Menastree founder and leading light Jesse Lamar Williams has jumped in and out of multiple genres, including rock, soul, R&B, jazz, and hip-hop, but in 2014 he was in a deep funk.
As drummer for Lucky Five, a Charlotte quintet that fused each member’s influences into an impassioned pop-rock package, he had rocketed into the spotlight, playing powerful high-profile gigs at Charlotte Speed Street, and South By Southwest in Austin.
When Lucky Five dissolved in 2012, Williams tried to keep the flame alive with a combo called Electric Cartel, along with former bandmates Marques Nash and Shago Elizondo. When that project unraveled, Williams picked up gigs as an in-demand drummer, but his inspiration flagged.
“That was a very emotional time,” Williams remembers. “I was very disappointed [and] I took it personally.”
But from this low ebb, a wellspring of new energy emerged. Drawing from a pool of longtime friends and collaborators, as well as a wave of newer and younger musicians, Williams launched and masterminded Menastree, a collective that encompasses the emotion of soul, the swing of R&B, the complexity of jazz and the firepower of rock.
Starting in 2017, the band has hosted the Menastree Jazz Jam, a monthly residency at The Evening Muse.
After a COVID-enforced absence, the party returned to its NoDa home on May 18.
Longtime fans of Williams’ band of rocking funk-soul crusaders knew to expect a house party as much as a concert, and Williams made sure the entire band was there for the big return.
As to how he has navigated his path through career and musical highs and lows, it might be best to borrow a lyric from a similarly multifaceted, but completely different-sounding band: “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
A ‘Lucky’ break
Music runs in his family’s blood, says 31-year-old Williams. His father Andrew Williams played guitar, earning himself the nickname “Jukebox” jamming at gigs at spots like the historic Excelsior Club in west Charlotte, which is currently being restored after a long closure.
Jesse’s great uncles were musicians too, serving as sidemen for gospel artists and James Brown. Jesse grew up listening to R&B, jazz, funk and gospel.
“Around the house, mom would be cleaning up and gospel and R&B is playing — Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder and Cece Winans,” Williams remembers. “It was always happening with dad too, because pops had me at his rehearsals.”
In high school, Williams started playing in bands, expanding his repertoire to rock and his listening choices to bands like Sevenfold, Rage Against the Machine, and System of a Down.
“I was still living with my mother,” he says. “I was going on tour with random rock bands, and eating ramen noodles topped with potato chips.”
Williams also started working at Guitar Center at age 17, where a few members of Lucky Five heard him warding off boredom by playing drums. When the band’s original time-keeper John Peer left for college, Williams stepped in to fill the slot.
During Lucky Five’s six-year life span, which began in 2006, the band released just one album, La Resistance, in 2010. The eight-song studio collection captures the intensity of the quintet’s live shows, and still leaves Williams amazed at the level of maturity he and his bandmates had attained at such a young age.
“We were some badass kids,” he says with a laugh.
Then, life happened. Bassist Andy Morimoto went to college in Chicago to study political science. Guitarist Jonny Fung moved to New York so his wife could attend college.
Meanwhile, Williams, Nash and Elizondo poured their energy into Electric Cartel. Nowadays, Williams feels the Cartel’s music is more powerful in some ways than Lucky Five’s.
“It includes colors of loss, growth, season change and maturity,” he says.
Williams’ cousin Adrian Crutchfield, who played saxophone for Prince’s New Power Generation Hornz, frequently sat in with Electric Cartel. Talented multi-instrumentalist Marcus Jones came in on bass.
In retrospect, Williams feels his time in the band planted several seeds that bore fruit in Menastree, but as Nash embraced fatherhood, the Cartel’s flame guttered and went out.
From audio dope to musical ministry
“Menastree was something that I was afraid to do,” Williams says. “In more ways than just music, I had been let down a lot. Disappointment was becoming normalized.”
After the Cartel collapsed, Williams was doing wedding gigs. To make ends meet, he was traveling 12 hours a day to do something he didn’t care about. He also said no to a lot of projects because he wasn’t in “the spiritual space to be creative.”
That’s when 10 Tonz, also known as Steven Jackson, stepped in. Jackson, who subsequently became co-manager of Menastree, introduced Williams to a new circle of friends and peers.
