RENE MARIE / “Voice Of My Beautiful Country”
Ladies & gentlemen, jazz heads and lovers of singers, I present to the future of serious jazz vocals. Long live Rene Marie! This is not marketing hype, nor an infatuation with a new recording. Rene Marie has six CDs and a handful of singles. Here is her background autobiography:
I was born into a family of 9 in a very small town in Virginia. Music played a pivotal role in my life from the very beginning. It was at home that I learned the value of telling the story behind the music and how powerfully that story can move the listener and impact one's life. I learned how vital it is to convey emotion in the music by watching my father’s facial expressions and body language when he listened to music. I had one year of formal piano lessons when I was nine years old and another year when I was 13. It was during those lessons that I learned to read music. The rest of my musical ability seemed to come to me naturally. For a brief time, as a teenager, I sang in a band at musical functions in my neighborhood. In this band was a pianist, a sixteen-year-old boy who would later become my husband. I composed and sang my first piece in the band when I was 15. At the age of 18 my boyfriend and I joined a very strict religious group, got married and stopped performing in public - for good, it seemed. Four years later, I was a mother of two sons and found myself inculcating in them a love for music the same way my father had with me – by example. Many times we would sit together listening to music and I would ask them how did a certain song make them feel: Happy? Sad? Excited? Calm? Then I would ask them to stand up and show me what that would look like. Such were the 'games' we would play. Many mornings I awakened them with Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man". Other times, we would 'dance' the story of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero". At night, I would compose lullabies for them, making up verses until they fell asleep. I continued to play piano, compose, sing at home and eventually started giving piano lessons. Though my husband and I no longer performed in public, we were a very musical family, having friends over for food and conversation, but where music would be the centerpiece. My husband eventually learned to play five different instruments: trumpet, guitar, saxophone, flute, piano. Both sons sang and played several instruments between them. Occasionally, we would play together as a family. In January 1996 I was 41 and working full-time at a bank when my oldest son convinced me to start singing again. After a big family discussion, it was decided that I should call a family friend and ask to sing with his quintet. He readily agreed and I started out singing one day a week in a smoky bar of a Ramada Inn for tips only. It would be several months before I actually earned any money. However, by January 1997, my husband was displeased with the amount of time I was spending with music and told me to stop singing. I had promised him when I first started that if he ever wanted me to stop, I would. So, I did. I stopped singing for 3 months and they were a miserable 3 months. After months without singing in public, I begged, wheedled and cajoled my husband into "allowing" me to sing again. I promised him I would do whatever it took to "please" him, as long as I could sing. He capitulated and I resumed singing with a ferocity I didn't know I had. So much so that, on the last day of 1997, when this time he issued the ultimatum that I either stop singing or he would force me to leave our home, rather than stop singing, I chose to leave after 23 years of marriage. 18 months later, I had divorced my husband, produced my first CD, quit my job at the bank and signed onto the MaxJazz label. Between 2000 and 2004, I recorded four CDs on the MaxJazz label and have won several awards, both domestic and international, for those recordings. In 2005, I decided not to re-sign with MaxJazz, but to make my own way, call my own shots. In 2006, I decided not to re-sign with my booking agent, but to slow things down and work on a one-woman show. In 2007, I released "Experiment In Truth". I have never forgotten the early lessons learned about the power of music. Today, I try to imbue that feeling of emotion into every song I write – every song I sing – every time. I am very happy to be singing today. —rene marie
* * *Rene’s voice is what drew me to her initially. The second attraction was her repertoire. Third was the way she used her voice. Fourth is her politics. In the past year or so, I have considered Dianne Reeves the preeminent jazz vocalist and was especially moved by Reeves’ Art + Survival album. Dianne Reeves has been consistent in a quiet way. No fireworks, instead just a high level of artistry within the mainstream. Invariably when I pick up on her work I am impressed. A close second is Dee Dee Bridgewater. I especially like Dee Dee’s daring and experimentation with her projects. Although I’m a bit uneasy comparing and contrasting Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater because I strongly appreciate both. With her new, self-produced album Rene Marie has nudged pass both Diane Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater on the strength of her politics. I remember hearing about the brouhaha generated by Rene singing The National Anthem at a Denver city council meeting—Rene substituted “Lift Every Voice And Sing” lyrics and sung them to the “Star Spangled Banner” melody. Needless to say this generated a