A curious thing happened to René Marie when she entered her 40s. She began to sing. Again.
The veteran jazz singer was no stranger to music up to that point. She was raised in a Warrenton, Va. family of musicians and sang with R&B bands in her teens. But marriage, family, divorce, and employment that led her not to the stage but to a day job at a bank would occupy her life in the ensuing decades. The idea of refocusing her life on singing then surfaced, but it didn’t come from a talent scout or music executive. It came from her son.
“See, when I was singing before, I was just a teenager,” said Marie, who performs Saturday at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, less than a month before her record “Sound of Red” vies for best jazz vocal album at the 59th annual Grammy Awards. “I was just in high school. My plan when I was a teenager was not to be a singer. I was going to go to college to become a lawyer. Singing was just, ‘Oh, this is fun.’
“So the reason my son suggested it wasn’t, ‘Mom, go back to what you were doing,’ because that was not something he knew about me — not really. It was, ‘Mom, you sing these songs at home all the time and you sound better than these singers I’m listening to right now.’ I was like, ‘Boy, I’m too old to get started doing this. You don’t get started in your 40s singing jazz. Are you crazy?’ But he was like, ‘No, mom, you can do it. Just try it.’”
There were so many songs of mine in my file cabinet, and still are, that I had written years ago that had never seen the light of day.
Marie did try it, beginning with a series of albums for the indie label Maxjazz in the late 1990s that eventually led to 2013’s “I Wanna Be Evil,” a tribute recording to the singing of Eartha Kitt that earned Marie her first Grammy nomination and the jazz trio-dominated sound circulating in the 11 original compositions that make up “Sound of Red.”
“We had this friend who had his own quintet and ran this jam session on Wednesday nights in the basement of the Ramada Inn hotel in Roanoke,” Marie said. “That’s when I got my start — listening to jam sessions, sitting in, learning songs. I had never sung with a jazz band. I didn’t know the first thing about it, except for what I had heard on recordings. I didn’t know the lingo — nothing about it in terms of the theory behind it. I felt it, but I didn’t know what you called it, I didn’t know how to describe jazz. I didn’t really know any of the great jazz musicians. I only knew Ella (Fitzgerald) and Sarah (Vaughan) and that was it. But the more I sang, it was bringing back a memory to me of how much I loved singing with musicians. I found that I enjoyed scatting. I just thought, ‘Wow, I have an ear for this I didn’t really know I had. I just had fun with it.”
Marie’s cool, conversational singing weaves its way on “Sound of Red,” through the troubled extramarital romance of “Go Home” and the considerably more jubilant global groove of “Joy of Jazz,” aided by pianist John Chin, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Quentin E. Baxter, the same working trio that will perform with her at the Norton Center performance. So how does Marie think “Sound of Red” will fare at the Grammys, especially considering she will be going against profound jazz stylists Kurt Elling (by way of a collaborative album with Branford Marsalis), Gregory Porter, Catherine Russell and Tierney Sutton?
“I feel like the pendulum had swung so far to the right in terms of doing the tribute to Eartha Kitt. That music was fun. There was no denying that. But there were so many songs of mine in my file cabinet, and still are, that I had written years ago that had never seen the light of day.
“After the novelty of singing the Eartha Kitt tunes wore off, I started longing to sing my own songs. So I think that’s probably what did it. It’s like being able to eat a lot of rich food when you’re traveling in France. Then you think, I just want to have string beans. I just want to have a plain meal. And how do you get that? You get it at home. So musically speaking, I just went home.”