Zambian-born Robert Mwamba moved to New York City as a teenager to study economics at Baruch College, but an unexpected friendship with a jazz legend sent him down a very different path.
“Moving from Africa to New York was a big change, and it felt like something was missing,” recalls Mr. Mwamba. “To my surprise, music ended up filling that gap.”
He took up guitar under the direction of Milt Hinton, one of the most iconic jazz bassists of all time and the instructor of Baruch’s Jazz Workshop. The two struck up a close friendship, and Mwamba quickly developed into a formidable and technically precise guitarist.
After graduating from Baruch, Mwamba put his business degree to use, working as an investment manager for Bank of America. In addition to his traditional nine-to-five job, he continued to play jazz shows at night, developing a strong reputation within the music community.
When Bank of America unexpectedly laid him off in 2005, it did not take long for his jazz friends to come calling. “Within two weeks, the Grammy Award–winning trumpet player Wallace Roney called me up and asked if I’d like to tour Europe with him,” Mwamba says. “I jumped on that, hit the road with him for a year, and have been a full-time jazz musician ever since.”
Today, the alumnus is a regular performer at two of the most famous jazz clubs in the U.S.: The Blue Note in New York City and Blues Alley in Washington, DC. He has played private events for such celebrities as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and English billionaire Richard Branson, and he also served as the musical director of the United Nations Jazz Band—a particularly rewarding role since Mwamba’s father was a longtime diplomat.
In 2016 Mwamba released a debut album, Coastin’, which features a number of jazz heavyweights playing alongside him. He currently mentors younger musicians. “I have great respect in the industry because of my background in business,” he says. “Probably 90 percent of jazz musicians have only played music their whole lives and have no idea how the business side of this works. They often seek me out for guidance and look up to me.”
And although his mentor, Milt Hinton, passed away in 2000, Mwamba is certain that the jazz legend would be proud of all he has accomplished. “He was just a beautiful man. If you Google him, you’ll be amazed to see how accomplished he was,” says Mwamba, citing Hinton’s varied, decades-long career and his work with music icons from the 1930s onward.
“These are the types of true masters we need to honor, now and forever.”
—GREGORY M. LEPORATI