Singer Rene Marie returns to Richmond for VCU's 10th annual Jazz4Justice show.

The singer Rene Marie launched her world-spanning career in Richmond in the late 1990s with iconoclastic covers of great songs delivered with emotional honesty and individualistic unpredictability. Starting out at nearly 40 years old, she did not waste time on pretense. Every word she sang had meaning; every feeling was genuine.

Marie’s charismatic integrity and local roots make her the ideal headliner for Virginia Commonwealth University’s 10th annual Jazz4Justice concert on Thursday, March 14.

Her transcendence of category was obvious, even when she was singing over the conversational clatter at an Innsbrook Italian restaurant. During an early Brown’s Island gig, she sucker-punch-segued a defiant “Dixie” with the random rebel yell from a clueless attendee, into the anti-lynching “Strange Fruit.” As seemed inevitable, she soon had a record deal, critically acclaimed albums, and her face on the side of a New York City bus advertising an appearance at Lincoln Center. She never wavered, famously having a moment in the right-wing anger spotlight when she merged “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Star Spangled Banner” at a public event. (The pairing, captured on her album “Voice of My Beautiful Country,” illuminated the meaning of both anthems.)

Her formidable powers are grounded in letting down her defenses. “In singing a song, even the lighthearted things, I feel I have to put vulnerability first,” Marie says. “If I don’t, I reprimand myself. I want to feel as though the words are brand new. I take chances with the melody, play with the tempo and other stuff. It’s very easy to take the music for granted. I try not to do that, to challenge myself to open up to the audience.”


For the event, she will select covers and originals with both a small ensemble and the university’s Afro-Latin and jazz orchestras. Three of the pieces are new arrangements of her own songs crafted by the current and former heads of the VCU Jazz Program- current head Taylor Barnett, his predecessor Tony Garcia, and program founder Doug Richards. “I feel really honored that they wanted to do big band arrangements of my some of my original music,” Marie says. “I remember when I sang with G.A.M.E. [Doug Richard’s Great American Music Ensemble] the first time. It was a tribute to the music of Duke Ellington. I couldn’t believe after hearing Ella [Fitzgerald] sing these songs that I was onstage singing them too.”

Marie impressed Richards the first time he heard her. “I was totally blown away that an artist of this caliber could end up coming to Richmond. I took advantage of that as soon as I could. She puts you at home, and makes the songs her own, which very few artists do.” Richards featured Marie on his big band album (“It’s All in the G.A.M.E,” Jazzed Media) recorded in 2001, and Marie brought Richards to arrange and conduct for a New York City Town Hall concert.

Conveying intimacy in a concert hall is a rare talent. It is one Marie has had since her early days when she had people scat singing in the John Marshall Hotel Bar with their eyes closed, watching closely, and correcting anyone who dared to cheat. Even today, she doesn’t know how she “had the nerve” to do that.

“It is just something about being onstage that I go to a place I ordinarily don’t feel the need to access. I am faced with this large group of people that I have a very strong desire to connect with and to please musically,” she explains. “Not to the point where I would sacrifice my principles. But while we are together, I want them to enjoy themselves, at least for one song. To make a tense person’s shoulders relax, or someone who is dour faced to smile, just for a little bit.”

She notes that not everyone wants to let go of their defenses: “They may live a whole life where they have just never done that. So that is my goal. There is something about being onstage with a microphone that becomes a little bit dangerous. I am liable to say certain things that I would never say in conversation.”

The songs Marie has chosen for her upcoming performance all have personal resonances. “Rufast Daliarg” – the first work is an anagram for “run-fall-stand”- was for her son Desmond, while “Stronger Than You Think” was for her other son Michael. The tune “Blessings” came to her spontaneously when she was visiting her late brother Claude in the hospital. A friend dying of cancer commanded her to set the “Serenity Prayer” to music.

“The South is Mine” shares its name with a poem written by her father. “Due to the racism and Jim Crow we were all under in Virginia at the time, a lot of his brothers and sisters moved North,” Marie says. “They tried to get him to leave but he basically said ‘Why would I leave my family’s land and the place I was born just to be treated with dignity and respect? I would rather stay here and fight.’ His poem was long and tinged with anger and bitterness. It was so much in his voice that I found it hard to set to music. But I loved the title and wrote my own lyrics. My father never got to hear it, but he certainly inspired it, that’s for sure.”

The social evils of the past cast a long shadow. Prejudice learns to be polite. The battle for justice is, alas, a forever war. Declaring victory is surrender. That does not mean fighting the good fight cannot be seeing a world class singer performing arrangements by Richmond music legends backed by the latest crop of young musicians on an almost spring night.

VCU’s Tenth Annual Jazz4Justice, sponsored by the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation and the VCUarts Department of Music, takes place Thursday, March 14, at 7:30 p.m. at VCU’s W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Ave., Admission is $35 in advance, $40 day of the show. (Tickets for VCU Students with ID are $20) There will be a catered reception preceding the show at 6:30 p.m. 


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