Jazz singer Rene Marie found a loving audience and a new life in 

Curtain Call

Rene Marie's farewell appearance has been sold out for weeks, but at Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for the Performing Arts, dozens of people have queued in the lobby hoping for standby tickets.

The lights go down. Rene comes onstage alone. She gets the kind of ovation usually reserved for the end of a performance. "We love you, Rene," a voice calls from deep in the audience.

"And I love you too, Lynn," Rene answers softly.

Soon, Rene will move from Richmond to Atlanta. Among other incentives, Rene has been seeing someone in Georgia. She also finds it easier to walk around Atlanta without being regularly approached by autograph-seekers, as she is in Richmond.

In this farewell performance, Rene opens by leading the crowd in a handclap rhythm through which she weaves an a cappella blues melody. Her singing ranges from bluesy growls to angelic falsetto, a model of relaxed precision. While she experiments with tone and timing, the lyrics are delivered clearly; even her abstract vocalizations have the confidential warmth of a conversation.

The performance would make a Hollywood ending: The singer and her audience creating the song together. The camera cutting from the spotlighted stage to find all the people in darkness who made the moment possible — the jazz community activists, the musicians, friends, loyal fans. They had adopted and supported the singer since she arrived in Richmond, knowing almost no one.

A week later, offstage, Rene is quiet, almost shy; her dynamic performing persona toned down but otherwise unchanged. Contemplative about her success in Richmond, she chooses her words with care. "I could never have done it alone," the singer says. "I was too weak."

Rene Marie was born Rene Marie Stevens in Warrenton, Va., in 1955. "We were poor," Rene says. "I was one of seven kids in a three-bedroom house. No hot water. Outdoor toilet. Four of my brothers shared a single room, two to a twin bed. My mother and father slept on a pullout sofa in the front room. Dad was an alcoholic, kind of like two different people. He introduced me to music, but he was terrible, violent when he was drunk."

"Those times were grim and then they were poetic, like a two-sided coin," recalls older sister Lynn Stevens. "Our parents created a creative atmosphere. Dad read poetry at night; he would make up games and songs while we were shucking peas or corn. You never knew if it was going to be a great experience or a disaster."

Her father lost his teaching job and was blackballed after protesting lunch-counter segregation. "He did some carpentry work after that, but more and more he just drank," Rene says. Somehow, in this time, her mother scrimped up the money to buy a piano.

When Rene was 10, her parents divorced and her mother moved the children to Roanoke. Her mother worked three jobs. And after a couple of years, Rene says, her family had worked its way into the middle class.

Music continued to be part of Rene's life. At age 15 she started singing professionally with the Randolph Brothers, a local blues band. Her nascent career ended when she was married at 18 and became a Jehovah's Witness. The religious group's strict tenets were incompatible with a performing career.

But 20 years later, Rene's marriage was over, and her two sons were grown. She was working in the commercial division of First Union Bank when her son Michael, home from college for Christmas in 1995, encouraged her to go see a jazz band at a local restaurant. "My sister-in-law Laurie Stevens and I asked if we could perform during the breaks," Rene recalls, "and the band let us."

A short time later, she was leading a band, singing for tips and gaining a following. "I was working full-time at a bank, and I was doing gigs at night," she says. "I would be on the road at 2 a.m. and know I had to be at work the next day.

"It was a real struggle spiritually and emotionally to decide what to do about singing. But singing was the only thing that brought me joy."

Eventually she decided to leave the Witnesses, even though she knew the split would mean that her close friends in the sect would no longer speak to her. "That's how the religion is," Rene says. "I felt the same way about other people who had left. But I couldn't stay if I didn't believe what I had to believe anymore."

When Rene was offered the opportunity to move to Richmond as part of the First Union team responsible for training newly acquired Signet personnel, she took it.

"I'm only half-joking when I say I ran away from home," Rene says. "My ex-husband was … threatening me, saying he was going to show up at gigs." Then her son Michael was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison. She declines to discuss the details. But she does say, "It was the absolute low point in my life."

(In concert, Rene praises her ex-husband — she refers to him only as her "was-band" — a hard-working man who supported her singing. For example, she says, he bought her first PA equipment. Style's efforts to contact him were unsuccessful.)