“He dropped me off at this tree house where all these dope people were driving and being creative,” Williams says.
The collective of musicians, rappers and artists, which dubbed itself the HK Movement, included Jackson, J. Davon Harris, Young Aziz and producer and MC Anthony Heron, who composes and performs as DJ Lil Tone.
“These guys allowed me to grow,” Williams says. “They pushed me to go as hard as I could.”
Williams was also learning how to treat his music-making as a business, with an invigorated focus on content, merchandise, social-media presence and branding.
“I started watching these guys move like a mob,” Williams remembers. “It was tactical and organized — and this was [for] music. It was like watching a drug movie, but it was audio dope.”
An idea for a new group, subconscious at first, began brewing for Williams. He started noticing particular musicians around town.
Through his expanding circle of peers, Williams met, played with and was inspired by songwriter, producer and soul-inflected jazz saxophonist Harvey Cummings. Cummings has played with Anthony Hamilton, Carlitta Durand and Angie Stone, and has scored the hit animated series The Boondocks.
“We would be in the Ritz-Carlton, all over the town,” Williams says. “Harvey taught me how to maneuver that inner-city crowd.”
Cummings is also an alumnus of Northwest School of the Arts. Williams began participating in master classes for the school’s students, many of whom were itching to get into the music scene outside of academia.
“I’m flabbergasted by these young people who are extremely talented, not much younger than me, and still hungry and vibrant.” Williams says. Two of those students, multi-instrumentalists Braxton Bateman and Malcolm Charles, were drawn into Williams’ orbit.
Williams also frequented The Double Door Inn in the days before the venerable music venue was demolished. He was hanging out when he was reintroduced to saxophonist and keyboard player Zach Wheeler. Wheeler and Williams had crossed paths before, both playing in middle-and high-school bands. Williams also reconnected with vocalist, bass player and songwriter Jeremy Mayher, who had filled in on Lucky Five shows when bassist Morimoto wasn’t available.
“During this time, I’m eyeballing some guys that I feel are being under-appreciated and overlooked,” Williams says. “And they’re on fire.”
He noted that Charles was sitting in with jazz musician and Davidson College adjunct professor of piano Lovell Bradford, while Wheeler was bouncing back and forth from Asheville to Charlotte playing jazz.
One night, Williams and Heron were sitting and talking in a car when Heron asked Williams when he was finally going to start a band, and what that band was going to be called.
“He was like, ‘Every time you’re a part of something, you bring people together that in any other circumstance wouldn’t be in the same place. It’s like church,’” Williams remembers. He realized that he was like a minister, fostering a community. In addition to musical “ministering,” he was also mentoring fellow musicians. Thus, the name Menastree was born.
Initially, the core of the band coalesced around Williams, Mayher, Bateman, Charles, Wheeler, Heron and Jones. Williams feels the group came together organically, a result of his renewed motivation and inspiration.
“I was reaching out my soul to find something to hold onto, because I wanted to be part of something that was bigger than myself.”
Nerds on fire
At first Williams was going to manage his new band, but Jackson took on that mantle so Williams could guide the group. Williams realized that the main reason he wanted to start a band was to help other artists and vocalists. A lot of vocalists don’t know what it’s like to work with a band, Williams maintains. Singers’ creative opportunities are often limited to working with a producer, which can narrow aesthetic choices.
“It’s [the singer] and a person they don’t know who thinks they know everything,” Williams says, “There’s no conversation.”
So, in addition to developing new material for themselves and other artists, Menastree also rehearsed cover songs to help hone their chops for backing singers.
“Then Nisha came along,” Williams says. Vocalist Waneisha “Nisha” Massey and Williams go back to middle school. She returned to Charlotte from California just as Menastree was looking for a singer. She sat in with the band and everything clicked.
Williams also reconnected with guitarist Stefan Kallander. Years before, Lucky Five had played bills with Kallander’s band Bubonic Funk. While attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Kallander had also played with funk legends George Clinton and Bernie Worrell.
With Bubonic Funk finished, Kallander was looking for a new challenge. Williams brought him into the Menastree fold.
“This thing was new and growing,” Williams remembers.
The band auditioned additional guitarists and pianists, but few could fit in with Menastree’s experimental yet accessible direction. Not everyone could hang with the band, Williams says.
