- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2002

As a child, Rene Marie listened a lot to folk, country western, classical music and calypso but no jazz. The singer, who is among the most respected jazz vocalists in the country, had no experience with the genre until she was in junior high school. That's when she went to see the film "Lady Sings the Blues" because she wanted to see Diana Ross.

"I didn't know who Billie Holiday was," says the singer, who will be appearing Saturday at the Kennedy Center's new KC Jazz Club."I couldn't believe the music I heard."

Today, her song stylings prompt comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. But rest assured, Miss Marie's takes on familiar standards are entirely her own.

Unlike many jazz vocalists, there is little vibrato in her voice. She owes that, she says, to all those years listening to bluegrass. And she thanks calypso for her use of changing facial expressions, and the growls and whispers that at times infuse her voice.

There's more than a hint of folk influence, too. She owes that, she says, to such groups as Peter, Paul and Mary.

"Their music captures such a lot of emotions," she says. "They combine social protest, love songs, and all the poignant and sad sounds associated with folk music."

Still, when Miss Marie juxtaposes two well-known pieces of music, one folk, the other associated with jazz, the resulting sound and the courage it takes to present it are all hers.

"To see an African-American woman up there singing 'Dixie' can trigger some very intense emotions," she says. "Some people are confused, even angry. But when I shift into 'Strange Fruit,' there are many people in tears," she says referring to Miss Holiday's take on Southern lynchings.

Miss Marie is just one of the relatively unheralded jazz artists who will be appearing at the new club. Instead of presenting jazz on one of its great stages, Kennedy Center personnel have transformed the rooftop-level education center into an intimate setting with cabaret seating and refreshments served at your table.

All of the artists appearing in the first two weekends of the jazz club are on the roster of MaxJazz, the 3-year-old label that was founded by former investment banker Richard McConnell to make great jazz accessible and establish a partnership with artists. Known for high-quality sound and stylish covers that hearken to the old days of the LP, MaxJazz has also helped foster public interest in artists, such as Miss Marie, who are on the cusp of stardom.

•••

Pianist Peter Martin will be performing tomorrow at the KC Jazz Club. The 30-year-old wunderkind learned to play the violin before he could speak. So when the precocious child of musicians his father was a violist with the St. Louis Symphony, his mother a violin teacher announced that at 13 that he was turning to jazz, his parents were more than a little worried.

Until the day a jazz musician came to collaborate with the symphony. Mr. Martin's father was so impressed by his musicianship that he asked him to talk to his son.

Seventeen years later, Mr. Martin counts Wynton Marsalis as one of his mentors.

•••

Kicking off the series today is the jazz pianist's jazz pianist, Mulgrew Miller. Known for a striking melodic line and a strong sense of rhythm and harmony, Mr. Mulgrew found his own life change after hearing Oscar Peterson when he was just 14.

"That's when it all came together for me," Mr. Miller says. "There was soul, creativity and virtuosity. After that, I knew what I wanted to do."

That's not to say his style hasn't evolved since then. In recent years, he has developed a more expansive melodic conception that plays with line and form in a manner that prompts comparisons to Bud Powell and Ahmad Jamal.

•••

If you can't get into the KC Jazz Club after all, the venue only seats about 140 Blues Alley offers an attractive option. Dr. Blues and his Screamin' Blue Orchestra will appear Sept. 9.

Think Danny Gatton or Ronnie Earl. There's even a bit of Duke Robillard himself hovering somewhere around the guitar work by Alan Stone (aka Dr. Blues).

After 20 years as a first-call player and studio musician, Mr. Stone decided to jettison all the jazz and concentrate on his first love, the blues.

So the accomplished guitar player put together a trio and was soon playing gigs in smoke-filled bars up and down the East Coast. One night he was "discovered" by legendary Hammond B-3 player Ron Levy, who encouraged him to take things up a notch and put out a CD. The two began working together, and the result was "Something Old, New, Borrowed 'n' Blue," featuring Mudcat Ward, Warren Grant and Mr. Levy.

Mr. Stone's fascination with the blues began when he was 8, when he heard Louis Armstrong.

"It thought there was lightning bolts," he says with a laugh. "I went home and announced that I was going to be a musician."

A few years later, he started making his way to the downtown blues and jazz clubs in his native Chicago. It wasn't long before he was sitting in with the band, backing up blues harpist Walter Horton and finding studio work. By the time he made it to Texas, he was heavily involved in avant-garde jazz.

What makes his sound is the fusion of both those styles. Certainly, the jazz isn't all gone. But when you hear Mr. Stone and the band play a set, it may take you a while to realize you are listening to Miles or Monk.

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