A lot can happen in four years. Lives can evolve from secretive and sad to open and free. People can move from chains to change. Dreams can be followed, lessons learned, friends lost, dignity gained. Strongly entrenched beliefs can be blown to smithereens, personal barriers can be broken through again and again and again. In four years. In only four years.
Those eloquent word are René Marie’s and they need no editorial comment, except perhaps to say that a "lot can happen" is putting it mildly.
Go back to 1996, and outside of her family and friends almost no one had heard of her. Contrast that with today when she is widely known as one of the most astonishingly gifted jazz singers to grace the international stage.
Of course, in these days of media hype and million-dollar promotional campaigns, it is not uncommon for a singer to appear out of nowhere and take a place at the top of polls and sell CDs by the truckload. But René Marie’s is not that kind of tale; indeed, her story is as different as can be.
She was born René Marie Stevens in Warrenton, Virginia, on 7 November 1955. Her parents, Lester Barbour and Daisy Stone Stevens, were teachers, initially teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. Both parents came from big families. "My father had seventeen siblings, my mother had six - all girls. My maternal grandfather was an itinerant preacher and my mother and her sisters sang when he traveled. One of my aunts played piano, another became a jazz vocalist in New York somewhere, but due to her mental illness, we lost contact with her. Her daughter, however, is a professional vocalist on the west coast. My father sang in the glee club in college and loved to sing around the house, although no one else in my immediate family is a musician."
That immediate family consisted of five brothers, Claude, Lester, Jr., Eric, Sam and John, and one sister, Lynn. René also sang around the house, enjoying music on radio and records by artists as diverse as Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul & Mary, Paul Robeson, Odetta, Hank Williams, Sr., Mitch Miller and his Gang, and, later, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Cleo Laine, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Genya Ravan, the Pointer Sisters, and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
When René was still a small child, her family moved to Roanoke, Virginia. She had begun taking her interest in music a stage further, learning to play piano and read music. Going one step further, as a young teenager she sang with an R&B band. "It was just some local guys in the neighborhood. We called ourselves the Majestics. I met my future husband in this band. He played piano. We married when I was eighteen and we both became Jehovah’s Witnesses. We quit doing music publicly as a result of that. I stopped singing for twenty-three years."
Everything was ready and so was I
That last remark of René’s sounds abrupt, and so it should, because it matches the abruptness of her departure from the world of music. The resumption of her story, twenty-three years later, is almost as abrupt. It is tempting to assume that nothing happened during those intervening years but of course that is not so. Indeed, much did happen, most importantly, she had two sons, Michael Croan, born in 1975 and Desmond Croan, born in 1978. And she also went to work part-time in jobs ranging from being a cashier at McDonald’s, a waitress at a formal restaurant and cleaning offices and private homes for her husband’s janitorial business before joining First Union Bank in Roanoke in 1991, where she eventually rose to a senior position. But throughout all these years, however much they might have been sublimated to the needs of survival, René’s musical instincts were alive and feeding on her experiences of life. In time, the need to sing became stronger and in 1996 she had begun to nourish that need. She had started to sing at gigs with a trio for which she was writing charts and, by 1997, was rehearsing for a CD she planned to record.
"The 31st of December was the day we were to start the whole thing. I had contacted Flat 5 Studios in Salem, Virginia, set up the first couple of recording dates, picked out the tunes we were gonna do, arranged the charts, chosen the musicians. Everything was ready and so was I."
But this rebirth of René’s musical consciousness was not happening in a vacuum. And that meant that there would be repercussions.
I was scared as hell, but I left anyway
"My husband and I had been having serious marital problems for years and, at first glance, the music seemed to be making things worse. To be sure, the music was a catalyst for many things, not the least of which was my new-found courage to speak my mind. I was singing again after a self-imposed twenty-two-year hiatus and, instead of the meek, easily intimidated wife I had been, singing before audiences had opened my mouth in more ways than one. Just a few months before, with a copy of the book, Victims of Abuse Speak Out clutched behind my back, I had walked into the living room and, with chin defiantly in the air and in an unsteady voice, told my husband that I would no longer tolerate verbal abuse. He was to be as civil and decent with me as he was with friends and strangers or I would simply walk out of the room (or the house, if necessary) from then on. Though I trembled when I was called upon to do it, this worked well for me. Funny, but he didn’t seem amenable to it at all. I didn’t know what to do with this brazen courage that alarmed even me, but I was damned if I, a forty-year-old woman, was going to be cowered into silence any longer. Now that both sons were in college and it was just me and my husband at home, I dreaded being alone with him. But I dreaded that dread even more. So I spoke up. More and more. Louder and louder. Until I could finally hear myself."
