Detroit native Althea René does not take ‘No’ for an answer. So, when the jazz industry said that flute was not a jazz instrument and that she’d get no smooth jazz airplay with the flute, she undertook a long process of building a pathway in jazz. Raised as a classical flautist, music student of Howard University, and daughter of jazz musician Dezie McCullers, René is the first flautist to hit number one on the Billboard jazz chart, where the title track from her 2013 album IN THE FLOW resided for eight weeks and remained in the top five for more than ten. Her single “Sunday Cruise” is currently number seven on the jazz charts.
“I always knew the flute was an instrument that belonged right alongside the sax, the trumpet and the guitar. The jazz radio would not play a flute, and they still play it less than the sax, but the flute is now validated in jazz,” she emphasizes. “You can’t just exclude the flute and say it’s not a smooth jazz instrument. I just don’t away. Now, I’ve ensured that even if I’m not here, there’s a whole line that’s going to continue.”
It’s not likely she’s going away anytime soon, though, because what René provides listeners is still something rare and beautiful. She’s jazz because her music is instrumental. She can play that sweet flute music, but is not content to be background. She captures your mind with flute that is rhythmic percussion, aggressive, R&B, and she is dancing in the midst of it all.
“I call what I do “Flute Talk,” and I actually talk into the flute,“ she says. “You can talk, scream, whatever you want to do, and you are actually vocalizing in the flute while you play. I first learned that from Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, and I thought, how cool would that be if a woman did that with the higher register.”
Spin classes and high-endurance workouts enable René to perform. “The flute is not an easy instrument to just stand there and blow. Every layer makes it more difficult. So, if you add the dancing to the breathing and then the singing, it’s not something you see a lot of flautists doing, and it’s taken years of condition and training to do that. It always helps to have a good pair of heels, too,” she says laughing.
René attended Howard University through a classical music scholarship and had never played jazz. She expected to graduate and play with a symphony orchestra. Howard didn’t teach her jazz in the classroom, but it enabled her to attend local jazz jam sessions like the ones her dad did back in Detroit. And like all the great musicians, once she realized her musical calling, she devoted serious hours to learning the chords, studying the books, and just jamming with like-minded musicians whenever she could. But even then, she faced other challenges conquerable only by those with the most resolution to not be denied.
“Being a woman and young at the time, it was as if I wanted to play the Blues. When you’re young, people are like, How can you know the Blues? It’s the same with jazz,” she says. “There’s a lot of not being taken seriously for women, but that just made me stronger,” she says. “None of that was going to make me quit. People will be threatened, and so when anyone feels threatened, they have to put that feeling on you, and they have to scare you. And if they can’t scare you, you’re in. If you love it, then the audience will find you.”
René’s audiences now expect her flute talk at some point during a show. The best thing, she says, is that no two flute talkers will ever sound alike. René’s multidimensional ways make her music more eclectic than emulative of the straight jazz style of the 1930s and 1940s. But unlike some contemporary jazz artists who aren’t quite sure how they fall under the jazz umbrella, René knows her audience very well.
“Jazz festivals cater to people who like to sit out and enjoy music they can relax to,” she says. “There are so many different artists that are doing some form of jazz and who say that they are not jazz. They are eclectic. But it all works when these artists come together, so it brings a whole different dynamic in the audiences.”
While she is often dressed to the nines onstage, you might find René most relaxed in jeans and a t-shirt. Before achieving the ability to solely perform professionally, René performed for 10 years while at the same time working as a Deputy Sheriff in Michigan to provide stability for her family. The money she saved funded her first two projects. From the experience in law enforcement, she says she learned to appreciate her parents and not take life for granted.
Not taking life for granted, when followers of the Mayan calendar predicted the world ending in 2012, René didn’t know what to think. Like all musicians in a jam, she turned to music.
“I actually started recording the IN THE FLOW cd on the day that the world was supposed to end,” she recalls lightheartedly. “I was one of those people that wasn’t sure, and I figured if it was going to end, then I was going to be doing what I love. But every day could be your last day. Every time I perform, I do it like it could be the last time.”