Millennial Era Jazz: Pianist Alexis Lombre hopes to return the jazz club to a dance hall

Designed by Indya McGuffin

By Thaddeus Tukes

After first-year adjustments, most college sophomores are ready to immerse themselves. 20-year-old pianist Alexis Lombre has been doing just that.

A Chicago native and full-time music student at the University of Michigan, Lombre says her first year left her feeling isolated and targeted, due to racist, sexist, and heteropatriarchal statements that were made to her by classmates. She recalls acting passively aggressive, sometimes not even acknowledging their existence.

“Freshman year sucked. I was really, really angry all the time,” she says. “So I realized I could either stay like that, and possibly get worse, or choose a path of love and patience, and to be grateful for what you do have because what do we really deserve?”

Thus, “A Night For Us: Colorful Soul” was born. Centered on artists of color in the Ann Arbor area, the monthly showcase includes an open mic and a featured artist. It is co-sponsored by an Episcopal student center at the University of Michigan that offers free student dinners twice a week. Lombre organizes the event, and was the featured artist at the first showcase, where she performed brand new music with a band of student musicians.

Courtesy of designer Indya McGuffin

At the inaugural performance, something eye-opening emerged for Lombre. The audience began dancing. She wasn’t used to it. Her jazz concert audiences usually sit and listen to her piano playing.

“I’m literally curating a monthly event where people of color can get together and launch new things, off of my event. And there’s soul food in the back. I created that culture that night.

In the ‘20s and ‘30s, jazz clubs had huge dance floors for patrons, sometimes hosting competitions. The Lindy-Hop, one of the signature dances during the swing era, was created at a jazz club. However, with the rise of saxophonist Charlie Parker, whose dexterity allowed him to play songs at a much faster tempo, the culture of dance in jazz started to fade.

Now, jazz concerts are sit-down performances, as if they belong in orchestra halls.

Lombre has another idea.

“I want to change the paradigm of people sitting in the club just looking at me while I’m playing this grooving music. I don’t want to abolish the old jazz club because I think it has a lot of virtues. But I want to make it OK for jazz to be stand-up because it used to be stand-up.”

Lombre has performed at various jazz venues and festivals throughout the country, as a supporting band member and band leader. She released her first single, “Blues in Tyne,” in late October, and plans to release a full project within the coming year.

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She hopes that the Ann Arbor venue will give artists of color, like herself, the opportunity to expand their creative freedoms, and serve as a testing ground for new ideas, as happened to her. She is intent on making jazz danceable again.

“I want to throw parties with Blues in Tyne playing and film people going crazy, and compile it into a music video. It literally programs people to wild-out to jazz, because you can.”

Thaddeus Tukes is a journalist and musician from Chicago. His debut project, Thaddeus Tukes’ Vibes, is available on Apple Music, Tidal, and Thaddeus Tukes’ Vibes: EP version is available on SoundCloud