‘It’s not the where; it’s the what’

Jazz vocalist recounts belated arrival into career destiny

René Marie’s very first memory is a musical one. But unlike so many musicians – jazz musicians in particular – her professional career did not begin soon thereafter.

Before the Virginia native was a Grammy-nominated singer, she was a wife; married at age 18. Then she was a mother, a janitor, a McDonald’s employee, a grocery store clerk and a banker.

Her musical career did not begin until the tender age of 42.

“I swear it’s not lost on me … any of that experience,” she says. “I used to think it was a liability that I didn’t start earlier. But the longer I continue to sing, I think of it as an asset.”

About that first memory … Marie recalls when she was around 3 years old and her dad was listening to Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” in the living room.

“My dad loved music. He sang in the chorus at his college – Virginia State. He played all kinds of music in the house – classical, calypso, folk, bluegrass, opera … he would just burst out into song all the time. But as he was playing ‘Boléro’ he was acting out the role of this African hunter. He picked up a broom handle and made like he was throwing it at his prey. He was, without saying a word, showing me how music tells a story.”

Growing up as well as raising her own children, Marie was inclined to frequently burst into song herself. She sang in an R & B band as a teen (where she met her first husband) but most of her singing took place in the privacy of her home. Then, more than 20 years ago as she held a steady job at a bank, her son (Michael Croan, now a successful singer himself) sat her down and insisted she had what it takes to become a professional singer.

“He called me from a restaurant and said, ‘mom, I’m listening to this female jazz vocalist. She’s singing all the songs you sing, mom. And she’s terrible. You have to come and hear her.’ I dropped what I was doing, drove to the restaurant and listened to her singing the songs I sang around the house. I said, ‘I can’t believe she’s getting paid for this,’” Marie recalls. “I think she was bored with the songs, bored with the music. I thought it was a travesty, these beautiful jazz standards and people in the restaurant  talking over top of her, not listening at all. My son said, ‘you could be doing that, mom. And people would be listening.’”

Marie began singing with a friend’s group a couple nights a week at the local Ramada Inn, playing for tips that the band split six ways. The night-time performances were getting tiring following a full work day, however. Marie’s brother talked her into quitting her job.

“I was just getting established financially. But my brother kept saying, ‘jump.’ He said, ‘jump and the net will appear.’ So I did it. I turned in my two-week notice. The people at the bank who knew I was singing thought I’d gotten a record label contract, thought I was going on tour. But when I quit my job, I didn’t have any musical financial prospects.”

But “sure enough,” a net did appear. Marie got a call from a theater in Richmond that had an immediate vacancy for a singer.

“They had scraped the bottom of the barrel looking for someone who could come in right away. I had no problem with being at the bottom of the barrel,” Marie says.

The vocalist did not stay at the bottom for long. She was placed in the title role of the theater’s world premiere of “Ella and Her Fella, Frank,” and signed onto the MaxJazz label, producing her first CD, Renaissance, in 1999. As her musical career began to skyrocket, however, she encountered push back from her first husband (now referred to as “was-been”). It was push back of the vocal, emotional and physical variety. She filed for divorce.

Over the years Marie has documented both her struggles and triumphs in her songwriting, which to date has led to 13 albums, world tours and numerous awards, including a second Jazz Vocal Grammy nomination for 2016’s Sound of Red, Marie’s first album of all original songs.

“I do believe that I was meant to sing,” she says. “Music is my primary language. I’ve been to wonderful places. I have a wonderful husband now. I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I do have to say this. The enjoyment I get from singing, recording and traveling is not any greater than the enjoyment I had singing at home with my boys. It’s not the where. It’s the what. And the being honest and true to myself.”

Vail Jazz performances

Wednesday Aug. 2

Réne Marie makes her Vail debut with Experiment in Truth (John Chin on piano, Elias Bailey on bass and Quentin Baxter on drums) at Ludwig’s Terrace in The Sonnenalp Hotel. The first show begins at 6:30 p.m. (doors at 6 p.m.) and the second show begins at 9 p.m. (doors at 8:30 p.m.). Tickets are $40. Drink and dinner service are available for purchase.

Thursday Aug. 3

Réne Marie & Experiment in Truth take to the big stage for Vail Jazz @Vail Square at 6 p.m. General admission tickets are $25, preferred seats $40 and premium seats $50. Presented by The Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea, Vail Jazz @ Vail Square takes place every Thursday evening through Aug. 24 in the all-weather Jazz Tent in The Arrabelle courtyard in Lionshead. Drinks are available for purchase.