Jazz singer and songwriter Michele Thomas grew up in Chicago. Her father was a minister in the Church of God in Christ, a denomination that’s known for producing great gospel choirs and musicians. Michele grew up singing in church - the archetypal beginning for so many great American soul and jazz singers. She maintained her love of and commitment to music throughout her early life, going on to become the founding director of North Park University’s gospel choir during her undergraduate years. Swedish exchange students flocked to the choir, and Thomas was ultimately invited to travel to Sweden to give a workshop and put together a concert. “I almost felt like they appreciated gospel music more than we did,” Thomas said of her Swedish audiences.
Returning to Chicago, Thomas opened the Soul Stream Music Studio of Contemporary Voice, where she continues her lifelong commitment to sharing her love of music through teaching. She has released two albums: I’ll Take Romance, a collection of jazz melodies, and Messenger, her masterful tribute to the music of Stevie Wonder. She performs around Chicago with her own group, while also freelancing with different groups, venturing into blues and classic rock. “It’s great to have the opportunity to stretch and work with different genres,” says the musically diverse Thomas.
How did you come to do a Stevie Wonder tribute album?
It’s hard to resist Stevie Wonder! I think everybody wants to cover Stevie Wonder in some shape or form, particularly jazz musicians. I’ve been moved by his music, in particular by a lot of his songs that are more socially conscious, which is so much of his material. It just really struck me that he was one of the few artists of that era who made the concept of “message music” popular. He’s one of the few artists who made it work and made people really want to hear it. That was the angle I took with the album, to really highlight that music he did, and to reinterpret it.
Do you see any chance that the gospel part of you will become part of you recording career?
I never say never. I took the path some years ago of focusing in on the jazz journey, but at the same time I feel overall that it’s all in the same family. [Gospel is] in my blood, it’s a part of my roots, and it comes out no matter what I’m performing.
What’s next for Michele Thomas?
I’m currently working toward my next project… writing original [songs]. Up until this point, I’ve patterned myself after some of my most beloved artists, singers like Cassandra Wilson & Diana Reeves. I love being in the role of songstress/interpreter in that sense, because there are so many beautiful compositions out there to sing, but finally, this year, I wanted to step into the role of being the composer and work with originals. I’m in the midst of writing and demoing this year, with the hopes of either releasing a small EP or going for a full-fledged album in 2017.
When you’re writing, do the lyrics come first, or the music, or does it depend on the song?
It depends! In the midst of the song, I’ll weave in and out of that. With writing a little bit, getting a melody for it, coming up with a chorus... in that sense, it’s been very fascinating discovering my own process.
Is there anything else you’d like your audience to know about you and your music?
As much as my love and my heart is jazz, I’ve always believed jazz is a state of mind. I see a lot of things online these days about jazz being under attack… do we have listenership, is it even still here, is it dead? It’s frustrating, because it puts a bad spin on it, to make [jazz] seem like it’s museum music, but if you’re paying attention, it’s really still everywhere. It isn’t about one sound, it’s about this improvisational spirit. It can be anywhere at any place and any time. It’s always been the history of the music. It’s always been progressive and evolving. Jazz is not a four letter word!”
Michele Thomas is certainly part of the vital, creative, dynamic future of jazz. Wherever her music takes her next, you’ll hear it first on UpFront Soul.
For more information about Michele Thomas, visit http://www.michelethomasmusic.com/