"I was always trying to get her to move to the big city," says Lynn Stevens, Rene's sister. "I lived here, and so did our oldest brother. She needed to get out of her familiar surroundings."

Even with family around, moving to Richmond was a leap into the unknown. "I didn't know anyone, and I thought people would be mean," Rene recalls.

She got her first taste of Richmond attitude when she brought back the Ryder moving truck two days late. "I thought I would need an excuse, but the guy said 'no problem' and he didn't charge me anything. That was when I first thought things might work out all right."

One of the first things Rene did was to join the Richmond Jazz Society. "B.J. Brown, Robert Payne and everybody welcomed me with open arms," Rene says. "I was a little worried because I knew that they had known [local jazz singer] Desiree Roots ever since she was a child, and they might see me as a competitor."

Not so. Her membership in the Jazz Society led to a number of contacts in the local musical community. Rene sat in a few times with Walter Bell and his Latin Jazz Unit, and the high-energy flutist/entrepreneur gave her a lot of advice about where to play. One of Bell's sidemen, bassist Elias Bailey, would become a key member of her regular Richmond band. James "Saxmo" Gates invited her to perform with a group he had put together for the Jazz Society's guest educator series. It was the first time she played with pianist Bob Hallahan.

"I hadn't heard of her before," says Hallahan, a longtime professor with VCU's jazz program. "I liked a lot of the things she did, and I remember being interested in how it would go over the course of an entire gig, rather than just a couple of songs."

In a few months Hallahan was part of Rene's regular band, along with Bailey and drummer Howard Curtis. "She definitely did well with the musicians," Hallahan says. "Sometimes a front person has the attitude that they're up there and you're in back. Rene came across as another musician. When she wasn't singing she was every bit as much into the music as when she was. She made it clear that we were all in this together.

"She would be the first to admit that she didn't have a technical and theoretical musical background, but she always had a musical vision," Hallahan adds. "She was open to suggestions, but she always knew what she wanted to do with a song."

In those days Richmonders could see Rene several times a week, often without paying a cover. She worked a lot, with regular gigs at Carnivores, Barristers, Belle B and Chef Maxwell's. Her unique performing style started to attract a following.

"It wasn't just her singing," Hallahan says, "it was what happened between the songs. It's her naturalness. She's very genuine, completely herself when she is bantering with the crowd. And she has a great sense of humor that is completely her own.

"And that's just taking as a given her musical talent. Her ears and confidence have developed, and she continues to experiment and try different things. Every time I play with her I hear new things in her singing."

Hallahan sees the combination of ability and character as key to the singer's success. "People commit to Rene because she commits to her music. That creates a sort of magnetism. And she has had a very good manager in John Fechino, who worked for her out of love of vocal jazz and what Rene does in that idiom."

Fechino, a sales executive for local printing firm Worth Higgins, heard a couple of cuts from Rene's first CD, "Renaissance," on public radio and made it a personal mission to find her.

"I felt like her gift was so incredible — she is in a league with Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan," Fechino says.

But when Fechino met Rene she was not yet the confident singer she would become. "At that point, she was like a frightened cat — huddled close to the piano. I gave her a little bit of advice about performing, encouraged her to come out front and lead."

"John started coming to all my gigs, sometimes bringing his wife and kids," Rene recalls. "We would talk between sets. He suggested songs and offered to help. There were a lot of people trying to represent me at that time, but he was so enthusiastic and so persistent. And unlike all the others, he never had any interest in money. He said, 'Let's not even talk about that yet.'"

Sometimes Fechino even paid for things out of his own pocket. "When something good happened, he was always more excited than I was," Rene says. "I needed that enthusiasm. He was just what I needed at that time."

"What was holding her back was all of the other things, the day-to-day business things that had to be done," Fechino says. "It was never about working as a professional manager. In the early days I was working for free. Her brothers were helping out. So was her fan club."

The fan club had been organized by twin sisters Nadine Wingfield and Annette Wall. They called themselves "Rene's Croanies," and they were early and passionate advocates.