"And now it was December 30, 1997 and I was happily engrossed in my music charts, getting them ready for tomorrow when my husband walked into the room and gave me an ultimatum. He told me, "If you go to rehearsal tomorrow, don’t come back home. If you want to keep living here, you will cancel tomorrow’s rehearsal, the recording date and all engagements you now have. You will cancel them tonight - once and for all. And if you do go to rehearsal and come back home, you will have hell to pay.""
"I could not believe that this man, whom I had met at fifteen and fallen in love with when he was a brilliant and promising pianist, with whom I had gotten baptized and married at eighteen, who had such a fine, upstanding reputation in our community and congregation, was standing above me issuing an ultimatum with threatening consequences if I made the "wrong" choice. I knew things were bad and that they were coming to a head, but I couldn’t believe it had come to this."
"I made my decision to leave that night. And he was right - I did have hell to pay. And in the middle of hell, I panicked. I fought back and screamed at the top of my lungs and ran for every door that led outside, but he was stronger than me. After we had both calmed down, I asked him if he was through. "Yes", he replied. I got up, packed some of my things, ALL of my music and left. I was scared as hell, but I left anyway. I didn’t know where this would lead, but I left anyway."
"Four months later, it’s April 1998. To avoid further harassment I had moved to Richmond, Virginia and started living on my own and supporting myself for the first time in my life. The bank had helped by transferring me to Richmond. Between April and August, I drove from Richmond to Roanoke several times a month, sometimes in the middle of the week, to record and do gigs. We’d finish a session in the studio or a gig around midnight and I’d drive the 180 miles back to Richmond to be at work the next morning. I was exhausted but happy; completely engrossed in the project, in my job and in my new-found freedom."
"In September 1998, the CD, Renaissance, was finally released. I drove to Roanoke, filled the back of my Subaru station wagon with 1000 CDs and, after much celebration and ballyhooing with my family and friends, went back home."
"At first, I went through great pains to mail the CDs to booking agencies and every public radio station whose address I could get my hands on. I took them to local music stores, small boutiques, restaurants - anywhere they would be played and/or put on consignment. To be sure, the Richmond and Roanoke public radio stations were playing my CD and that was a big thrill to hear it for the first time on the radio. I remember calling my youngest son and screaming into the phone that they were playing my song on the RADIO-O-O-O-O-O!!!!! We both screamed like very happy idiots. Things were really moving ahead, it seemed."
"Then, the velocity hit a big wall. I was mailing out so many CDs, but I wasn’t hearing back from any radio stations and assumed they weren’t playing the CD. And the few responses I did get from booking agencies were negative or were asking if I was willing to sing R&B, too. (No, I wasn’t) My responsibilities at work were increasing, demanding more and more of my time and energy. I devoted less and less time and effort to promoting the CD. I had stopped getting gigs with the fellas in Roanoke because it was just too far to drive for the small amount of money I would be making. And it was tough getting new gigs with the cats in Richmond because I didn’t have time to look for the gigs or do rehearsals, etc. Oh, there were a few gigs here and there but they had unsatisfactory results."
"So here I was with hundreds of CDs on my bookshelf, very few gigs and no band to call my own. I remember my sister, Lynn, coming to my apartment one day and seeing all these CDs on my bookshelf. She turned to me in wonder and said, "Girl, what are all these CDs doing on your bookshelf? Why haven’t you been mailing them out?" I explained to her that I hadn’t been getting any responses worth paying attention to. ‘Nobody’s listening to it, anyway’, I pouted. "Well, they sure WON’T be able to listen if you don’t send them out!" was her response."
"I talked to my mom and my siblings about the impasse and, though they were very encouraging and sympathetic, not knowing the music business, their advice was admittedly non-specific. It seemed the only way to move ahead with this was to sing full-time, but I wasn’t making enough money singing to really do that and I hadn’t saved enough money yet from working at the bank to offset what I knew would initially be measly earnings from singing. On the other hand, my prospects at the bank looked very good and I was making more money then than I’d ever made before. The decision of what to do weighed on my mind and, not only that, it bothered me that I couldn’t make up my mind. I was scared to go forward."
