Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

This week's tenth annual Jazz4Justice benefit concert inspires learning across generations

Rene Marie stands midsong in a white blouse against a white backdrop, with her hands pointing to the left
John Abbott
Motema Music
RenŽ Marie MotŽma Music RubyBird Studios - Brooklyn December 17, 2015 Photography by John Abbott

Guest artist René Marie and VCU Jazz Studies director Taylor Barnett discuss the concert, a partnership between VCUArts and the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation

This Thursday marks an exciting local milestone: the tenth anniversary of the Jazz4Justice benefit concert series.

A partnership between VCUArts and the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation, Jazz4Justice typically pairs VCU jazz students with guest conductors from the community to raise money for pro bono services, legal aid, and jazz scholarships.

This year, to celebrate, they’re bringing on a guest artist: vocalist René Marie, who grew up in Roanoke and began her twenty-year career in the Richmond jazz scene.

I caught up with René and Taylor Barnett, Director of Jazz Studies at VCUArts, about the upcoming concert and the joy of teaching and learning across generations.

Annie Parnell: René is going to be the guest artist for this year's Jazz4Justice event, which will be held on March 14. What can listeners expect to hear?

Taylor Barnett: This is our 10th annual Jazz4Justice here at VCU, and we wanted to do something special this year. We have René joining us, and the first half of the concert will be a sextet of the scholarship recipients from last year's Jazz4Justice proceeds. They're going to be doing three tunes with René, two of her tunes and then a great standard, and then they'll do two tunes by themselves.

The second half I'm particularly excited about, because we're going to be premiering these new arrangements of pieces that René has written. We have four songs of Rene's that we've arranged for jazz orchestra, one of them by Doug Richards, the founder of the VCU Jazz Studies program, and a longtime collaborator of René’s. Another by Tony Garcia, who is the subsequent director of jazz studies, between me and Doug. And one by me, and then one by our professor Trey Pollard. So we have these four amazing songs that we will be sharing, and then we'll close the night off with some Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie.

Jazz4Justice is a collaboration between the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation and VCUArts. Can you both speak a little more to what its mission means for you?

René Marie: Justice needs all the help it can get. And efforts toward justice need all the attention they can get. I'm just delighted to be a part of anything that wants to promote justice among Americans – and outside the United States as well.

At the inception of jazz, there was always the issue of justice and fairness, equality. And I think it must go in cycles, the music, because there seems to be a rebirth, or a re-emergence of that theme of justice in the past few years. And I'm really glad to see it.

TB: It really is a part of the history of jazz, and jazz is a part of the history of justice — whether you're talking about Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, or Billie Holiday. It really goes on and on — Benny Goodman, John Hammond. It's been an important part of jazz history, and so that makes it a perfect fit.

Community engagement is so important for an arts organization. The idea that we're just going to be like, “well, we're just going to make our art and people are going to buy it, and we're going to sell a bunch of records” — if that ever was how it worked, it's not how it works anymore. Being able to partner with an organization where the art we make is going to be a value to them, and be a value to the community, it really is a win-win.

RM: One of the songs that you chose to arrange for the big band is called “The South is Mine,” which is also the name of a poem my father wrote, and it was inspired by this poem. I was so glad to see that you are going to do that; it is very dear to my heart.

René, you're from Virginia, and you started your career here in Richmond. How does it feel to work with this new generation of Richmond jazz?

RM: Oh, I'm so excited about it. That’s the thing about being on the road, you're not home a lot, and things just go past you. Five years pass, 10 years pass, and there's a new generation of jazz musicians, and people are saying, “Have you heard so and so play?” and you go “who is that?” “Oh, they live in Richmond!”

I'm very glad to be able to get to know just a few of the young ones that are going to be contributing to the music.

I'm really excited to work with the bass player. I understand she's also a singer, and I've always wondered, how does that work? How can you play the bass and sing at the same time? It's going to be some mutual fact-finding.

TB: René is referring to Aniyah Ricks, who’s one of our scholarship students. She’s an amazing bass player, and has also come out as a singer this past year. One of her role models is Esperanza Spalding, who is a great singer and bassist. She said “I want to try singing on something!” She’s singing with the big band, and is just great.

René used the phrase “mutual fact-finding.” I love the idea of this event as a way for all the participants to learn from each other.

RM: If you go into a place thinking you already know it all, you're going to be lost. You're going to be lost, and you're going to be embarrassed. You might as well admit that you still have a lot to learn. Nobody is ever going to know it all, so as long as we keep learning, we’ll be good.

It has absolutely nothing to do with age. Just because someone is young enough to be your grandchild or younger, doesn't mean that they don't have anything they can teach you. It's kind of been that way for my whole career because I didn't have the benefit of going to college and studying jazz. I just kind of picked it up as I went along, and learned by listening, listening, listening. Being in a university setting is a little daunting for me, but I always love the challenge of being able to cross all those boundaries and come together.

You know, it's always all about the music anyway. So it’s no use to try and act like you have something special to give it — the music's already there. We just need to make sure we play it the way it needs to be played.

René, I was spending some time with some of your recent work, and I saw this beautiful concept I'd love to talk a little bit more about: this idea that ‘pain plus wisdom equals beauty.’

RM: Oh, Annie, that's so dear to my heart. You know, when we're going through pain, we just are so down on ourselves most of the time. Usually we make efforts to end it; it's uncomfortable, it hurts, it's painful. But if we just go on through it, and learn the lesson that the pain is going to teach us, we develop some wisdom as a result of that.

And with the wisdom comes this whole new way of looking at our lives and other people that are in them, and just the way things are; we start to see the beauty of it.

I also think that aging has a lot to do with it. And when I say aging, I don't mean getting old. I mean growing from year to year — I think that has a lot to do with seeing the beauty that's all around us. It's everywhere.

I've been composing, and what's coming through me, I try not to edit it, or set it aside. I want to honor it. I go ahead and write the song, even if eight out of 10 of them are sad songs. I just go ahead and do it. There have been times in my life where all I wanted to hear was sad songs, because it helped me process what I was going through.

Jazz4Justice is Thursday, March 14, at 7:30. Is there anything else either of you would like to add while we're here together?

TB: It’s gonna be really special. If people are thinking that they might want to go, but then they also like staying home on a weeknight, you should go out. It’s really going to be special, and it's going to be something to remember.

If you feel discouraged about the state of the world, this will encourage you. These young musicians, their hard work, their dedication, the earnestness with which they approach it, and then this cross-generational care, and honoring that's going to be going on is going to be pretty great. That’s the only thing I would say, is don't miss it.

The tenth annual Jazz4Justice concert will be held this Thursday night at the Singleton Center.

Related Stories