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Time to fly

Rene Marie faithfully charts upward course

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Here's a quick pop quiz. Choose one: A) "Don't quit your day job" Or B) "Jump, and the net will appear."

Jazz vocalist Rene Marie faced that choice in 1998. Marie, who performs Friday at Chastain Park, was living at the time in Richmond, Va. It had already been an eventful year. She was freshly relocated from Roanoke (about 180 miles away) and freshly extricated from 23 years of marriage, with her first self-produced CD, Renaissance, in hand. Her marriage ended in December 1997, she says, after her husband gave her an ultimatum to immediately terminate her incipient musical career: no rehearsals, no gigs, no recordings -- or else.

"I was saying, 'This can't be healthy,'" Marie recalls of her husband's demand, "no matter why a person gives you an ultimatum -- 'Do this or get out of the house,' even if it's 'Scrub the floor or get out of the house.' It's not about scrubbing the floor. It's about something very wrong between you and your mate, so I knew it was time to go."

She left.

Fast forward to December 1998: Renaissance had begun to receive radio airplay and positive feedback. However, Marie's career was stalled, in great part because the work schedule from her day job at a bank didn't allow her time to promote herself and the recording. Then she attended a weekly support-group meeting that her brother, Claude, hosted in which people outlined their aspirations and the challenges they faced.

"These people had legitimate obstacles," Marie says. "One had teenage kids, another was taking care of her ill mother ... So when I told them my situation, they were assuming that I had obstacles like that, too. When I told them, no, my kids are grown, they're like, 'What's wrong with you, girl? You'd better quit your job and sing.'"

During the meeting, and in subsequent e-mails, Marie's brother repeated the phrase to her: "Jump, and the net will appear."

With short-term financial assistance from her brother and mother, Marie jumped, quitting her bank job of seven years with no substantial musical income on the horizon. Her co-workers, who were aware of her gigs and her recording, thought Marie was quitting her job to go on tour. When she said no, they asked if she'd gotten a record deal. "I said no," she recalls. "The look they gave me was, 'What the hell are you doing? Why are you quitting your job?'"

Marie was thinking the same thing. "When I walked out the door of the bank, I was so scared," she says. "But the other emotion was this giddiness, like, 'Oh my God, I'm finally doing this. I'm free.' For the first time, I had the power to decide how much I was going to work, how much I wanted to earn. It was all in my hands for the first time in my life. It was a very heady feeling, but yes, there also is fear each time you wake up the next morning. 'How am I going to do this? How am I going to work this out?'"

What happened next reads like a fairy tale. The following week, after the New Year holiday, on a day she would normally have returned to work, Marie got an urgent call from a Richmond theater company that was about to hit the road. A female vocalist in the group had required emergency surgery over the weekend, and the company wanted Marie for the tour.

Marie compares what's followed in her career to the flight of migrating birds. "They go up to certain air currents by instinct, and those air currents take them to their destination," she says. "If they had to fly, flapping their wings constantly in an air current that didn't take them to their destination, they'd be exhausted. So they go up to these air currents and end up flapping their wings one-third of the amount, while this natural force takes them where they want to go. That's how it felt with me. Once I quit the job and found this current, it was taking me exactly where I had envisioned myself going. It didn't take nearly as much effort; there weren't nearly as many challenges. The only challenge was the fear that I felt in facing each new situation, the anxiety about what was going to happen."

The currents that have lifted Rene Marie have taken her to unexpected heights: Her new CD, Live at the Jazz Standard, entered the Billboard Jazz chart at No. 26; Marie, who moved to Atlanta in 2001, is touring the country to emphatic critical acclaim; and she just returned from her second tour of Russia, where among other things she teaches non-English speaking audiences to sing "scat."

The CD, recorded late last year at Jazz Standard in New York, captures Marie in full flight. With her touring band--pianist John Toomey, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer T. Howard Curtis III--Marie reinvents such jazz standards as Rogers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring," scats an a cappella reading of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero," which segues into Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," and adds a couple of originals as well, "Shelter in Your Arms" and "Paris on Ponce." She sounds, at every moment, capable and passionate, as if she were born to do exactly what she's doing.

However, as Marie is quick to point out, a career in music, as perhaps is true in any successful venture, requires not just one faithful "jump," but a continuing series of them, each as risky in its own way as the one before. For Marie, the first of these was getting out of restaurant gigs.

"One time during a gig, I was in the middle of a ballad. A table of 10 was there, celebrating a birthday and watching the football game on the television, and they jumped up and did 'The Wave,' cheering, in the middle of the ballad," Marie recalls. "I stopped singing, and it just hit me, 'You don't need this.' I wasn't upset, I just said, 'I'm through.' I stopped in the middle of the song, unplugged the microphone and very calmly started packing my stuff. The musicians are still playing, they're vamping, wondering, when I'm going to come back in." She didn't, and went on to perform in clubs.

Subsequent jumps involved choosing only to work in venues that have in-house sound equipment and engineers, and only accepting gigs in which she can bring her own band, instead of having to play with local musicians. Each jump resulted in an adjustment period, she says, a short-term lull with a significant loss of gigs and money, before she developed momentum at the next level.

"That's a fear factor," she explains. "'How do I let go of this?' But swinging from one branch to another, you have to let go of one branch before you grab on to the next."

Her current "jump" is to increase the amount she can charge venues for her appearances. "They're paying somebody these fees," Marie told her agent. "'If these clubs aren't going to pay me, then get me in clubs that will pay me.' It sounds demanding, but it's not, because otherwise, you'll always stay where you are."

bryan.powell@creativeloafing.com

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