Girl, you better quit your job and sing
In December 1998, René’s brother, Claude, invited her to a MasterMind meeting at his house. MasterMind is a group of people who support each other in moving forward on personal priorities through encouragement, networking, exchanging information, ideas, etc. Claude had been asking René to attend for months but she had always turned him down. For some reason, she went that day. It turned out to be a pivotal decision in her life.
"I listened to the other members of the group talk about their goals and the obstacles they faced. Others piped in with advice, suggestions, well-placed questions. I liked the way the group was treating itself. When it was my turn, I told them just the bare bones - I wanted to be a singer, had a CD out even. At that, my brother Claude pulls out his copy of the CD and, to my embarrassment, plays it for the group. After exclaiming how much they liked it, I continued on. I wanted to make the change from working at the bank to singing full-time but didn’t know how to do it. Felt I couldn’t do it. Empathetic murmurs of understanding flowed from the women in the room as I spoke. Finally, one of them said, "Does your husband support you in your goal?" After I related the situation that led up to me moving to Richmond another one sympathetically stated, "It’s hard to follow your dreams when you have young children at home." I informed the group that both my sons were adults."
"They looked at each other, then at me. At last, a group member named Kym broke the silence by nudging me in that forceful but playful way that black people have and saying emphatically at the same time, "Girl, you better quit your job and SING." We all laughed, but there it was - out in the open."
"Girl, you better quit your job and sing."
"We brainstormed how I could do it, but it all boiled down to not having enough money saved up in the bank to get going. My brother, during all this time, had started saying, "Jump and the net will appear". I argued the validity of what seemed like an irresponsible suggestion. It seemed doomed from the get-go. Like an act of faith. Ridiculous! "Would you do it?", I pressed him. He ignored me, as big brothers often do their little sisters. "Jump and the net will appear", he said to me over and over that night. And for the next week, every day he sent me an email that said only that one thing. My replies to him used every argument I could think of, but his response was always the same."
"It didn’t seem rational to just up and quit my job without reassurance of some kind. I’d been at the bank for more than seven years and during that time I had moved from being a customer service rep to training reps how to handle the most sensitive and valuable commercial customers for the bank. I’d developed a new training book and sessions, even trained some of the trainers. And now I was thinking of quitting. Then Claude called me on the phone and said he had talked to Mom and that, between her and the rest of my siblings if worse came to worst they’d see to it that I had a place to live and food to eat if I would just jump."
"Just jump, Rene. Jump."
"I was scared as hell. But I jumped anyway. Didn’t know where I’d land, but I jumped anyway."
"Why? Had I gotten a wonderful record deal, my co-workers wanted to know? No. Was I going on a national tour, they enthused? Uh, no. I was quitting my job because someone whose judgment I trusted implicitly had sent me an e-mail each day for the past week with one sentence only: "Jump and the net will appear.""
"I was scared, but I jumped; I turned in my two weeks notice at the bank."
"What is it like to leave behind what feels like safety and security and willingly go off into the unknowable? To do something so far off the beaten path that even most of those I knew personally IN the music business hadn’t done it? It’s scary and exhilarating and scary and bold and scary and frightening and insane and scary. That’s what it’s like. Let me tell you, I walked out of that bank on that last day and I felt like a ten-thousand watt bulb - powerful. I felt like a straight line - endless. Like a book with only blank pages - full of possibilities. It didn’t matter that I was forty-three years old. It didn’t matter that I was going through a divorce. It didn’t matter that I drove an old car, that I literally didn’t know where my next paycheck would come from. It didn’t matter that I had just left a religion I’d been a member of for the past twenty-three years. I felt rootless and untethered and that felt GOOD. Scary, but GOOD. I was finally gonna do what I loved to do and spend as long as I wanted all day doing it."
I know I’ve done the right thing for me
What happened to René next sounds more like Hollywood than real life. Only in Hollywood would someone do what René had just done and land on her feet. In real life, disaster strikes. But disaster did not strike René. Instead, the impossible happened.
"This is the real kicker. Remember that mantra Claude had been sending me? "Jump and the net will appear." Four days after I quit the bank, I became a believer in that. Here"s what happened."
