Renee has performed with Taj Mahal, Carmen McRae, Dizzy Gillespie, David “Fat Head” Newman, Nat Adderley, Mel Lewis Orchestra, Mingus Big Band, Chico O’Farrill Orchestra, George Gruntz Big Band, Arturo O’Farill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, David Amram, John Ventimiglia and many others.
Renee has 3 CD’s of her own, and has been awarded several grants. Renee has also been a teaching/performance artist in hundreds of schools, senior centers and special needs settings. As a student of the famed brass instructor, Carmine Caruso and several other notable teachers, Ms. Manning has developed her own vocal method.
Earl has performed with Gil Evans, the Mingus Big Band Miles Davis, Taj Mahal, Lester Bowie, The Band, Stevie Wonder, McCoy Tyner, Carla Bley, Lou Rawls, Jeffrey Osborne, Aretha Franklin, Cedar Walton, Levon Helm, the Count Basie Orchestra, the Ellington Orchestra, the Thad Jones -Mel Lewis Orchestra (with whom he was associated for over 20 years) Slide Hampton, George Gruntz, Cecil Taylor, the Carnegie Hall Jazz band, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Chico O’Farrill, Arturo O’Farill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Fred Ho, Renée Manning and others.
His arranging and orchestrating credits include Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross, the “Saturday Night Live” band, Johnny Copeland, Cedar Walton, The Mingus Big Band, Elvis Costello, Steve Turré, Bob Stewart, Jon Faddis, J.J. Johnson, the Art Ensemble of Chicago as well as Cannonball and Nat Adderley. Earl has received numerous grants and was nominated for the ” Most Valuable Player of The Year ” from the NARAS. He appears on at least three Grammy award-winning records and has numerous film & Broadway credits, involved in a number of Tony winning productions and has his CD out as well.
I was like a brown Shirley Temple. At about age 4, I was dancing and singing but when I injured myself in dance, I decided to concentrate on voice. I later got into the School of Music and Art for the visual arts and voice, but I chose voice. I fell in love with Classical music.
I’ve done so many remarkable things. I’m the vocalist people would call when there was odd metered music and strange melodies, as I’m like the kid who will eat the worm on a dare. I keep an open mind and supposedly have great rhythm, great ears.
My wife is a little shy so I’ll add to this.
Years ago George Gruntz came to the “Village Vanguard” when we were performing and wanted to talk to Renee about a project called “Cosmopolitan Greetings.” It’s an opera with a libretto written by Alan Ginsberg about Bessie Smith’s first day in New York.
A lot of it was poly-chordal, poly-tonal music. He gave her the parts to learn and she flies off to Germany to rehearse and perform with the Cologne Radio Orchestra with guest artists Shelia Jordan, Mark Murphy, Don Cherry, Howard Johnson and Ray Anderson. But what George neglected to tell her until she gets there, was that she was playing the lead role of Bessie Smith.
I had a bad respiratory infection and the doctor told me not to travel, but of course I did. After arriving in Germany I laid down to rest but immediately the phone rings. They were wasting no time calling rehearsal. I walked in and the orchestra had some bad feelings since they had a hard time with the previous singer, so they were very cold initially. George picks the most difficult, fastest tune in the opera with the Ginsberg libretto, “ blood thick in the head of my prick”.
I took my shoes off, planted my feet and hit it. Though I was a little peon with these stars after that point, they all relaxed. Shelia Jordan walks up to me and says, “Hi, I’m Sheila Jordan, I’ve done this opera a few times before and this is the first time I’ve actually heard all the words.” So we were off and running from there. It was the first time I was a guest soloist. I was a wreck.