“They were like, ‘I don’t know what you guys are doing. I can’t follow it.’”
Williams leadership style emerged organically. In a nutshell his approach is to lead by not taking the reins, he says. He lets each player develop to find their groove and their muse.
Instead of Menastree fitting instrumental talent into a box, the collective found its direction by following the music.
“I had these nerds and there was nothing I could do to put out the fire,” he recalls.
The process had taken three years, from 2014 to 2017, but Menastree was solid. The band was rehearsing at Mayher’s house weekly, and they already had a place to play. The entire time Williams was forging a pathway toward Menastree, The Evening Muse had been in his corner.
Venue owners Joe Kuhlmann and Don Koster had steadily supported and encouraged Williams through the years, while gently nudging him to launch a new project.
“They always gave me love,” Williams says. “Joe is like my big brother. Don is like my adopted pops. Before I had Menastree, I had The Evening Muse.”
In 2017, Williams decided to pluck the fruit from all the seeds he’d planted, launching Jesse Lamar Williams and The Menastree Jazz Jam on the third Tuesday of each month at The Evening Muse.
“I decided to jump out of the tree and see if I can fly,” Williams says. “The worst thing that could happen is we got to climb the tree and try again.”
The jam soared for four years, and now after a year-long respite, Menastree’s new-age mashup of hip-hop, trap, jazz, house, R&B and rock returns to the Muse.
For the gig, group included “everybody” Williams says — Massey, also known as Queen Nisha, on vocals; Kallander on guitar; Bateman on horns, keys, vocoder, and samples; Wheeler on sax and keys; Charles on percussion and keys; Jones on bass and keys; Mayher on vocals and Williams on drums and samples.
To jazz or not to jazz
The band is more than ready to rekindle its relationship with the Muse, though the recurring session won’t be held monthly as it was before. There will also be one other prominent change, Williams says.
“We will drop the ‘jazz,’ not from the music but definitely from the name [of the event],” he says.
Williams acknowledges that the word “jazz” can be the commercial kiss of death in Charlotte, but adds that many listeners don’t understand what the genre is about.
Jazz runs through Menastree’s bloodline, Williams says, through the jazz his father played and through Bateman’s grandfather who was playing and kickin’ it with jazz-fusion pianist Chick Corea. Part of the genre’s perception problem stems from self-appointed curators of the genre, Williams offers.
Classicist band leaders such as Wynton Marsalis posit that jazz reached a watershed in the mid-1950s when hard bop incorporated influences from R&B, gospel and blues. According to gatekeepers, anything after this pinnacle is a watered-down version of jazz.
Williams rejects this thesis. To him, popular groups like Steely Dan as well as hip-hop and rap are jazz.
“There would be no hip-hop without jazz,” he says. “It was instrumental music with no lyrics. So, they decided to rap it with poetry.
“Miles Davis and John Coltrane would turn over in their graves if they knew that people weren’t progressing,” Williams continues. “We appreciate the foundation but why are we living in the fucking past?”
Hard bop is what jazz was, he says.
“It is a foundation for me to take the baton and finish running the marathon.”
To that end, Williams hopes that both old fans and newcomers to Menastree will experience a pleasant culture shock at the upcoming gig.
“I want people feeling refreshed,” he says. “I want people to be able to claim [the music]. I want them to take it personally [and] to support it because it represents Charlotte.”
Williams is adamant that groups like Menastree should represent the city rather than the ambitions of any individual member. He says the music industry is littered with examples, for better or for worse, of the individual abandoning community for self — NSYNC and Justin Timberlake, The Jackson Five and Michael, Destiny’s Child and Beyonce.
While Menastree may serve as a stepping stone for the talented players in its ranks, Williams’ hope is that audiences will recognize Charlotte in Menastree’s genre-bending polyglot sound.
“I got to put together something that is bigger than myself,” Williams says. “Now, our goal is to represent this city because no one has had the balls to do it.”
Become part of the Nerve: Get better connected and become a monthly donor to support our mission and join thousands of Charlotteans by subscribing to our email newsletter. If you’re looking for the arts in Charlotte, subscribe to the paper for the most in-depth coverage of our local scene.