Rebecca Parris, Jazz Singer, Is Dead at 66
Posted June 22, 2018 6:14 p.m. EDT
Rebecca Parris, a husky-voiced jazz singer known for both her blistering scat runs and her deeply affecting interpretations of ballads, died Sunday in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts. She was 66.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Marla Kleman, who said Parris had collapsed after a performance and was taken to Cape Cod Hospital, where she died. No cause was given, but Kleman said Parris’ health had been declining since 2004, when she had a heart attack and developed severe osteoporosis.
Parris was hailed by local journalists as “Boston’s first lady of jazz,” but over a four-decade career she also earned the respect of the jazz world at large, playing with luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie, Gary Burton and Buddy Rich. She performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Blue Note in Greenwich Village, the Apollo Theater in Harlem and Tanglewood. She recorded 10 albums and was praised by some of her vocal heroes, including Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.
“Her voice, a rich contralto with a baritone resonance, is so commanding that when a song’s attitude is combative, she can scare you,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times in 2007, reviewing her performance at Birdland. “But when the mood is playful, she can also enfold you in a musical bear hug.”
But it took Parris many years to find her footing as a jazz singer. She attended the Boston Conservatory to study opera, but dropped out and went to New York to pursue a career in musical theater. When she failed to land any significant parts, she went back to Boston and sang in a Top 40 cover band for a decade.
She saw a new path forward after sitting in on a few jazz gigs in Boston.
“It was like manna from heaven for me: lyrics and chord changes and sensible whole thoughts and beautiful ideas,” she said in 2008 when she appeared on the NPR show “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz.”
Her wrenching ballad performances and suave renditions of bossa nova standards earned her glowing reviews, increasingly prestigious bookings and the admiration of her colleagues. Her performance at the 1992 Floating Jazz Festival, a cruise across the Caribbean, caught the eye of Burton, the acclaimed vibraphonist. They recorded an album together, “It’s Another Day,” in 1993.
“She was very musical and had excellent taste in songs,” Burton said in a telephone interview. “She was underappreciated and underacknowledged.”
Rebecca Parris was born Ruth Blair MacCloskey on Dec. 28, 1951, in Needham, Massachusetts, the youngest of three sisters. Her parents, Shirley Robinson and Ned MacCloskey, were both accomplished pianists; her father also taught English at Boston University. She grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and went to Newton South High School.
She took the stage name Rebecca Parris in the 1980s (the last name was inspired by the Cole Porter standard “I Love Paris”). She met pianist Paul McWilliams in 1984 at a gig in Massachusetts and the two remained partners until her death. She also adopted Kleman in 1997. In addition to McWilliams and Kleman, she is survived by her sister, Susan MacCloskey. Her marriage to Robert DeGrassie ended in divorce.
Parris settled down with McWilliams and Kleman in Duxbury, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, and regularly packed local haunts like Regattabar and Scullers. She also taught private lessons and master classes.
Her osteoporosis caused her to lose 6 inches off her commanding height of 6 feet and required her to use crutches. But she never stopped performing.
She gave her last performance Sunday, sitting in with a trio that included McWilliams at the Riverway Lobster House in South Yarmouth. She sang two songs, “Old Devil Moon” and “There Will Never Be Another You,” on which she took an a cappella chorus.
“She sounded excellent,” McWilliams said of the performance. “When the band came back in, she was in perfect tune.”