Every once in a while, the South doesn’t disappoint. Tonight’s Rene Marie show at the Second Street Festival in her former hometown of Richmond, Va., is like reading a Wim Wenders storyboard. Young ballers in throwback jerseys and do rags dance near old men in Hawaiian shirts and porkpie hats as jazz lights up a warm October night. Every aspect of this scenario is so implausible, and yet the gal at the center of this party on “2 Street” is too busy to dwell on such glorious absurdities. She’s singing about how Nina Simone changed her life.
“I need a little sugar in my bowl!” Rene Marie shouts, dropping her voice and making it appropriately gruff as she quotes her idol. “Goddamn!” She prowls the boards, her hands emphasizing syllables like an Italian fisherman, her light coat flapping in the breeze. Rene Marie struts, man.
Drummer Quentin Baxter takes the song out on his kit, and by the end of the number, he’s playing alone as Marie and her band stand around him clapping and shouting. It’s loud, and pretty much everybody watching who’s still young enough to walk and reasonably sober is out of their chairs, clapping along, even-at Marie’s most un-jazzlike invitation-joining her on the chorus, shouting “Oh Nina!”
Somebody call the cops: A good time has broken out a jazz concert.
A few days before the Second Street show, Rene Marie is sitting in a restaurant in Richmond, which remains a second home now that she’s a full-time resident of Atlanta. In her subtly flashy yellow dress, with spikes of hair jutting out from her otherwise close-cut ‘do, she resembles a rather good-looking pineapple, much younger than her 49 years.
Her composed manner, juxtaposed against her vaguely punk-rock appearance, is an initial clue as to why Serene Renegade is such an appropriate title for Marie’s new album on MaxJazz. “I don’t get my feathers ruffled too much,” Marie says of the first half of the title, sipping, yes, serenely, on a glass of water. “I lived with a lot of dysfunction growing up, so the fallout for me was learning how to swim with the tide.”
And the “renegade” bit? Consider this: Rene Marie’s new album has exactly two songs she didn’t write on it, the jazz-vocal equivalent of awarding Halliburton a no-bid contract.
“Let me tell you what happened,” Marie says of this act of rebellion. “I was at [Chi-cago’s] Jazz Showcase in April, and I was working on the new tunes on the CD. After the first set the owner came up to me and said my originals were turning his stomach, and that what I was doing was an ‘affront to jazz.’
“He says, ‘Why can’t you just stand still and sing the standards the way they’re supposed to be sung? All this moving around-what is that? These people didn’t come here to hear you sing your original tunes.’
“I went back to my hotel room, and I sank low,” she says. Then something that happened as she returned to the club shook her out of her funk. “I still don’t know what am I gonna do,” Marie says. “And this bus comes by, really fast, right in front of me, and I thought, what if I go in there tonight and sing the standards, and I come out and get hit by a damn bus? It’s gonna be my songs that come off my lips last!”
Rene Marie played all original tunes for the rest of her run. The shows were packed. And the owner? He didn’t return for another chat.
Even in a city as conservative as Richmond, where prominent local businessmen lead campaigns to keep the likes of Howard Stern and Marilyn Manson out of town, you don’t hear much about jazz being a bad influence. But for the former Rene Croan, jazz was as effective a homewrecker as Sheryl Crow. As a customer-service trainer for SunTrust, one of the many faceless Southeast superbanks that sprouted like kudzu in the ’90s, Croan was used to hitting targets, not high notes. She was 40, had been married and living in Roanoke, Va., since she was 18, and both her sons had recently left home for college.
What happened next has been widely reported: Croan’s son Michael heard a jazz singer when he was home on break, called his mother and told his mom, who’d grown up loving her dad’s bluegrass records and had spent the last 20 years singing along to Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan albums after she’d put the kids to bed, that he thought she’d make a better one. She took him up on his challenge and was soon singing all over Virginia, especially Richmond, where she had to move after a bank merger. Her husband disapproved, and finally gave her an ultimatum-which is never the smartest move in a relationship. Did I mention she lives in Atlanta now? And that her last name is now Marie?
