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In the Jazz Tradition: René Marie

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The rise of René Marie embodies the triumphant spirit of song. A talented teenage bandleader in her small Virginia hometown, Marie shelved her musical aspirations for decades, returning to the stage only after her oldest son urged her to sing again at the age of forty-one. When her husband delivered an edict — leave music or leave me — she chose music, a move that gave jazz a commanding new voice. Also a composer, arranger, and theatrical performer, Marie quickly made up for lost time, recording eleven albums and drawing on a wide swath of genres to create a distinctive and captivating hybrid style. She summons the sultry allure of Eartha Kitt (to whom she paid tribute on 2013’s dazzling I Wanna Be Evil) and the sophisticated verve of Sarah Vaughan, whether shouting old-time blues, singing one of her own confessional compositions, or lending her powerful voice to the world premiere of Gerald Clayton’s Piedmont Blues at Duke in 2016. Unpredictable and bold, Marie sings with the delight of someone whose life was saved by music. In October 2017, Duke Performances staged an elaborate one-hundredth birthday party for one of North Carolina’s most inventive artists and a true pioneer of jazz, Thelonious Monk. For ten days, many of jazz’s greatest musicians filled the arts venue and former warehouse Durham Fruit & Produce with the sounds of Monk’s songbook, sometimes playing it faithfully and sometimes splintering it entirely. There were engaging talks, spontaneous improvisations, and a listening room where fans could spend time with Monk’s records. Raleigh artist André Leon Gray turned the building into a shrine to Monk’s genius and a playhouse for his legacy. Durham brimmed with “moments when the spirit of Monk’s piano playing got called up and shocked back to life in the air of the present day,” according to a rave review of the festival in The New York Times. This season, Duke Performances returns to the historic warehouse for another extended musical meditation, In the Jazz Tradition, a seven-day series featuring some of the most important women vocalists in jazz today. In recent years, a legion of jazz singers has drawn inspiration from flashpoints in race relations and the struggle for gender equality, commanding a renewed sense of urgency with their music and reaffirming the relevance and popular appeal of jazz itself. Durham visual artist Stacy Lynn Waddell — who, much like the series’ singers, explores how traditional forms can express contemporary themes — will transform the space, setting the scene for a timely update on familiar jazz traditions.

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