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Althea René — Featured Smooth Jazz Artist Archives

Nov. 2013

Althea René – Alluring Charmer, Enchanting Flute

Althea René is one of the most sought after flautists in the music industry. She is vivacious, sensual, and definitely a smooth operator when she is performing with her mesmerizing flute. René is also a songwriter, composer, and harmonious singer.  Althea Rene picHer musical style is a mixture of nu jazz, R&B, and soul. With all her sublime musical magic, her audiences are never disappointed; in fact, they are typically amazed by her show-stopping performances.

René was born on December 25, 1958, and raised in the Motor City of Detroit, MI. She started her musical training at the tender age of four. Her mother, Barbara McCullers, was a homemaker who was always playing classical music and encouraged her daughter to also embrace classical music. Her father, Dezie McCullers, Sr., played trumpet and saxophone for the original Funk Brothers, the group of sidemen for Motown groups from the late 1950s through the early 1970s.

René also has two older brothers who are jazz musicians, Dezie McCullers, Jr. (saxophone) and Franklin McCullers (trumpet). In fact, her brothers have performed on several of her CDs. With all these musical influences surrounding her, it was predestined for the flautist to get the music bug, and her instrument of choice was the flute. Her father initially wanted her to play the organ, but she was drawn to her sister’s flute (her sister didn’t like playing the flute; so, this worked in her favor). 

As a young inspiring flautist, one of her influences was Yusef Lateef. “I happened to hear an album that my dad was playing, and I heard him singing into the flute.  I thought, ‘wow,’ that is really something, you know?  He’s singing in the flute.  Then I thought, ‘Well, I wonder if I could do that.’ You know, being female, if I did it with a higher range and everything, that might be something cool to do. So, quite early, I started experimenting with vocalizing into the flute, and here I am now, just expressing myself.” René has gained other musical inspirations from the accomplishments of flutists Ian Anderson (of the rock group Jethro Tull) and Dave Valentine. She has since developed her own creative style.

During her classical training along the years, she eventually started training under the amazing flautist and piccolo artist Clement Barone.  At the time, Barone was the principal flautist for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and teaching young flautists in his spare time. Barone taught René a lot of breathing techniques. He was a great teacher and always had her best interest at heart. René wasn’t the only notable flautist for whom he provided guidance. There were other memorable students such as internationally renowned flautist Hubert Laws.

After years under the direction Barone, René achieved a classical music scholarship from Howard University in Washington D.C. under the tutelage of the legendary educator/jazz trumpeter Dr. Donald Byrd. While attending Howard University, she realized she was losing her desire to play classical music.  There were several factors that made her shift gears: (1) The fact that the university didn’t embrace the idea of a flautist in the jazz program; (2) She wanted to blow her flute to the tunes of people like John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Gerald Albright; (3) Her money for lodging and books dried up, so she returned back home to Detroit and started a new journey. In fact, this has been a whirlwind journey that hasn’t yet stopped and just keeps getting better.

When René got back home to Detroit, she decided she wanted to branch out and do live performances. So, she joined her first band called Solar Funk. They played in clubs and at local festivals in the Detroit area. During this time, she developed a more aggressive style that cut through the band so she could be heard. Throughout this period, she also needed more money to support herself and her two sons as a single parent.

In 1992, René entered the police academy and spent the next 11 years as a deputy sheriff in the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. She worked as a Jailer in the County Court House. René’s primary responsibilities were to look after inmates and insure the safety of the people who entered the courtroom. At night, she perfected her musical skills jamming with jazz groups around Detroit.