A friend had made me some wigs and it was one of those bad hair days so I put on the wig. I was running late and ran through the rain and got onstage for the performance. I plant my feet down and my heels gets stuck in the floor which makes my wig shift cause I forgot to pin the wig, I had to step out of the shoes and leave them there and everyone in the whole opera had to step around them! When I came back out for my bow, I see that Howard Johnson had just wiggled the shoes free. He gets down on one knee like I was Cinderella and puts them on me. The crowd goes wild! After that George had every single stage checked and taped. That opera was a great experience. I also made the most money I’d ever made as an artist. During that opera, I had developed a close relationship with Don Cherry. I managed to keep him well through those performances. He and I were like family. Don always asked George to put me in the room next to him in every hotel.
Renee has a kind of mom or sister thing with the old school guys. They feel real comfortable around her and open right up to her.
Don told me that Earl and I had to be his guest at the “Village Vanguard" when we got back to NY, so we went. Don just hugged me and two weeks later he died. It broke my heart. I did another opera with George called, “The Magic of the Flute.” I got to be the “Queen of The Night”, but that’s another story. Mel Lewis came to one of my funk gigs and afterwards asked me to sit in with his band.
I thought, you want me? Larry Willis used to say,” Come on, it’s time for you to learn some adult songs”, so he’d taught me standards. I already knew some but I never thought I’d be working in the jazz idiom.
Mel didn’t care for that style of music but when we were playing in the band some of the guys told Mel about Renee. To give you an idea, once when Thad Jones was riding in the car with Mel, Thad put on some James Brown music. Mel actually wanted to get out of the car, but then he could see the wave of the future and changed up. A lot of jazz musicians were like warriors.
They came up in a certain generation; they had to fight to get their music heard, and fight to protect it. It could get personal, unless you had a wider scope. In fact, Louis Armstrong originally wasn’t a fan of bebop.
So, it’s my first night at the “Village Vanguard.” It wasn’t normally packed at that time, but that night it was. I get up there and think “ok, I’m leaving after these two tunes cause I’m gonna mess it up”, but they loved it. The owner, Max Gordon, usually didn’t like singers so I get ready to leave after the set and he says, “Oh no, take your coat off, you’re staying, I need you to do the next set.” He told Mel, “I think she should be singing here with you every Monday night”. And I did. I sang there with Mel Lewis every Monday night for 5 years. We were all going on tour.
I saw Mel was talking to Carmen McRae at the airport. What Mel forgot to tell me was, Carmen McRae would be on tour with us. “We’re opening for her and Carmen wants to meet you.” I was petrified. It was my first jazz tour and I’m opening for Carmen. I thought they had lost their mind. Mel said. “Renee, it’s gonna be ok.” Earl says, “Ok, sugar, calm down.” Everyone’s telling me that Carmen had a reputation for being hard with vocalists. Either she loved you, I mean really loved you- cause she was into ladies or she didn’t like you at all. I walk over to her and my legs are pretty weak, “Hello Ms. McRae. I’m Renee Manning,” I say. Carmen smiles and says, “First of all call me Carmen, not Ms. McRae.” And I reply, “Ok Ms. McRae”.
This should be fun,” she says. I’m onstage at a huge open-air huge concert in Spain. Carmen walks by with her entourage and I freeze. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, “Renee, are you ok?” the band is asking. I finally say, “Hola” to the crowd and the crowd roars. I hit my tunes and all of a sudden I see tons of things coming at me. I’m thinking of a cartoon where they’re throwing vegetables at me.
At the end, I go off the stage, start bawling thinking they hate me; they’re throwing stuff at me. I’m zipping my dress down and the promoter is zipping it up. He’s drying my tears, putting my shoes on. “No, Ms. Manning, they love you.” The audience is stomping by now. The promoter walks me out and I see 2 young girls with flowers. I bend down towards them and realize the stage is totally covered in flowers. We did an encore and the promoter says, “See Miss Manning, Spain loves you!” Carmen comes on and does her thing. Afterwards, Mel says Carmen needs to talk with us. We sit down and Carmen says, “you’re spot on, good job. For the next few days I open, you close.” They flipped it so she opened, then we played.