"We first saw her at one of the Jazz Society's Thursday night events at Willow Lawn," Wingfield says. "I felt sorry for her for being new in town, and I wondered what she could do. Then she started singing and I thought, Wow."

The two approached the singer after the show, as she was struggling to sell and sign her recordings. "We asked her if she needed someone to sell CDs for her," Wall says. She said 'Sure, but who would I get to do that?' It began from there."

Soon the two were at every performance, selling discs and drumming up support. Wall started making custom T-shirts, and the club's "Croanies" name came from one of the first she made. "We adopted her as a younger sister," Wall says. "We just love her, and we would do anything to make sure she had what she needed, wherever she was."

Such avid fan support was an unprecedented phenomenon for a Richmond jazz performer. And it was organized enough to fill a bus for an out-of-town trip to her first major-market appearance, a Monday night gig at Washington, D.C.'s Blues Alley. The hometown crowd on away-turf helped to make the performance a key success.

Washington City Paper critic Joel Siegel gave her a glowing review in which he wrote that she was "so assured and relaxed that listeners would never suspect that she has been singing professionally for less than three years." Siegel isn't just any critic — among other things, he's a former manager of jazz legend Shirley Horn — and his endorsement led directly to Rene's contract with MaxJazz, a boutique jazz label based in St. Louis.

That first MaxJazz release, "How Can I Keep From Singing?" proved that her interpersonal magic could be digitally captured enough to gain national attention and reach No. 1 on the Gavin jazz-radio charts within three months of its release. It also won Rene an award for best jazz vocal from the Association for Independent Music.

(The album's release did require the Croanies to make an adjustment when she dropped Croan, her married name.)

The new CD, "Vertigo," is even more ambitious and accomplished. It features such well-known jazz sidemen — well-known among jazz fans, anyway — as Mulgrew Miller on piano, Chris Potter on saxophone and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums.

"I like it so much better because it is more me," Rene says. "I liked the first one, too, but I was so intimidated by the process I didn't speak up. And when I did I was too easily swayed."

Highlights of the new CD include a complete re-imagining of the Beatles' "Blackbird," and a tour-de-force combination of "Dixie" and "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday's lament on lynching. Rene says the headlong title song was "inspired by Alfred Hitchcock and James Brown." Its sophisticated structure illustrates her growing strength as a composer. Its subject is the dizzying, disorienting feeling of falling in love.

It was drawn from life, inspired by Rene's new true love, the one she is joining in Atlanta. In other words, it's about why she is leaving Richmond. "We know she has to move on," says Annette Wall. "And we know that something wonderful is waiting for her in Atlanta."

At Rene's valedictory VCU appearance, almost all of the people who made Rene's Richmond years a success are present.

John Fechino, who with Rene's departure, is returning to a life dedicated to family and work, is sitting in the center of the orchestra section. So is her family, including sister Lynn Stevens, now a painter, and the early supporters from The Jazz Society. The Croanies are in the back, ready to head for the lobby to sell CDs when the applause ends.

Onstage, Howard Curtis and Elias Bailey anchor the rhythm section. Bob Hallahan is absent because of a schedule conflict, but the very capable John Toomey takes his place. There are special guests — guitarist Kevin Hardin and the great Richmond-based jazz violinist Joe Kennedy Jr.

And most special of all to Rene, Michael Croan, the son who convinced her to take the first steps that had led to this performance, singing with her onstage for the first time. Their wordless vocal lines intertwine, coalescing into a soulful version of Gershwin's "Summertime." (Rene humorously milks the "Your mama's good-looking" line.)

The night ends with Rene onstage alone again, singing "How Can I Keep From Singing?" On the road, the singer has often woven her life story through Irish singer Enya's anthem about the transforming power of song. But many in this audience already know the story, so the song becomes a statement of pride and farewell.

"My only regret from that night is that I was so proud of Michael, and so happy with the way things went that I forgot to thank all the people there who made it possible," Rene says later. "I will really miss the people here."

If Rene Marie gained much from Richmond, the city received much in return. "No matter where she had gone she would have drawn people to her," says Bob Hallahan. "Singing is what she was meant to do, and people were meant to hear her."

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