Marie’s musical freedom

Despite advice and threats to the contrary, US jazz singer Rene Marie will give seven concerts in the upcoming Hot Jazz series.
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Some years ago, US-born Jerusalemite saxophonist and jazz teacher Arnie Lawrence observed that jazz musicians are warriors rather than worriers. Rene Marie certainly fits the epithet.

For a start, the 55-year-old Denver, Colorado-based vocalist taught herself to read music when she was only nine. “My mother was giving my older brother piano lessons, and I used to sit behind him when he practiced. He’d have one finger on a note and another finger on the keyboard, so that’s how I figured out that the note on the page corresponded to a note on the keyboard. It got to the point that if he didn’t play something right, I would tell him it was the wrong note,” says Marie, who will be in Israel next week to play seven concerts around the country as part of this year’s Hot Jazz series (May 21-28).

The young Marie’s obvious musical aptitude convinced her mother to get her piano lessons too, although Marie’s discovery of jazz owed more to serendipity than design. “My father loved classical music, lots of operas, and I came to love it too,” recalls the singer. “You know, when I listen to jazz I can generally tell where the piece is going to go, but you can never do that with classical music. It is a whole wonderful world.”

It was a pop-soul singer who eventually brought Marie into the jazz fold. “When I was 17, I went to see Diana Ross play [legendary jazz vocalist] Billie Holiday [in 1972 movie Lady Sings the Blues]. I thought, ‘What is this?’ I was amazed by the music of Billie Holiday. After the movie I went straight out to buy the Billie Holiday Songbook, and that was that.”

In fact, that was that only for a short while. Marie began singing jazz and performing in public, but all that came to an end when she got married and she and her husband became Jehovah’s Witnesses. “My husband was also a musician, but we weren’t allowed to play in public,” Marie explains. “We played at home, and I played at weddings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but that was all.”

More than 20 years later, things changed when Marie’s urge to return to the stage grew, and her husband presented her with an ultimatum – marriage or performing in public. “I wanted to sing in concerts, but it was also a matter of not wanting to be with a partner who challenged me like that,” she says.

Marie opted for music and soon resumed her stage work and finally put out her debut album, Renaissance, in 1998 at age 42. Rather than rue the lost years, Marie feels there is an advantage to recording a first-time effort later in life. “I definitely brought life experience and maturity to my first album,” she notes. “I don’t have a problem with youngsters putting out debut albums when they’re 18. If they have something to say, why not? But I think I had a lot to say by the time I put my first CD out.”

To date, Marie has released four albums under her own name, covering generous sonic and stylistic ground in the process. While she cites divas like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald as sources of inspiration, on the instrumental side she prefers the bass and drums. Numbers like her highly personal reading of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” on her 2001 album Vertigo demonstrate that amply. “The bass has a prominent place in a lot of my music, which can be uncomfortable for some bass players,” she observes. “Ordinarily they have a support role, but in my music the bass can’t just make do with coping, he has a focused role. It’s not unusual for me to use a bass as a second voice.” The drums are also important to Marie. “The combination of voice, bass and drums is the ideal one for me,” she says. “It allows me so much space to do things in.”

Horn players also help to fuel Marie’s creativity, with 76-year-old saxophonist Houston Person, saxophonist Chris Potter and saxophonist-flutist Henry Threadgill. “Horn players are not restricted by the lyrics, and I get ideas from them,” she explains. “They approach the melody in a totally different way, and I think, ‘I can phrase it this way’ or ‘I can rest for three measures, and on the fourth measure I can cram it all in.’ I prefer listening to a horn player rather than a vocalist,” she says.

Since that lengthy marital hiatus, Marie has been doing her best to make up for lost time. “I had no idea that I had so much inside me, and I learn new things every day. There is just so much to do and to explore. It’s a wonderful journey.”

Marie says she is delighted to be making the trip here to perform and, in keeping with her resilient character, is coming despite being advised to give up on the trip. “I have had threats by fans of mine who told me I shouldn’t come to Israel,” says Marie. “But I believe that music is free, like air and water, and should be free to everybody. I don’t believe it is right to question someone’s political beliefs before deciding whether or not they should listen to your music. I have lost some fans because of that belief, but I am going to address the music only. It’s all about the music.”

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