Michael Mwenso of Mwenso & The Shakes and Clyde Bullard, Jazz Producer and Curator at Flushing Town Hall, routinely turn up the dial on fashion in their lives and on stage. The renowned jazz artists have joined forces to present a fantastic event in Flushing Town Hall’s theater on March 2. Both sat down with us to talk about the influences that shaped their artistry and wardrobes.
Hi Michael and Clyde, can you introduce yourself?
Michael: I’m a singer and bandleader of Mwenso & The Shakes.
Clyde: I’ve been working with Flushing Town Hall for 21 years now. My title is Jazz Producer and Jazz Curator, and I’ve produced I would say about 300 shows.
Clyde: My style has always come from following my natural instinct to be different… when I see something that I think fits my persona and what I do, I just grab it and put it on. I don’t do it to attract attention. I do it because I like it, and somehow it has gotten attention.
Michael: The first inspiration was my mother, she was the original stylist, just watching her and how she put things together, how she prepared things together. I would probably say when I was a little boy and getting into performing, she would dress me up. And then style changed, and certain people, I used to love how they dressed.
And as I started figuring out who I wanted to be, I developed my own way of doing it. I’m really a planner, I see the stuff before I get it, so I know what I see before I go to the shop, I know it. I’m not one of those people who spends hours in there; I go and it’s immediate.
What’s it like to work together?
Clyde: I’m glad we’re working together. I’ve been admiring him for years.
Michael: Before I even lived in New York, and I would come visit every year, it would be a monumental occasion for all of us, not just me, but for a lot of musicians to come see what Clyde would do… to see a black man who is curating the kind of music, and to be as individual as he was, was quite amazing.
Clyde: In many instances, especially with the African American artists, it seems to resonate with them when they see me, and they go, “Wow, ok, it’s a little different,” because most of the venues they work with probably don’t have people of color representing them.
What are you wearing today?
Clyde: This is what I would wear if I was doing a show and playing bass on stage or doing magic.
Michael: This is a mix I could wear this onstage… Normally this is my own individual dressing. On stage we kinda do a certain theme. We wear white a lot. We wear reds, we wear a lot of different colors. More of that type of stuff. But I could wear that onstage too.
Who are your fashion mentors?
Clyde: Miles Davis, Sly Stone, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie was very important. He brought in these cats wearing the black berets, which I do wear occasionally, there are many influences, no one specific person and its always changing as new styles emerge.
Michael: Individually, I love the work of Bob Mackie, but I also love the way you would see the masters dress in a certain time: Miles, Duke Ellington, but also, of course Prince; you love the way he’s stretching… I love the way Jimi Hendrix would dress in a certain period… I’ve always been very intrigued by how the African American journey of art has also affected the fashion style too, because that also affected how people danced, how people presented themselves.
Describe your connection with the infamous jazz artists in the Queens Jazz Trail.
Clyde: The artists definitely playing jazz or attempting to play jazz would have to pay homage to Louis Armstrong because that is the person who is noted to have created the jazz vernacular… Percy Heath, a great bassist who also lived in Queens, also has influenced me and I had the pleasure of producing him here at Flushing Town Hall… Queens is the one place on earth that had more jazz artists then have resided anywhere else.
Michael: Jimmy Heath is someone who we both are very close to, who has been a mantlepiece for the music in the sense of strength and a sense of longevity… when you come into a place like Queens you can feel spiritually that these people lived here and that you know that they lived here makes you feel something deeper.
Clyde: And one of the missions of Flushing Town Hall is to keep that legacy alive but also to nurture a new generation of people that are following the legacy and playing jazz, which Mr. Mwenso is doing. So it all dovetails together, fits together perfectly.
Where does your style come from and how has it evolved over the years?
Clyde: It’s changed from being very common to becoming a little more flamboyant. So if I have a choice of wearing a regular, normal, average suit or getting one that has a little bling and flair I will probably go for the bling and flair.