On the plane, she had a young lady with her and Carmen had the young lady switch seats with me so I could sit with her and talk. “ Don’t worry about what you wear, cause they’re gonna hear you first, then see you,” she said. Carmen was very kind to me.
Once we did a hit and run (a gig where you don’t even stay in a hotel).We went from New York to Lugano, Switzerland to Stockholm, Sweden. It was like 30 hours. We played the concert, finishing at 2 am with a jam session with McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders. Then we took a bus and 5 ferries to Stockholm. The Basie Band was there too. Someone pulled a yacht up by the stage cause there was no dressing room. I’m trying to polish my nails, then someone takes my polish from me and starts polishing my nails. This woman says, “why are you so nervous? They put their pants on one leg at a time too.” I recognize the voice. I look up and it’s Lena Horn! Carmen had talked about me to Lena. Everyone around us stops and wonders, who Lena is talking to, “That friend of mine talked very highly of you. She said this young woman is going to make some steps. Just stay true to yourself and always remember’ you’re only half of it. If one person walks away touched, you’ve done your job.”
I was a coloratura soprano and I could really sing up there. I used to get hired for that range, that’s how I got all those gigs. I could do very high riffs, but then I got pregnant and the more pregnant I got the more my voice dropped. It dropped an octave and a fifth. I used to have the F above high C. My voice got so low that people would call and say to me “Hey Earl, sorry for waking you up.” My mom was hanging up on me not knowing who I was, so I stopped talking. Thank god for my husband who kept encouraging me. I thought I was done. He talked to this brilliant man named Carmine Caruso who was the teacher for almost 90 percent of the brass players in the New York City recording studios. I saw him for a year. After a year he goes to the window and puts his hands up like a bird. It was my last lesson. It was time for me to fly.
“I only ask you one thing”, he said, “and that is to share”.
The only singer who knows this method is Renee.
I took all that training I got from him and the teachers from Music and Art and developed a program. I don't believe in tone deafness. I believe that every bird has a song. Every one hears sound differently. Maybe they don’t hear it on the piano, so I have to sing it to them cause everyone learns differently. I’ve been very blessed. My main thing is that folks really need to live their lives. Stop getting upset about the tiny things, and dance every once in a while. This is what keeps you healthy. Even the senior citizen doctors wrote me and said,” keep them dancing and singing”. Music is healing; it’s life-it’s juice. Live your life and dance.There is life in music.
We have literally taught music from ages 2 to 101. One day we were playing at a senior center. We were performing all kinds of music but at one point we played some James Brown. We looked at a manager on one side of the room and she was crying, then we looked at the other end of the room and saw a woman dancing. The woman hadn’t gotten out of her wheel chair in 11 years and was dancing! She’d even got out of that chair by herself. David Amram said, “I hope you realize you’re doing God’s work.” When you reach someone with music they’re allowing you to step into their lives and hearts.”
I was brought up in The Salvation Army and everyone in my family played a brass instrument. When I was about 9 or 10 my father started me on trumpet. He wanted me to learn the song, “Beautiful Dreamer.” I thought I’m gonna learn this song so I can get it over with, and join my friends who were out playing basketball. I finally got it down and then my dad said, “well son, that was wonderful but that’s not the song I meant,” and then gave me the piece “The Carnival of Venice.” I was so mad I couldn’t see straight, but my father was a wise man. He went to the local pawnshop, bought all these old brass instruments and called all my friends and started teaching them. So now no one was out playing ball anymore, they were in our living room learning.
Bedford Stuyvesant (in Brooklyn) in the 60’s was seriously rough back then but out of that group my dad taught, he got a professional musician, lawyer, doctor and a blue collar worker who’s brother was in jail for murdering his mother, so his success rate was enormous. My father taught me trombone, slide trumpet, euphonium. So, I’m playing second trombone in the Salvation Army and my uncle says, “ look we got this bass trombone and you might have more fun playing it”. I must have been about 14 years old. I played one note and wow! - the sound was so warm and full. My dad formed a band but didn’t have a tuba player. He bought a tuba and stored it in my bedroom. It was almost as if the creator said, you got to do this. At about 15, I took an audition and wound up in the Harlem Philharmonic Orchestra. Our first concert was in Central Park. There, I heard this guy playing and it was so beautiful. It was Howard Johnson, As soon as I told him I had a tuba, his eyes lit up, and told me,“ hey you got to play this thing”.
