Good story about Rene Marie. She speaks frankly about a good effect she found by joining the JW's, and how and why she left never to look back.
Little Girl Inside
By: Susan Van Dongen , TimeOFF The René Marie Quartet will open Jazz Fridays at the Peddie School Oct. 7.
To sing, René Marie has learned to follow her 'Wishes.'
When René Marie's husband told her she could either give up singing or get out of the house, she felt a little like a tightrope walker working without a net. And like an acrobat, she relied on her intuition to guide her.
"When somebody gives you an ultimatum, everything gets real clear, you have to choose," she says, speaking from her home outside of Denver, Colo. "The question was, 'Do I want to share a house with a man like this?' It might seem like I was choosing music but I think it was more about choosing my life."
That decision had a ripple effect and Ms. Marie kept moving forward until she became one of the brightest new vocalists in jazz — with a recording deal, critically acclaimed original songs and wildly popular performances.
Ms. Marie and her quartet will open the Community Arts Partnership at the Peddie School's Jazz Fridays with a performance in the Mount-Burke Theater Oct. 7.
Drawing on influences as varied as Sarah Vaughan, Peter, Paul and Mary, James Brown and Maurice Ravel, the soft-spoken Ms. Marie seems to go through some kind of transformation on stage. Her rhythms and tonalities take each song beyond the typical jazz presentation as she swoops down on, yodels, seduces and conjures notes.
Part of that passion comes from a pure, emotional release. Ms. Marie became a Jehovah's Witness at age 18, where she learned compassion but also obedience and repression of her creative side.
"Everything I've done in my life seems like it was done at the perfect time," Ms. Marie says. "As far as being a Witness, I learned a lot of things and developed a lot of character traits I wouldn't have developed if I had not (joined). Before that I was an angry black teenager, ready for the revolution — and there was no place for me to go emotionally. But as a Witness I learned how to show love and I really needed that.
"I got married and became a mother," she continues. "I developed qualities of giving and sacrifice, which I don't think I would have done if I hadn't been a Witness. I don't regret it. I became a Witness when I needed to be a Witness and I left when I needed to leave."
Sadly, leaving meant walking away from an entire community of friends and relatives in her hometown of Roanoke, Va., people who now shun her and act as though she doesn't exist. Six years later, one of her brothers still carries on this behavior.
The pain of this experience found an outlet in one of Ms. Marie's original songs, "Little Girl Inside," where she remembers what it felt like to have a brother — five of them, in fact. It's just one of the compositions where she really puts herself out there lyrically and lays her soul on the line.
"Songwriting seems to come easily to me," she says. "Not everybody will like (my work) but I end up being happy and satisfied. My songs might not pass a stringent jazz test, but they express what I feel lyrically and emotionally — and it resonates with the audience. That's all I can hope for."
Singing is also an all-natural experience for Ms. Marie, who is self-taught as a vocalist. She grew up in a family that loved music, sang together and played all kinds of records — but not jazz. One of her brothers took piano lessons and little René would come to the piano after he was done and play everything he'd just played by ear. Ms. Marie's mother broke down and gave her lessons too, which have helped her with writing and arranging.
Ms. Marie had a band in the early '70s, where she played piano and "tried to sound like Aretha Franklin," she says. "My mom had a Nina Simone album, so we also started to do 'Young, Gifted and Black,' 'Four Women' and 'Strange Fruit.'"
But she never planned to be a jazz vocalist, especially after she got married and became an "obedient Witness wife."
"I sang all the time, to four albums that I wore holes in — Cleo Laine, Roberta Flack, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. " Ms. Marie says. "I memorized the songs. They were the soundtrack to my son's childhood."
In fact, it was her son who encouraged her to try singing professionally. He had gone to a restaurant with a live vocalist one night, heard her do the same Ella and Sarah tunes and thought she was terrible compared to his mom. He insisted Ms. Marie come and hear for herself.
"What my son meant was that she was just going through the motions — her heart wasn't really in it," she says. "He turned to me and said, 'Mom, you should start singing.' At age 42, I thought I was too old, but he kept encouraging me. We went back and talked about it as a family and everyone was supportive. At that time, my husband felt I might as well do something I enjoyed, and maybe I'd make as much as I was making working part time at the bank."
Singing for tips with a friend's quartet, Ms. Marie learned how to hold a mike, do arrangements and improvise. The drummer encouraged her to try and scat, which seemed to come naturally.
"I'd always heard improvisations in my head," she says.
Ms. Marie was singing more often and began to get noticed, even bring in a steady income. Then her husband asked her to quit.
"Because I was so obedient, I did quit," she says. "But I missed it so badly I begged him to let me sing again and he relented. Coming back to singing really did affect my personality. It wasn't so much about singing in front of people as it was a form of expression I had denied myself for so long. So it became an issue and rose to a confrontation.
That's when he insisted she either leave music forever or leave the house.
"I left and didn't even look back," Ms. Marie says. "I had watched my mom go through this same kind of verbal abuse and I said, 'I'm going forward, I'm not going back.'"
Perhaps because of this experience, Ms. Marie's songs are filled with questions that contemplate women's dreams, freedom and empowerment issues.
In one song, "Wishes," she writes about the hopes and wishes so many women have but don't follow through with because of family, financial and societal obligations.
"All the things we face in general," Ms. Marie says. "In talking to so many women, I hear them say, 'I wish I could do this, I wish I could do that,' but then I see them pulled back, and it's just because they're scared.
"When I started singing 'Wishes,' I'd see these women in the audience looking heartbroken, but I have to sing it — I can't shy away from difficult subjects," she continues. "Art is meant to disturb, it's not always feel-good stuff. But I'm not trying to get anything across, I'm just raising questions."
René Marie Quartet will perform at the Mount-Burke Theater at the Peddie School, South Main Street, Hightstown, Oct. 7, 8 p.m. Free pre-concert talk, 7 p.m. Tickets cost $15. For information, call (609) 490-7550.
On the Web: www.peddie.org/capps. René Marie on the Web: www.renemarie.com
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