Michael: There was a flamboyancy as a child until like I would say a certain period. When I moved to New York there was a trimmed down of more suits and stuff cause that’s what was needed in that time, and now in last few years, I’m getting back to that childhood freeness of flamboyancy and being who I am.
What guides your style?
Clyde: Intuition. Sometimes I’ll chose fashions that are no longer in fashion… like these bell bottoms. Most people don’t wear bell bottoms. For me, when I was in Brazil I ordered three pair… The way you would dress in a business meeting would not be the way you would dress on stage, but it doesn’t mean that the fashion is gone.
Michael: Really a lot of it is internal truth, your own internal voice which really helps you define how you want to present yourself.
What do you most like to wear and why?
Michael: We both have street clothes as James Brown would call them, and then stage clothes. For stage clothes, I’m really getting more into jump suits and one body suit vibe, because I can just put it on, and I don’t have to wear a lot of clothes and I can take if off. And I also can dance in it, which is very important for me on stage. It’s loose.
Michael: I like plaids, houndstooth. A lot of times, I like to wear things people say are gonna clash but it won’t. because the color of the skin makes it blend in a certain way…You gotta know what colors beam off you in a certain way. For me, I’m getting brighter as a person, so I’m wearing brighter clothes. And I’ve always loved plaids. I’ve always loved different types of Scottish tartan types of colors. I enjoy a lot things that make your eyes go pop.
Clyde: And fashion has evolved like music… There was a time when it was unfashionable for a man to wear pink shirts, or red, but now people are used to it… as an artist, we have more of a license. We can probably get away with it easier than the average joe.
What won’t you wear?
Michael: I don’t want to wear black anymore… I will if it’s a black cat suit… For me, as I’ve gotten deeper into spirituality, colors have an effect, the colors we wear.
Clyde: Black for so long was a standard norm for musicians. Everybody in the band, I want black shirt, black pants, black gray.
When you step on stage, what do you want the audience response to be?
Clyde: Benny Powell told me, “when you walk on stage, and you look good, the band looks good, the people have decided already they love the way you look before you even play a note.” So you already almost won them. They know they’re going to see a great, creative show and great, creative artistry because the way you look is creative.
Michael: As you become a student of black and Afro-American music and jazz, you realize how important the presentation was not only to the engagement of the people but also how people wanted the music to come across.
How does your creative process affect your style?
Clyde: I think after an artist has a selection of music, then you try to find the fashion that will reflect the energy or the sentiment in the song. If you’re singing something about a hot love relationship, then you want to wear something that’s going to be sexy and firey. If you’re singing a song about something that’s serious, like world peace, then you might not wear something as flashy because you want to have the clothing commensurate with the artistic vision.
Michael: For me, the clothes affect the creative process onstage.
What will it be like to have Mwenso & The Shakes perform at Flushing Town Hall?
Clyde: No matter who you see performing here, you already know it’s going to be a great, professional, exhilarating show. Michael Mwenso… you’re going to seeing great artistry, you’re going to be seeing a glimpse of what I believe is going to be the future or part of the future of what jazz artists are doing by making more of a multi-media experience, not only great music and movement but color and fashion.
Michael: If you love jazz music, if you love messages of empowerment, if you love messages of overcoming and believing in yourself, if you love the music that deals with blues, rhythm and blues, funk, African music, Mwenso & The Shakes on Friday, March 2nd is the night for you.
Any recommended dress code?
Michael: Come and be yourself. We’re going to dress in a certain way which exhibits freedom and joy… Be prepared to dance and be prepared to wear something which will also exhibit your own power, your own strength. Don’t come wearing a suit. Come wearing a funky suit.
Mwenso & the Shakes performance will be at Flushing Town Hall on March 2nd, 2019 featuring dance & groove workshop at 7pm followed by performance at 8pm. Tickets & more at http://www.flushingtownhall.org. Mwenso & the Shakes is supported by National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Howard Gilman Foundation, and Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation. This engagement of Mwenso & the Shakes is made possible through the Jazz Touring Network program of Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.