He later introduced me to my first bass trombone teacher who was Jack Jeffers. That day at the concert was Howard Johnson, Wilmer Wise (Leonard Bernstein’s favorite trumpet player) and the percussionist, Warren Smith. They all had such a great impact on my life. After studying with Jack Jeffers, I ended up subbing for him with Clark Terry and Billy Taylor’s Band. I graduated from Music and Arts at age 17 and wound up at Mannes School of Music. I was doing gigs and studying but I’m asthmatic, and that kicked in so I decided to take off the next semester. Lo and behold, I got this call from Howard Johnson who said that Taj Mahal was putting together a band with 4 tubas. Everyone had to play one other wind instrument. He said, “ that would work out great for you“ and “do you want to do this?” Of course I did! But then I had to get consent from my mom cause I was underage. So here I am 17 years old and we’re playing the Fillmore East and all the big rock venues.
Taj was like an encyclopedia of the blues. If you’d ask him to play a classic tune like CC Ryder, he’d ask, “which way?- like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King, a New Orleans style?” He knew of so many options. I learned a lot about the blues from working with Taj and he introduced me to so many great musicians. We were the opening act at this big hall with about 5,000 people. The star of the show comes in and it’s Little Richard. He’s talking to everyone saying,“ hi, my name is Little Richard and I am the original Georgia Peach.
Come on, just feel my skin,” as he puts his hand out. Since I’m the band baby they all push me in front. I touch his hand. He looks at me and says,” you never felt anything that soft in your life - Ooooh.” Onstage, he’d tell all the guys in the audience to sing something but then he’d go so high that no one could reach those notes, then he’d do the same with the women. He was an amazing performer. It was so wonderful to be out on the road with Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, and all those legends. The next call I get is from Howard again. “There’s this group called, “The Band” and they’re putting together a big concert on New Year’s Eve.
”It happened to be Bob Dylan's back up band originally. They were so popular, they didn't need to advertise, they just put their name on the marquis and they’d sell out! They got Bob Dylan, and Alan Toussaint wrote the horn arrangements. It became a classic live album called, “Rock of Ages.” Levon Helm was the drummer and 40 years later I wound up playing with him again. The engineer was Phil Ramone, there was Snooky Young, Joe Farrell, Howard Johnson J.D. Parran and myself, In between all that I got a call from someone in Ornette Coleman’s band.
Ornette was writing this big piece and there were about 100 musicians. During rehearsals he’d be going over the music with one guy and the other 99 of us would be waiting to get our parts, so it was getting boring just waiting. Thankfully, Bob Stewart called to tell me that Charles Mingus had this project and needed a real bass trombone player, not a tenor trombone player, which by the way happens a lot. By now, I’m all of about 19 years old. I get in there and there’s Danny Stiles, Jon Faddis, Richard Williams, Joe Gardner, Lonnie Hilliard, Eddie Bert, John Clark, Bob Stewart, Jerome Richardson, Bobby Jones, Paul Jeffries, Hamiet Bluiett and Roy Brooks was playing drums and musical saw! We played Philharmonic Hall and we were the opener for Ornette Coleman. They were performing the orchestral piece, “Skies of America,” which was the music we were rehearsing when I Ieft to work for Mingus.
Mingus was very happy during that period. “Let My Children Play Music” had just come out and George Wein booked us a lot so we could prepare for the festival. One of the clubs burnt down just after we finished playing there, but that’s another story.
I remember that Mingus was very fair skinned so in the summertime, he’d wear a pith helmet, carry a big umbrella and being on a grapefruit diet, carried a bag of grapefruits everywhere.