“I don’t know where he’s living now,” Marie says of her ex. “We’re in touch regarding our sons, and that’s it. I wish it were otherwise, but….”
Marie’s family was supportive of her life change; her brother even fixed up his basement for her while she got her sea legs. She taped a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt-“We must do the thing we think we cannot do”-to her bathroom mirror. “There were so many things I thought I could not do when I left,” Marie says. “I found myself living alone for the first time in my life. Scared as hell.”
A self-released CD, Renaissance, and a lot of gigs followed. At one of them, at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., an investment banker in the audience named Richard McDonnell, who’d just started a record label called MaxJazz, offered to record her.
That was her first gig outside of Virginia. On her second, she flew to St. Louis to play for McDonnell and the MaxJazz staff in the label’s hometown. “I walked in the jazz club, and there was Ella’s picture, and Sarah’s picture, and Diana Krall,” Marie says. “I got up on the stage, and my knees were shaking. I finally understood what people meant by that. I sounded…horrible.”
Marie found McDonnell after a few songs and volunteered to leave the label. He refused her resignation, and she started work on How Can I Keep From Singing?, backed by such notables as Mulgrew Miller, Ugonna Okegwo and Sam Newsome. The title track speaks to Marie’s burgeoning iconoclasm-a smoothed-out take on an Enya tune salted by Newsome’s soprano sax, on which Marie practically moves into lyrics like “I hear the real, though far-off hymn / That hails a new creation.”
But Marie’s new creation, her own renaissance if you will, was anything but distant. She toured constantly, learning to drink “wodka” in Russia and becoming something of a celebrity in France, where the Academie du Jazz named her follow-up, 2001’s Vertigo, as the best international jazz-vocal CD.
“I didn’t look at it too hard,” Marie says. “As a matter of fact, I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t believe all this stuff is falling into place so quickly.'”
The Bruce Barth-produced Vertigo boasted Marie’s controversial medley of the Confederate anthem “Dixie” with the anti-lynching ode “Strange Fruit.” It’s the first overt acknowledgement of race in Marie’s work, though she sees the latter tune as something more: “It’s a protest song,” she says. “I’ve had people come up to me, like this Japanese woman in San Francisco who told me it reminded her of her parents being in the internment camps. And this other woman told me it was cathartic for her because she had been abused. I don’t know what it is about ‘Strange Fruit,’ but if it works I’m glad.”
Nevertheless, Vertigo mostly stuck to standards, with Marie wrapping her buttery voice around such warhorses as “Surry With the Fringe on Top” and “I Only Have Eyes for You.” She also pulled off a sideman upgrade, snagging Chris Potter and Jeff “Tain” Watts to toil alongside Miller. The jazz press was suitably impressed; Christopher Loudon called Vertigo “sinfully satisfying” and compared Marie’s take on standards to foreplay. Marie has a slightly different take on the Great American Songbook.
“It’s like faking an orgasm,” she says. “I’m not really present there. I can do it, I can make the sounds”-she laughs-“but it just doesn’t move me anymore.”
Talking to Marie, one gets the feeling that standards have come to represent something more than just songs that have echoed out of jazz clubs a bazillion times over. They’re the status quo, what’s expected of a woman who no longer cottons to contraints placed on her by others.
In 1999, Marie made another momentous decision: She left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious affiliation she’d had all her life. At first she says there was no connection between going pro, dissolving her marriage and dropping out of the Witnesses, but then she reconsiders. “From a religious standpoint there wasn’t any objection” to the Witnesses, she says. “Having a voice also caused me to have a voice in other things. Singing was the front of the wedge.”
Leaving a church you grew up in is tough, especially when one of the institution’s dictates is that believers are forbidden to be in contact with someone who’s left the fold. Marie’s lost friends and has even left behind some family (she remains very close with most of her kin). And now she can’t seem to shake a certain type of fan: one who wants to bring her back to the church.