lot of heat. Go here to see a video of the event. When I heard about it, I smiled, gave thanks and made a note to follow up on Rene Marie. Then I heard her rendition. Man, was I knocked out. It was no simplistic performance. Just on the level of technical difficulty, this was an Olympic effort. It’s not simply a question of dramatic lyrics with which I might agree. The more important political consideration is Rene Marie’s relationship to the means of production—yeah, I know, that does not sound like it ought to be a major criterion in judging the efficacy of music but bear with me. When it comes to African heritage culture in the diaspora, whether one works on the plantation or strikes out as a maroon, a runaway who establishes a quilombo, a self-determined liberated zone, the essential element of the culture has to be the struggle for self-determination, which, given our historic and current condition, has to include some measure of opposition to the mainstream. Indeed, as far as I’m concerned, the true measure of black cultural authenticity is the relationship to the status quo, especially the status quo means of production. With respect to music, this is not just a style question, nor simply a question of what the artist says, or means, with their lyrics—although certainly content, i.e. meaning, is significant. During a period of intense competition for the hearts, minds, and assets of our people, such as the era we are in here at the beginning of the 21st century, who controls the means of production is equally as important as what is produced. Moreover, true opposition to the status quo requires a measure of self-determined detachment from the status quo or, at the very least, a self-respectful/self-respecting measure of opposition to the status quo, active opposition to oppression and exploitation. Here is where Rene Marie shines. What enabled Rene’s light to shine so resplendently bright was her decision to seize control of her life as a musician. She is not simplistically looking to get a bigger share of the action by starting her own record company while nevertheless ultimately remaining under the control of the record industry plantation of production and distribution. The key is, if we truly want to be free we have got to get away from the plantations not just physically but also in terms of our thinking, our allegiances, our spiritual beliefs and our social behavior. It does no good to run away if we will only replicate the plantation system wherever we end up. Moreover, changing places within the system is not enough either. Whether in the here and now or in some future space, we must challenge and change the system. And in order to change the system, we must have a game plan plus ways and means to effect our plan. A record label by itself is not enough. If you like, appreciate, or are intrigued by what you hear of Rene’s music, I urge you, please go to www.renemarie.com and purchase a copy of Experiment In Truth. And while you are there, read her blogs.
Music is a second language to me. From as far back as I can remember, when I couldn’t figure out a way to express whatever I was feeling, my emotions could always find their expression in music. So on the flight home, I wondered: Could I take the sentiments of these songs that had meant so much to me – that still mean so much to me – and re-frame them in a musical context that more accurately reflects the America I live in now? The America with which I more honestly identify? The America I love?
I was inspired to write a suite entitled “Voice of My Beautiful Country”, moving from sentiment to sentiment and utilizing American music: Jazz, Blues & Gospel. I use three movements: “America the Beautiful”, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and, the movement that has garnered the most attention and criticism, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” sung to the melody of the “National Anthem”. The title, “Voice of My Beautiful Country”, expresses for me the dichotomy and contradictions of being a person of color in America.
“Voice of My Beautiful Country” is my love song to America – the land I love living in. I love singing this suite; it has given me room to feel the full spectrum of emotions I most strongly connect with – joy, pain, love, pride, sentiment, unity, hope - when I think of my family, my country and my national community. It has been a journey toward making peace with the contradictions that still exist within me when I think of my past, a conduit for hope when I think of the future and given me the freedom to finally feel like an American. —Rene MarieAnyone. Everyone who enjoys and respects Rene’s music needs to read her statement—hell, even if you could care less about jazz, about this particular song, regardless, if you are alive on the planet today and are interested in creating a better world in the future, you really need to get to Rene’s statements about her life and her music, what she has attempted in the past and what she is aiming to do in the future. Rene Marie is a beautiful, bold and inspiring black woman. Go here to Rene's her July 2008 statement that focuses specifically on the Star Spangled Banner/Lift Every Voice issue. Another July 2008 blog by Rene Marie gives the back story on “Voice of My Beautiful Country.” And a July 2007 blog gives the full 411 on the Experiment In Truth CD including the details of the recording process and insight into the songs Rene selected to record, both the four covers and the seven originals.
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