"My last day at work was Thursday, December 31. The next day was New Year"s Day, 1999. That Tuesday, I got a call from Theater IV, a theater in Richmond. They were in desperate need of a female vocalist to go on the road and perform with a group in a show called Songs From the Soul written by Billy Dye. The vocalist they had chosen earlier had to have emergency surgery on her throat and the theater had called the Richmond Jazz Society asking if they knew of anyone who could do it. B. J. Brown, the director of the Richmond Jazz Society, was a good friend of mine who had been instrumental in getting me connected with musicians and venues in and outside of Richmond since before I moved there. She knew I worked at the bank. But she didn’t know I’d just quit my job three days earlier. Full of doubt as to whether I could do it, but having exhausted her list of available vocalists, she gave the folks at Theater IV my phone number. Of course, I was shocked and delighted to accept the job. I was to report to rehearsal the next day. But the amazing thing, the unbelievable, frighteningly truthful, really off the hook, humbling thing occurred to me only after I’d hung up."
" None of the parties involved in this knew I had quit my job. "
"I went weak with the knowledge - if I hadn’t quit my job when I did, I still would have gotten the call from Theater IV but I would have had to turn them down. I would have had to say "No". I had jumped and, Wham! The net appeared just like my brother said it would! The honesty and courage of the moment frightened me. Without the initial support of my mother and my brother Claude and the support and encouragement of all my family, I wouldn’t have had the strength to do it."
"Ever since then, I have trusted in my own gut, though with each decision I make I am faced with the same frightening visions of failure and "can’t do it" in my mind, often up to the point where I am in the midst of doing the very thing I am so afraid of doing! When I move through the fear (I can never seem to leave it behind) and follow through on my intuition to do what feels right, those failures never happen. Then all my ensuing efforts seem nearly effortless and I become like a migrating bird that finds its air current and now flaps its wings only one third the amount of time necessary to get where it instinctively knows it wants to go."
"Certainly there are obstacles and challenges and surprises, but they don’t feel like failures to me when I know I’ve done the right thing for me."
"So, it has been four years and I just cannot believe how far I’ve come. It seems like a lifetime ago, so much has happened - things I never dreamed of. Most of the time I feel like I’ve just stepped into great big piles of happiness and that I’m tracking it wherever I go. As an interesting aside, remember all those radio stations I was sending my first CD to? I found out after I started touring two years ago that many of those stations were playing the CD all along. I’d go to a city for a gig and have an interview at one of the stations and they’d show me the copy of Renaissance. I shake my head in sad amusement when I think of how little I trusted myself, how negatively I viewed things."
"I didn’t have a plan back then and I don’t have one now. For me, it seems to be plan enough to really listen to my instincts and, after considering all the possibilities, do what feels right for me. Not what feels comfortable, but what feels right - there’s a huge difference between the two. Because if I follow through on what feels right then the next several steps are already waiting for me. I didn’t know this going in. But I know it now."
It just takes knowing when you’ve had enough
These are not the only lessons René Marie has learned in the past four years. Like many singers before her - and many of her contemporaries today - she endured treatment handed out as though she were a second-class citizen. But she had had enough and, like too few singers before her, the time came when René did something about it.
"When I first started singing, I thought the romantic myth of "paying your dues" meant being mistreated or taken advantage of by club owners, managers, even fellow musicians. Thought I didn’t have much of a choice or voice in the matter of the kind of sound I wanted, where the band was set up in the venue, how much I was gonna get paid, etc. There was this implied thought that I should be grateful for anything that came my way. But as I became more knowledgeable about how the "venue" owners, managers and waitrons think (making money is #1) I decided I wasn’t as powerless as I had led myself to believe."
"I decided that, yes, these owners have businesses to maintain, but SO DO I. Maybe there’s something about coming into the business at the ripe old age of forty, but there were certain things I just wouldn’t put up with once I saw how things worked. I decided that I ain’t no teenager, no star-struck twenty-something with big dreams, I ain’t married to none of ‘em and I don’t have to take being treated like a necessary evil, relegated to the back rooms of their thinking and consideration. Why should such a potentially wonderful musical experience be marred by hassles in venues about noise from the customers and from the bartender? To quote Charles Mingus, " Isaac Stern (a famous classical violinist and contemporary of Mingus’) doesn’t have to put up with that shit." I would rather entertain in my own living room at home than put up with all that crap. Again, could be my age. But all I know is that slowly, little by little, I stopped tolerating it. And here’s how I did it."
