December 28, 1951-June 17, 2018
Back in the ’80s, we used to meet on the last Friday of each month at lunchtime at a place called Jason’s on Clarendon Street in Boston to jam. Jazz at Noon, we called the gathering. Among the regulars were Dick Johnson, Bob Winter, Phil Wilson, Ted Casher, Chuck Wells, Lennie Hochman, and others. And there was this singer—a six-foot-tall, blue-jeaned young woman named Rebecca. Or, to some, Becky. (I wonder if she approved of that.) She’d been a rock’n’roll singer, we learned, but had had second thoughts about that. Jazz, she was discovering, was far more satisfying to her. She came to Jazz at Noon for the chance to sing jazz, to develop her skills at it, to see where it might take her.
The truth is, Rebecca brought some formidible skills to the jazz bandstand, and none of us doubted that she was on her way to establishing a career as a jazz singer.
On Sunday, June 17th, in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, that career—an illustrious one—came to an end when Rebecca Parris died at 66.
Born Ruth Blair MacCloskey in Needham, Massachusetts, the daughter of two accomplished pianists, she grew up in the nearby city of Newton, where she graduated from Newton South High School and went on to the Boston Conservatory of Music, where she studied opera. She dropped out, though, moving to New York City to see if she could break into musical theater. When she failed to get any significant parts, she returned to Boston to sing rock’n’roll in a top 40s band for about 10 years. It must have been at the end of that decade that she took the stage name Rebecca Parris (reportedly inspired in part by Cole Porter’s classic “I Love Paris”) and started coming around on the last Friday of each month to participate in Jazz at Noon.
Stephen Holden, writing in The New York Times in 2007, described her voice as “a rich contralto with a baritone resonance.” Her singing was strong and authoritative, perhaps expressing a confidence that reflected her absolute certainty that she had indeed found her genre. In an appearance on NPR’s ”Piano Jazz,” she told the show’s host, the late Marion McPartland, that jazz “was like manna from heaven for me—lyrics and chord changes and sensible whole thoughts and beautiful ideas.”
During the course of her career, Rebecca performed with jazz luminaries Dizzy Gillespie, Gary Burton and Buddy Rich, and sang at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California, the Blue Note in New York, the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, and at Tanglewood. She won praise from heroes Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, along with the aforementioned jazz giants..
Rebecca lived in Duxbury, Masssachusetts for many years with her longtime partner, the pianist Paul McWilliams. When she wasn’t performing out of town, she did so frequently at local venues like Scullers, the Regattabar, and the Maudslay Center for the Arts in Newburyport. And she never stopped performing, even when osteoporosis shortened her height by six inches and required her to use crutches, sometimes even a wheelchair.
She gave her last performance just a couple of Sundays ago at the Riverway Lobster House in South Yarmouth, singing with her husband, Paul, in a trio. She did just a couple of tunes, one of them “There Will Never Be Another You.”
One wonders, will there ever be another Rebecca Parris?
Source: The New York Times