Thursday, October 26, 2006
In many ways, jazz singer Rene Marie and Jazz Age icon Josephine Baker couldn’t be more different.
Born into poverty in East St. Louis, Baker was an international sensation as a teenager, seducing Paris in 1925 with her outrageously erotic dancing. A gifted comedienne and enchanting singer, Baker was impulsive, mercurial, narcissistic and brave enough to risk death working against the Nazis in World War II.
West Virginia native Rene Marie is a late-blooming jazz artist who only started performing publicly at the age of 40. Classy and self-possessed, she’s a charismatic performer who radiates calm, even when she’s scatting at full throttle.
Temperamentally and biographically, Marie might seem like a world away from Baker. But she was an ideal choice to give voice to the first global African-American celebrity in the multimedia production “Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot,” presented tonight at the World Theatre by the Imani Winds.
Featuring Valerie Coleman on flute, Toyin Spellman-Diaz on oboe, Jeff Scott on French horn, Monica Ellis on bassoon, and Peninsula-raised clarinetist Mariam Adam, the Imani Winds is an innovative, Grammy-nominated chamber ensemble that combines a love of European classical music with a passion for jazz and Latin American masters, such as nuevo tango legend Astor Piazzolla. When the group approached Marie about the Joesphine Baker project, she jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with them, though she was hazy on Baker’s historical significance.
“I’m ashamed to say I hardly knew anything about Josephine Baker before they asked,” Marie says. “I’d get her and Dorothy Dandridge mixed up. Of course, now I have this better appreciation for what an amazing woman she was.”
Baker, who died at the age of 69 in 1975, was far more than a brilliant entertainer. She made herself a symbol of racial harmony, adopting a “rainbow tribe” of children that ultimately numbered more than a dozen. She left a trail of wounded relationships and financial tangles so messy that one of her children wrote: “Josephine was like the sun. We need the sun…but if you come too close, you can get burned.”
It’s impossible to overstate the central role that color played in Baker’s life, in both black and white society. She was the lightest member of her family, a situation that caused tension between Baker and her mother. Abused by families that took her in as a servant, Baker found approval as a clown, and from an early age she evidenced a gift for physical comedy. By her early teens she was working for the classic blues singer Clara Smith.
A few years later Baker was a rising star on the black vaudeville Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit, known ruefully to performers as Tough On Black Asses. She got her big break when she landed a role in Shuffle Along, the landmark Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake musical that brought black performers to Broadway (which was then truly the Great White Way).
Later, once again in the right place at the right time, she was hired to star in La Revue Negre at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, a production perfectly timed to exploit France’s growing fascination African and Asian cultures.
Accompanied by a jazz band that featured the great soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, the 19-year-old Baker captivated the audience with the Danse de Sauvage, an erotically charged duet with African dancer Joe Alex, which scandalized the show’s lighter skinned chorus girls.
In Paris, Baker was seen as a child of nature, the very essence of Africa. Of course, with its jazz and minstrel elements, the show was quintessentially American, as was Josephine’s act itself. In the early decades of the 20th century, however, black was not considered beautiful, and Baker’s deep tan skin stood out among the “high yellow” skin of the other chorus girls, who mostly shunned Baker.
She got the last laugh however, as the revue turned her into the toast of Europe. Before long she left La Revue Negre to star in her own show and became one of Paris’s most popular performers, appearing in silent films and major productions designed around her singular talents.
But Baker’s greatest moment took place off the stage during World War II. When the Nazis invaded France, she freely offered her services to the resistance as both a transporter of intelligence and a tireless campaigner for Charles De Gaulle’s government in exile. With much of the country occupied, Baker became a symbol of free France during the dark years of Vichy, tirelessly entertaining Allied troops after D-Day. Her commitment to social justice continued into the US civil rights movement, and she was a featured speaker at the 1963 March on Washington.
“She was passionate about issues,” Marie says. “She would speak out, and sometimes she was misinformed, speaking from her heart, and she’d go back and apologize later.”
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No stranger to the Peninsula, Marie was one of the highlights of the 2002 Monterey Jazz Festival. Unafraid of political themes herself, she delivered a devastating version of the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit,” in a set that also included an ache-filled rendition of of “I Loves You Porgy,” and a confident cruise through “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” that transfigured the quaint “Oklahoma!” standard into a ride as sleek and contemporary as a new Jaguar.
While Baker was a teenage phenomenon, Marie didn’t really launch her career as a jazz singer until the age of 40. Within a few years she had gained recognition as one of jazz’s most engaging new vocalists and released two magnificent albums for MaxJazz.
As a teenager growing up in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, Marie sang with local R&B bands, playing dances and parties. Her career aspirations were cut short when she married at the age of 18 and quickly started a family, though she stoked her passion for music by singing along to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald records.
Jump forward two decades to the mid-‘90s, when her son was home on a visit from Stanford University. He called her from a restaurant where he was having dinner and insisted she come meet him.
“He said, ‘There’s this lady here that’s singing, and I know you can sing better than that,’” Marie recalls. “So I drove up to the restaurant and we sat at the table and I remember looking at my son and it suddenly hit me, ‘This woman is getting paid for this!’”
With her son’s encouragement, Marie began singing around town with a jazz combo, at first working for tips. Her reputation spread—and her husband began having misgivings. At his urging she gave up singing for three months, but she was so unhappy she decided to start performing again. As she was preparing to record her first CD the situation reached a crisis point when he told her that she had to choose between her marriage and her music.
“Basically he issued me an ultimatum,” Marie says, “and then he told me, ‘If you go and come back, you’re going to be hurt.’ I left that night and didn’t come back.”
~ ~ ~
Settling in Richmond, Va., Marie continued to pursue her career, and within a year landed a gig at the prestigious Washington, DC nightclub Blues Alley, which is where the owner of MaxJazz, Richard McDonnell, first heard her. He offered her a contract on the spot, trying to recruit her onto his rapidly growing roster of vocalists such as Carla Cook, LaVern Butler and Mary Stallings.
“My mother had warned me, ‘Don’t listen to these smooth talkers,’” Marie says with a laugh, “so I kind of shooed him away.”
Once McDonnell convinced her he was for real, they got down to the business of recording How Can I Keep From Singing?, a superb album that won widespread critical praise in 2000. She followed it up with a series of excellent albums, such as 2002’s Vertigo, featuring pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Robert Hurst, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and saxophonist Chris Potter.
She may have started down her path later than most in her field, but Marie has made up for lost time with her emotionally riveting performances, bringing a vibrancy to the bandstand matched by few performers of any age. Maybe she and Baker aren’t quite so different as they first appear.
THE IMANI WINDS featuring Rene Marie present “Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot” at 7:30pm Thursday, Oct. 26, at World Theater, CSU Monterey Bay, 100 Campus Center, Seaside. $22-$25. 582-4580 or csumb.edu/worldtheater