Three years ago
"I was singing in a restaurant and the band (as usual) was right beside the bar that had a TV. The sound was turned down, but there was a football game on. Right in the middle of a ballad, a touchdown was scored and a table of ten folks - sitting right in front of the band, of course - jumped out of their seats, yelling and doing the wave."
"This wasn’t the first time it had happened that night, but I decided it would be the last time it would happen to me. I stopped in the middle of the song, gazing bemusedly at the familiar surroundings, this very restaurant where I’d started singing again after a 23 year hiatus and had been singing twice a month for at least a year, and decided I didn’t want to sing there anymore. Did I have another venue to replace it with right then? No. And I wasn’t making any money to speak of. But I knew I’d NEVER make any if I continued to put up with stuff like that. Without making a scene, I calmly put the microphone down, packed up my stuff and left. Significantly, the table of ten never knew I was gone. I politely told the friend of mine who had booked me there that I didn’t expect to be paid because it wasn’t about that. I didn’t walk out with money in my pocket, but I still had my dignity intact. It was about keeping a steady course toward what I was trying to accomplish musically. When I freed myself from that type of treatment, it was like opening a clogged drain. It’s amazing the improvisations you can accomplish when you can hear yourself. I had no trouble finding venues to replace it with."
Two years ago
"One rainy day, drenched and huffing and puffing from bringing in and setting up my own sound equipment, I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore either. It was a difficult decision to make: Did I want to go through the extra hassle of setting up my own equipment every time I had a gig? What did that say to customers who saw me doing that? What did it tell the venue owners and managers? I didn’t like the answers I was faced with. How could I request/demand higher pay if I was bringing in my own sound system and setting it up myself? I decided that night that my next professional step would be to sing only at venues that had their own sound system and sound engineer, i.e., clubs, concert halls and festivals. But how would I find these gigs? Did I have lots of those coming up on my calendar? No. Slowly, over time, I began to replace the old way with a new way of thinking. I didn’t have anyone - musician, manager, booking agent - encouraging me to take these steps. It’s how you see yourself in your worst moments - victim or victor - that can keep you down or turn things around. I also learned this: those who are not doing it will not encourage you to do it, either. But it can be done ."
"Another thing happened around that same time that reinforced my decision to choose my venues carefully: While still living in Richmond, I was having dinner with a friend in a restaurant that played jazz on their sound system. At first, we were the only ones there and, to my surprise, they were playing my CD when we walked in. Neither the maitre’d, the bartender nor the waitress recognized me, which was just fine with me. Not long after we had been seated, a couple walks in, sits at the bar and starts talking to the bartender about the music they’re hearing. With their backs to me, they never saw me, and one of them says to the bartender, "That’s René Marie singing, isn’t it?" The bartender says, "Yes, that’s René. She’s singing in concert at such-and-such a place this week." "Yeah," the customer replied. "I heard about that. But tickets are $20! Why should I pay $20 to hear her when I can just go to so-and-so’s restaurant and hear her for free?" Admittedly, I was definitely in the right place at the right time to have heard that, but it underscored the validity of the direction I wanted to go. It just takes knowing (and trusting that feeling when you DO know) when you’ve had enough. Sometimes club owners, managers and booking agents will try to convince you otherwise. They will try to convince you that you are reaching too high too soon or too far or for too much. Yes, they will try to talk you right out of your dignity, try to convince you that you should take a loss for the love of the art. But no one should make that decision of when to do that except me. I learned the hard way that no one can take advantage of you unless you let them. And ignorance of the way things work - from their perspective and ours - is a sorry excuse. They will cry money problems, staffing problems, the economy, the war, etc. But my viewpoint is this: I run a business too. Why should I take a loss (musically, emotionally or financially) so that you don’t have to?"
"I finally decided to start raising my fees for gigs. Yes, this meant that I was eliminating lots of venues. Yes, it meant my booking agent had to work harder to book me in those places. But again, what image was I projecting by accepting the same old excuses for low pay? This was a hard thing to do, and initially I waffled a lot and thought I was wrong to insist on more money but it has paid off. Once, my agent told me that the clubs weren’t paying the prices I wanted. My answer to him? Book me in the clubs that ARE paying these fees."
