Music: Class in Session

Jazz vocalist Rene Marie teaches us to sing

Aug 3, 2000 at 2:06 pm

Sometimes it's what you don't know that informs what you do know and where you'll take that knowledge. Take Jazz vocalist Rene Marie.

Some might call her self-taught. But just listen to the way she bends, shades and manipulates such standards (and quasi-standards) as "Tennessee Waltz," "Four Women," "God Bless the Child" and "Motherless Child" on the MaxxJazz release How Can I Keep From Singing?

It is obvious that no available standard musical education could ever render her honey-dipped alto as churchified, wise and, yes, sassy as it is.

Life did that.

Life, as in marrying young, raising children and even the transformation of divorce, have all conspired to give Marie's voice its particular corners.

Yes, her voice is unschooled and even untrained in the traditional sense but do not assume that the woman has not studied or that she cannot hold a note. Imagine if Nancy Wilson and Andy Bey had a child and that baby's godparents were Shirley Horn and Al Jarreau. That child is Rene Marie.

Admittedly, in the beginning stages of literally finding her voice, she kept her ear pressed to Jazz's ground zero of female vocalists: Sara Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson.

"When I was raising my kids, I listened a lot," Marie, 44, says from her Richmond home.

"When I was first starting out, I did try to sound like (Vaughan, Fitzgerald and Wilson) but when I began singing publicly, I didn't want to sound like them because there's only so far you can go with that.

"I was much more inclined to listen to the musicians I was working with onstage, responding to them."

On How Can I Keep From Singing? Marie captures that musical maelstrom perfectly, sidestepping the pitfalls of trying to prove too much on a single outing. Rather, the disc is the aural equivalent of flipping through a well-read record collection. Nina Simone's "Four Women" is a crisp high five, a knowing black nod in a corner bar from one worn and weary soul to another. Right after it, Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" receives a Vaughan-esque slow-motion treatment with Marie nearly speaking the lyrics as if reciting a letter. Pianist Mulgrew Miller plays like a feline scampering across the keys.

When Marie says "hmmph" on her own "I Like You," it straddles that fine line between love and lust. Marie chooses Enya's song as the title track and through the deft hands of percussionist Jeffrey Haynes and the sweet, swirling soprano saxophone work of Sam Newsome the song moves from traditional Irish Folk leanings to an ending celebrating Carnival.

Marie says that when she was 18 years old and newly married, she knew there were choices to be made between domesticity and the stage.

"I wanted to sing, but when you're 18, how much deep thought do you put into things?" she says. "I thought I could keep singing, but I couldn't. I missed my babies. I'd be out at night singing, and I'd be thinking, 'Who's tucking them in?' So I thought I'd get back to it but, by the time my oldest graduated from high school, I was 40 and I thought I was too old."

It was Marie's oldest son who encouraged his mother to "get back out there." Serendipitously, that same son caught an act at a local restaurant and rushed home to tell his mother that she could do at least as well. Marie's sister-in-law, a Jazz pianist, and Marie worked out six songs in one month and asked to play for free during the house band's break.

It was, Marie says, like going to school.

"That gave me the courage to get started," she says. "I didn't know how to hold a mic. I didn't know I had to give the band the key or the tempo. It was trial and error—mostly error."

Local fans began demanding a CD, which meant that Marie, who didn't even know what a producer did, had to hit the studio to produce a demo, Renaissance, in 1998. It was word-of-mouth and plenty of local airplay that kept her gigging through 1998 and 1999 when, fatefully MaxxJazz owner Rich McDonald caught Marie's set at Blues Alley in September 1999 and asked her to sign to his label.

She is committed to more releases on the label. How Can I Keep From Singing? is currently No. 20 on the Gavin chart, which tracks radio play.

Not too shabby for a woman who put her dreams on the back burner to raise her children, withstood a recent divorce after 26 years of marriage and made a headlong leap of faith into her life's work just as most women are turning the corner into the more mellowed phase of life.

Just as her route to singing — and "learning" how to — may have been circuitous, likewise was Marie's course to herself. It begs the question, what's in a name?

Well, according to Marie, it took the divorce for her to regain her name, literally and figuratively. She dropped Croan, her married name, and took her middle name as her last name. It is a testament to her newfound self.

"I like to explain to people that I borrowed it for the purpose of marriage and since I'm no longer married, I gave it back," she says, the concept causing her to erupt with laughter.

Leave it to Marie to find meaning and humor in an otherwise emotional move. Like with her music, she didn't really know any better, only what her heart and soul moved her to do. The rest came naturally.

"It's been so fast that I learn a lesson, and I don't have time to absorb it before there's another lesson," she says.

Spoken like a true student, self-taught or not.

RENE MARIE performs with David Berkman and Mike Wade Thursday at Swifton Commons.