“I’ve had Witnesses come to my shows who feel compelled to try to restore me back to faith in the congregation. I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell by the look in their eyes: ‘This one might be a Witness.'” And the problems don’t stop at the jazz club door. “One singer, fairly well-known,” Marie says, “pulled me aside and told me that she wasn’t gonna talk to me anymore. Could have just not talked to me anymore!”
Marie maintains that she’s “glad” her life ran the course it did, including her tenure as a Witness. (In fact, she credits the people skills she developed going door-to-door around Roanoke with her facility as a frontwoman: “You have to really learn how to size up a situation,” she says.) She wouldn’t have become Rene Marie without them. After that disastrous MaxJazz audition, she told herself on the way home, “OK Rene, when is it when you’re most comfortable? When I’m at home in my kitchen. So then I thought, ‘Well, you’re gonna need to start bringing the kitchen up on stage. That works for me. Surrounding myself with comfort.”
This is the second metaphor Marie’s told me for how she views herself on stage. The first was her “slut energy.” “That’s a tough term,” she’d said, “but basically what I mean by it is I tap into women’s sexual energy.” It’s this intersection of taking care of herself and not giving a damn what anyone thinks that makes the renegade serene and the serene renegade. And she wants you to calmly rebel, too.
“When audiences come to concerts,” she says, “you can see everything they’ve held in all day, all week, all month, all year, maybe all their lives.” She pauses. “I know everybody’s got an emotional G-spot. And I look at it as my job tonight: Let’s find out where it is. It makes you mad? Good. Makes you squirm in your seat? Good. Makes you wanna go home and call Momma? Call her. That’s what I want to touch.”
Rene Marie certainly seems to be touching something here at the Second Street Festival tonight. One woman, whom I strongly suspect does not act like this at work, is standing on her chair shouting “‘Wishes’! ‘Wishes’! ‘WISH-ESSSSSSS’!” when Marie asks if there are any requests. Marie’s already tickled a good deal of the audience’s figurative happy trail with “Red Shoes,” Serene Renegade’s tribute to what the liner notes call “the personality change that happens to women when we find that perfect pair of sexy shoes. We put them on and-WHAM!-you cain’t tell us nothin’.”
Marie toys with the woman, who by the way is shouting for a Marie original, on an album that has only been out for a few days. “‘Misty’?” Marie says to her, giggling, pretending not to understand. “‘Biscuits’?”
Chair Lady eats it up, and doesn’t even seem to mind when Marie opts for “Oh Nina” instead. This crowd has been in Marie’s palm from the get-go, and the local-girl-makes-good angle is the least of the reasons for that.
Onstage, Rene Marie dances, claps and makes visual jokes like lifting her coat so everyone can see she’s doing just that when she sings, “Shake that ass!” She doesn’t seem much like a banker, to say the least. No one seems to mind that she does only two covers tonight-the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” which returns the tune to the blues that inspired its writers, and Abbey Lincoln’s “Caged Bird,” which she introduces with a lesson about Paul Laurence Dunbar, the freed slave who wrote a poem called “Sympathy” that included the line “I know why the caged bird sings.”
Pianist Takana Miyamoto, a fellow Atlantan whose parents are in the crowd tonight, visiting from Japan, digs into “Caged Bird”‘s heavy bottom. Marie yields the spotlight to her fellow musicians, the same ones who made Serene Renegade, as a matter of course-this is a real band, not just a bunch of “names.”
Next year, Rene Marie is going to walk to the Grand Canyon. It will take her six weeks, she figures. She’s gonna walk 20 miles a day for five days out of the week, then drive 100 miles per day on the other two. She’s “opening herself up to the universe” to find someone with that RV. And when she gets to the Canyon, she’s going to have a ceremony and marry herself.
“It’s a recognition of the change I’ve gone through,” she says. “A way to divest myself of roles I’ve had to play, clothes I’ve had to wear, smiles I’ve had to fake. So the whole idea is: Fuck that. I’m finished with that.”
This lady up onstage, she knows better than most about cages. And she damn sure knows what she’s singing about. She could have easily written the words herself.Originally Published