In 1997, the improvisational flautist joined the all-female internationally acclaimed jazz band Straight Ahead while still working full time with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. The group consisted of five females, including René. They were Marion Hayden (bass/background vocals), Eileen Orr (keyboards/background vocals), Faatimah York (vocals), and Gayelynn McKinney (drums). The group was a collection of strong, inventive instrumentalists and vocalists. The Straight Ahead band is still performing around the country, and they have shown themselves to be powerful and imaginative composers and arrangers over the years. They are widely recognized for their eclectic and soulful approach to creating music. Their sound ranges comfortably from mainstream jazz, R&B ballads, avant-garde to Brazilian funk. The part-time gigs with the band kept the music alive for René, and she performed with them for six years. “Music is where I belong. It’s my calling,” she said.  

She eventually left law enforcement to focus on her music. Although she didn’t like the job, her experience as a law enforcement officer taught her many things about human nature and self-defense. She took a leap of faith to leave her job and pursue a full-time music career.

René’s simply amazing and noteworthy discography includes Flute Talk (2000) - Independent Release; Chocolate Rush (2003) – Chocolate Caramel Music; In the Moment (2006)–Chocolate Caramel Music/Koch Entertainment; No Restrictions (2008) – Red Cat Music Group/Bungalo Records/Universal Music Distribution; and In the Flow (2013) – Trippin N’ Rhythm.

The charming flautist is truly elated in her ever-growing success. “I invested in myself and really launched a full-scale effort. I had a lot of great friends and musicians that contributed and believed in me. It was a combination of knowing what I wanted to do and presenting the flute in the way I wanted to do it,” she  says. “I’ve met all the biggest names in music. It feels surreal. The first thing is to be able to perform at these venues but to have some of these performers come up and say they enjoyed your performance feels really good,” she says.

René has performed in all of the most popular venues in Detroit. She has appeared on local Detroit television programs such as “The Lou Rawls UNCF Telethon,” “The Michigan Tastefest,” and “The Montreux Jazz Festival.” Her performance on the nationally syndicated television program “Showtime at the Apollo” was so captivating that she was proclaimed the winner by an overwhelming response from the audience. Her diverse experience includes musical projects such as the gospel play “First Lady” with Vickie Winans and Clifton Davis and several local commercials including one for the Michigan Lottery. Over the years, René has performed with such luminaries as Tony Bennett, the late George Duke, Ronnie Laws, Al Jarreau, Cassandra Wilson, Earl Klugh, Nancy Wilson, Herbie Mann, Kem, Sheila E, and Rachelle Ferrell.

In May 2013, she released her fifth project, In The Flow. Collaborating with Grammy award-winning producer Michael Broening, they co-wrote the title track. That song became her hit single, and it reached number one on both the Billboard Chart and the Smooth Jazz Chart. Their partnership allowed her to become the first flute player in the history of the Billboard Chart to reach the number one spot.

When she has down time, René performs with Jazz in Pink, an all-star female ensemble of women in jazz that projects talent, beauty, power and femininity as they embrace the stage. Their mission is to promote women in jazz by providing live performance opportunities and showcasing each other’s music.  They also endeavor to provide educational opportunities and mentorship to up-and-coming rising stars.

In her free time, René creates jewelry and loves being with her husband Luther Johnson (he is her biggest fan and supporter, her web designer, the developer of her CD covers, and does a lot of her marketing). She also enjoys spending quality time with other family and friends.

The alluring charmer is flattered that people find her style sexy and funky. Most of her adult life, she has been a health and fitness enthusiast. She works out five times a week to keep her body and her breathing in shape. Her live shows are high-energy and fitness is required. “There’s no way I would have the wind to do the kind of shows I do if I didn’t work out,” she said. “Besides, nobody wants to see a fat flutist up there.”

Today, René’ is regarded among musicians and enthusiasts as one of the best jazz flautists in contemporary jazz. She is truly a breath of fresh air as she tantalizes with her magical flute.

To read our CD review on In The Flow by Ronald Jackson, go to the CD reviews section here on the TSJR website. To read more about René and hear her wonderful creations on flute, visit her website: http://www.altheaRené.com.

I hope you enjoyed reading the fascinating bio of one charming artist and her beckoning flute. See you next month on “The Ride.” — René Sutton