At that time I was worried cause I’d heard how horrible Mingus could be. I came in one day to the club and Mingus was at the bar. He called me over and I’m wondering if he’s going to fire me or what. He was writing a score with a mechanical pen and said, “see how bold the notes look on the score with this pen? It’s a draftsmen pen, you should take this.” To this day I have no idea how he knew I was interested in writing music but Mingus always knew more than you thought he did.
Back in the day quite often when you got paid, management would meet you at a bar and give you cash. I go to this spot and I’m sitting next to Charles when a fight breaks out between Mingus’ manager and Lonnie Hilliard cause there was a problem with the money. Lonnie was a beautiful cat but like anyone else wanted to be paid. Lonnie pulls out a knife and heads towards the manager. There’s tension everywhere. Bob Stewart walks over, picks up Lonnie like a folding chair and puts him on one side of the bar, then picks up the manager and brings him to the other side. Mingus turns around, smiles and says, “did you see that shit?” Mingus wasn’t always angry, he was passionate. When he was happy, he was ecstatic, when he was sorry, it was all remorse.
I ended up working with Chico OFarril’s band, also with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis (for about 25 years), Jimmy Heath, George Gruntz and Gil Evans, Gil was probably the most democratic and relaxed man I’ve ever met. To give you an idea, when he was kid he got a summer gig. He attached a U Haul to the car to transport all the instruments but something went wrong and the U Haul wound up in a ravine. Every one is freaking out and Gil gets out of the car and starts to laugh. Of course everyone wanted to kill him, but that was just the way he was.When he was in his 70’s he was still smoking pot. He looked like a harmless, old white guy. We were in an airport in Italy when the security dogs came up on Gil. Gil leans over and starts petting the dogs. The police look at Gil like it’s probably a mistake and they all walk off, but Gil did have pot on him.
When I performed with Gil he’d wave me on to play more. I guess he felt the guys that had less experience needed to play more. I never saw Gil angry either. Maybe annoyed, but never angry. I can understand why he and Miles got along so famously. He evened out Miles who had that edge, which I always felt was a protective thing. Gil would say that he can’t hire this guy or that one cause they didn't have the “moan,” meaning they didn’t have the blues. Miles was a be-bop player. If you listen to the language and the feel, the blues is always there. Maybe I didn’t always understand back then what Gil was doing but then I looked at the players and I saw that they all had the blues and an African sense of the music. Not everybody could hear what Gil heard, that’s what made him unique.
I might be one of the last generations of musicians who played for an audience who actually danced in the dance halls. There was that interaction between dancers and the musicians and it changed how you looked at tempo. I played behind James Brown and Aretha and all these folks that came though the Apollo. It was a whole new dynamic. I played for Aretha at 3 different periods in her career. I loved her and she was never anything less than great. When she sang it could make you cry. She could be strange around the edges but then again, she went through a lot in her life. Working with James Brown was always cool too. The band was killin’ and he could always tell everything that was going around him even when he was dancing.
There’s a photo you have to look for of James in mid-air and me right behind that.
Years ago my close friend Buddy Williams called me to tell me about a last minute gig at the Masonic Temple. It turns out that it’s a dance and everyone’s deaf. They had hired a go-go dancer and had signs that read Fox Trot or whatever. The dancers could feel the rhythm and see the bikini clad woman dance as an example. They all actually danced quite well. We realized that we could play the outest thing in the world as long as the bass and drums stayed steady, so we did. We experimented with everything and it was great for everyone.
People try to pigeonhole music. Duke Ellington said there are only 2 kinds of music- good music or bad music. Or as Jimmy Owens says, good music or not so good music.
It's all one big dysfunctional family, and loving each other is the way to go.
Renee and I have been very blessed. We’ve played, recorded, composed, traveled and never hardly had to work a straight job. And we thank Buddy Williams for introducing us too.
Manning McIntyre Futorian Reportage Jazzespresso Jazz Magazine - copyright 2019
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