One year ago
"After playing a week at a venue on the west coast with first-call musicians of exemplary background, experience and reputation, I insisted on traveling with my own band from then on. Why? Because I got a very bad review. Now, ordinarily, I don’t pay much attention to reviews. But this time, the critic was exactly right in most of his observations of the performance. This critic noted the haphazard intros and endings, the disjointed feel, the sense that everyone was trying to remember "what comes next?" But it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t the fault of the musicians. It was simply the situation. The quality of the music is bound to suffer when the time to rehearse with a pick-up band is limited. You only have a couple of hours to rehearse, at most. Under such situations, the musician will play what he is hearing; i.e. what he played the last time he played this or that particular standard. Maybe he has a certain lick, chord or rhythm he favors for a certain song - and he knows he sounds good when he does it. Perhaps he doesn’t particularly like your arrangement or maybe he just doesn’t have it down absolutely right after only one rehearsal. Under these circumstances, a vocalist can only hang on for dear life and hope for the best. But I wanted the musicians to play what I was hearing, because having solid musicians playing your arrangements in a solid fashion can be likened to standing on solid ground - a vocalist can do nearly ANYTHING and it won’t throw off the music because the musicians know the arrangement so well. You can go almost anywhere vocally and the instrumentalists will not only follow you, but be there to catch you when you come back. Otherwise your singing is tentative and fearful and distracted. Not that these musicians weren’t great musicians. They were fantastic. But how much rehearsal can be accomplished in one afternoon before the gig? Not much, let me tell ya. You can’t expect them to want to rehearse four hours for a two-hour gig or two hours every day if it’s a week long hit (they aren’t getting paid but so much money, after all), so how much of the arrangements are they going to remember, even when the chart’s right in front of them? Basically, they are a band for hire who may not ever perform with you again. They have no vested interest in making the music really happen over a two-four hour period. It’s a job. Occasionally there are exceptions, but this had been my experience almost across the board. Most vocalists/soloists will tell you the same thing. What’s the point in having arrangements to tunes that set your musical thinking apart from others if you don’t have enough time to rehearse the damn things? It was folly to continue along this same line of doing things. Do I have to turn down gigs if they don’t pay enough to offset the travel expenses for my band? Absolutely. Do I make less money because of this added travel expense? "Deed I do. But it is my name on the marquee, my name in the review and my name on the CD. And it is a sacrifice I am willing to make voluntarily, not because of the pressure I get from a presenter or the manager of a venue to lower my fee."
"And the question always facing us is this: How do I want to run my business? How do I want my "customers" to think of me and my "product"? Whatever your particular answer is, my advice to musicians is to keep this image of yourself fixed firmly in mind. Believe in this answer before even walking out your own door or talking on the phone to negotiate fees with a venue. Don’t just know what you want - also know what you don’t want. Know this before agreeing to a gig or a price. If you don’t know the answer, you’ll be too easily swayed by their reasoning and end up on the losing end almost every time. Hard as it may be sometimes to find another way, still I will find another way to do it or I just won’t do it at all. It’s become just that simple. I decided going in that, as much as I love to sing and compose and perform, I needed to be able to walk away from this if I don’t experience MORE of a reward than I would singing and jammin’ at home with friends. I want to blow my audience away when they come to hear me. I want them to have a life-altering experience and still be talking about it the next day. I want them to WANT to come back to hear me again and again, wherever I’m playing. Not because I’m at a certain venue (the venue owners want the customers to come back to their venue, regardless of who is playing the music), but because they want to hear ME. As far as I’m concerned, to consistently compromise almost all I stand for musically just to play in a venue and earn a few bucks means I’ve already lost."
"I might as well go back to working at the bank."
More songs to sing
Among those copies of Renaissance that René had sent out and which, for a while at least, she thought had done nothing but lie there gathering dust, was one that went to a newspaper in Washington DC. The reviewer there was Joel E. Siegel, who is also a record producer. "He had just finished reviewing another singer’s CD and knew that MaxJazz was a new label looking for more vocalists. My CD was on the top of a pile to be thrown away when Joel saw it and decided to give a listen to it. Coincidentally, I was going to have my first gig at Blues Alley in DC and I received a call from Joel informing me that he’d recommended my CD to Rich McDonnell of MaxJazz and that Rich was coming to Blues Alley that Monday night to hear me. Serendipity? Who knows? But MaxJazz’s hometown is in St. Louis and Rich McDonnell just happened to be on the east coast for business that weekend."
