Never too late to swing

René Marie knows how to get inside the marrow of a song. At her concerts, she floats around the bandstand. She hovers over her pianist, lands next to her bass player, leans her head on his shoulder while he feeds her pieces of the melody. People flock around Marie because she includes them in the performance.

“One time, I actually went over to a table and started taking to a guy. I was getting ready to do a blues tune. I sat next to him and started talking to him. I found out that he didn’t speak a lick of English. He said something to me in French and the whole audience died laughing. I like it when an audience is responsive. I think I feed on it. I just like to know that I’m communicating to them, and they are giving it back to me. Whenever I get that from an audience, I’m happy,” she says.

Marie’s performances on Friday and Saturday at the SereNgeti Ballroom mark her second visit to Detroit this year. At her first appearance, she enthralled the audience by performing songs from her debut album, How Can I Stop From Singing? With her vocal fluidity and sleek phrasing (akin to those of vocalist Sheila Jordan), she pulled raw human emotions from each song.

In 1999, Marie signed with MaxJazz, a company that has invested its faith and money into a group of gifted but unexposed jazz musicians. Since then, she has helped craft the label’s personality.

“It was not even in my plans to have a CD, to do any traveling, to sign with a record label, because I was married. After being married for 23 years, that’s not something that you consider.”

Marie grew up in Roanoke, Va., and started singing professionally at age 15, performing around town with an R&B band called the Randolph Brothers. After seeing Lady Sings the Blues, the film about legend Billie Holiday, Marie decided to explore jazz.

“At the time, I didn’t know anything about Billie Holiday. I was moved by her life. The next day I went to the record store and bought a compilation of her songs and I learned how to play them. Then I started listening to the Pointer Sisters and gradually learning about swing,” she recalls.

At age 18, she put her career on hold to build a family. But, her desire to sing never stopped.

“After I got married and started raising my kids, jazz was the music that filled me with the most joy. Jazz does something to me. It gives me the freedom that I don’t get from other music.”

To keep her voice from wilting, she performed for her sons. At night, after she put them to sleep, she studied Ella Fitzgerald’s and Sarah Vaughan’s vocal techniques.

“I sang all the time at home. I’m constantly singing and playing music. You know my children love music. They look at it wide-eyed. I used to hold a celery stick or a carrot stick in my hand and I’d be dancing and singing to them.”

By the time her sons were in college, she had been away from the jazz scene for nearly 20 years. The desire to make a comeback began to nudge her. She received encouragement from her oldest son and her brother. But uncertainty stopped her from returning to the bandstand.

“I was 40 years old then and I thought I was too old to get started singing in a genre that I had never even done before,” she admits. “When I started back singing, it was my goal to make a living. I was working part time at a bank. I thought that if I could make what I’m earning at the bank singing, that’s good enough for me.”

Performing at small jazz clubs helped to refuel her career, which began to take off for a while. Around Virginia, her reputation grew. However, she became discontented with the way she delivered a song.

“I realized that I was afraid to be myself,” she admits. Unconsciously she was copying Ella Fitzgerald’s style. Moreover, she became preoccupied with how the critics viewed her. The time she invested retooling her chops and the long hours she spent in recording studios caused her marriage to crumble.

“I worried like crazy about what the critics were going to say. I went to a gig one time with that type of worrying in my head and I performed terribly. On the flight back home, I had a long talk with myself. I said, OK, René, if you’re going to worry about what people are going to say, then you don’t need to be singing.”

Under adversity, Marie has remained graceful. Her career continues to grow and she keeps pushing her voice to uncharted heights.

“I like to experiment with my voice, like how I can get it to sound like a horn or a guitar, or how can I get my voice to emulate percussion,” she says. “And if I can maintain the joy that I had when I was singing in front of my two boys, I’m going to be OK.”

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]