Some of the greatest moments as a musician aren’t premeditated at all. Jam and freestyle sessions are fertile ground for new ideas to emerge from. Both jazz and hip-hop have rich traditions of off-the-cuff invention.
Jazz pianist, poet and educator Mwalim is a co-organizer of the Heritage Lounge Monthly Jazz and Soul Jam taking place at the Zion Union Heritage Museum in Hyannis the second Saturday of every month until June. The event features an open mic for spoken word artists.
I caught up with Mwalim via email as he was spending some time in Barbados to chat about the series.
How did you come up with the concept for this series?
It occurred to me as some of my off-Cape music buddies and I were recalling the amazing jazz jams around Boston and New York that explored the various styles and forms of jazz and recognized the Cape, except for the Roadhouse in Hyannis, lacked anything of that magnitude.
With the Zion Union Heritage Museum as the Cape’s center for celebrating and reflecting on the cultures and histories of people of color on the Cape, it was a natural choice as a venue.
What is the lineup of the house band?
Our basic house band includes guitarist Steve Helme; bassist Chuck Vermette; drummers Eddie Ray Johnson and ZYG 808; guitarist Michael Shipman; trombonist Michael Persico and me on keys.
What is your personal history with jazz?
I grew up in both New York and on the Cape. My mother’s side of the family, which originated from Barbados, were classical and jazz musicians. My grandfather, Allan Nurse, was a pianist, band leader, arranger and record producer for Southern Records, which was a subsidiary of Decca. One of the folks he arranged for a few times was Count Basie. He was my first piano teacher. I went to Music and Art High School, NYC, where I studied jazz with Justin Diccocio and I also studied with jazz legend Barry Harris at the Jazz Cultural Theatre. As a teen I used to slip into the after-hours at the Blue Note and Village Gate in Greenwich Village.
I did my first studio session as a violist at age 16, making me one of the youngest session players in EMI history. As a college student I used to attend jams at local jazz clubs like Wally’s, Slade’s, M&M Tavern, Connolly’s and Berklee.
As a solo recording artist my work was all jazz-based, even my house music and soul-jazz recordings. In later years I played up and down the East Coast in jazz spots from Virginia to New Hampshire.
In 2010, 2012, and 2014, I won “Best Male Jazz” in the New England Urban Music Awards. I’ve also received a myriad of grants, fellowships, and commissions as a jazz composer and performer.
I know you perform with your son frequently. What is that like for you? Did you have family members from older generations whom you played music with growing up?
Performing with my son is wonderful. He is such a talented and accomplished artist at a young age. It’s a joy to watch him grow into himself.
I studied piano with my granddad, but he passed before I was proficient to play out. I did get to play with older friends of the family, including the late, great Cape bassist and band leader, Ed Gourdine.
What is it like to see people who may not have performed with a band before get up and do it for the first time?
I enjoy it. Especially the high school and middle school players who sit in. Some of them are amazing. The kids from Mashpee High really cook. I also love it when older folks who are closet players come and flow into things. It’s like watching a rebirth.
What would you tell someone who has preconceived notions about jazz but hasn’t experienced it in this kind of open setting?
That they are in for a huge surprise at what they’ll hear. The jam is modeled after the jams of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem and the Hi-Hat Club in Boston, where they would create new melodies over standard chord changes.
Jazz is about exploration and experimentation. It might be a pop tune one moment and an atonal, abstract cluster the next, and a dance groove—all in the same tune. Our concept of jazz includes Afro-Latin, Caribbean, hip-hop, klezmer, Armenian, West African, soul, gospel. Jazz is a completely different experience when it’s actually your culture and heritage.
It’s an open, creative space for players of various levels and styles.
The next Jazz and Soul Jam takes place Saturday, March 14, at 3 PM at the Zion Heritage Museum, 276 North Street in Hyannis. This series is welcome to all ages and free, although donations are accepted.