be allowed on stage.
“He was in one of those moods that day, like, ‘You’re not going to outdo me,” Mwenso says. “I started crying, but got dressed in my suit anyways. I knew he was testing me out to see how strong I was. I put my suit on hoping something would change.” Mwenso’s message was received and Brown had him come out from where he was waiting in the wings. The performance went well, but Brown made sure everyone knew who the real star was. The 60-year-old soul singer even did several splits. He couldn’t get up on his own, but he did them anyway.
Mwenso says he’s still thankful for the time he got. He knows Brown was far from perfect and he doesn’t care. He describes him as “a man that dealt with a lot of personal demons” and “the most complex human being I've ever met.” He says he’s also certain that those demons and hardship influenced Brown’s music. The domestic abuse, the various drug addictions, and the years of gunplay were set to a soundtrack of soaring harmonies. It was all knotted up in one man.
"The complexity of his upbringing was the complexity of him,” Mwenso says. “Jazz is a spiritual thing; it manifests the real consciousness of you.”