For some time, René had been thinking of changing her last name. The title of her own CD, Renaissance, means to be re-born and a change of name would reflect this fact. At first she thought of using the name Stoan, a combination of Stevens (her father’s surname), Stone (her mother’s maiden name) and Croan (her married name). In the end, she decided to drop all these surnames and just make her middle name, Marie, her surname. She did this shortly before signing with MaxJazz.
René’s first CD for MaxJazz, How Can I Keep From Singing? took off. It was placed #1 on the Gavin jazz charts and her profile rose when the Association for Independent Music Critics assessed her as Best Jazz Vocalist in 2001 and again in 2002. In 2002, her second CD for MaxJazz, Vertigo, was received with great critical acclaim with JazzTimes magazine naming it Best Jazz Vocal CD of 2002 and the Academie du Jazz in Paris presenting René with the Billie Holiday award for best international jazz vocalist for 2002. The following year’s release, Live At Jazz Standard continued to garner attention and accolades.
René Marie has a distinctive and enormously attractive vocal sound, which is allied to consummate technical gifts. She wraps it all in a coating of natural warmth and sincerity that makes every track, be it an up tempo swinger or an evocative ballad, a thorough delight. All of her MaxJazz CDs provide exceptional performances by a singer of extraordinary merit. As her audiences know, although René Marie’s repertoire is based firmly in the great standards of jazz and popular music, she brings to everything that she does her own distinctive, and sometimes daring, interpretations that revitalize songs that are in danger of overexposure. On all of her MaxJazz CDs, she delivers an exhilarating mix of those standards with occasional departures into songs that appear to be decidedly offbeat choices for a jazz singer. Such are her qualities that she is able to transmute everything into a true jazz experience because this is jazz singing at its very best.
On How Can I Keep From Singing? songs as varied as "The Very Thought Of You", "Afro Blue", "Tennessee Waltz" and "God Bless The Child" all rub congenial shoulders. On Vertigo René makes one of those unusual choices, daringly and imaginatively blending two songs in a manner that defies expectations and creates a deeply moving experience. Over the years "Dixie" has acquired connotations of racism, but, as René has pointed out, it also has a rather nice melody (made clear thanks to the languorous tempo she chooses) and a lyric that longingly recalls home in the South. On this level alone, it should therefore not be at all a surprising choice for a black singer. What makes René's performance so dramatically stunning is the audacious juxtaposition of this "Dixie" with "Strange Fruit" - a song that unflinchingly portrays a bitterly different image of the South.
An aural impression of René’s on-stage persona comes with her third MaxJazz CD, Live At Jazz Standard, whereon she offers standards such as ""Deed I Do" and "A Foggy Day" to a receptive nightclub audience. Here also is another of those striking musical moments when she combines two seemingly disparate pieces of music. René takes the compelling rhythmic undertow of Ravel’s "Bolero" and overlays it with "Suzanne" to create something that is powerful and memorable.
Additionally and importantly, René's repertoire includes many of her own compositions. Among those that appear on these CDs are "Hurry Sundown", "Shelter In Your Arms", "Vertigo", "Don’t Look At Me Like That", "I’d Rather Talk About You" and "I Like You". These songs not only demonstrate her strong sense of structure and form alongside a heartfelt love of melody, but they also vividly display her ability to transmute her life experiences into lyrics of rich emotional depths.
There are more songs to write, more songs to sing, more projects to undertake. "During the next two years I plan to compose more, develop my publishing company, Stoan Publishing, Inc., and my touring company, Sound of Red, LLC. We hope to have our own team working for us and our own recording studio and label within the next two years."
As the end of 2003 approached, René Marie had a new trio behind her: Takana Miyomoto, piano, Addae, soprano saxophone, Herman Burney, bass, Quentin Baxter, drums. She also had a new agency acting on her behalf, the Brad Simon Organization at 122 E. 57th Street, New York City, NY 10022.
She is facing the future with earned confidence. Looking back at what this remarkable woman has done in the past four years it is impossible to imagine that René Marie will fail in any of her self-appointed tasks. It is similarly impossible not to concede that she deserves all of her hard-won success, and more.
As for future challenges; however much they might daunt her at first, there seems little doubt that she will address them boldly and, when push comes to shove, she will remember and act upon that maxim that has guided her towards her present success:
Jump and the net will appear.
Why René Marie Can’t Keep from Singing
Bruce Crowther writes on jazz and other topics. For details see his website: www.swing2bop.com .