Cheryl Bentyne Remembers Rebecca Parris

The Manhattan Transfer singer shares her memory of “Boston’s First Lady of Jazz” (12/28/51 - 6/17/18)

Rebecca Parris
Rebecca Parris (photo: James Gavin)

Years ago Rebecca opened for the Manhattan Transfer in Boston, and she blew my mind. She blew the audience away; she blew us away. We hung out a bit at the show, but then I wasn’t in contact with her for many years, not until the Christmas before she passed. I saw her do a Christmas show, and she was using crutches and had such a bad cold she could hardly talk. But she sang beautifully; her phrasing was like a master class. After the show, she said, “Where’s Cheryl?” She was feeling horrible, but she sat there and laughed hard. She had a great spirit, just delightful. I wanted she and I to do [Boston club] Scullers together. We were reaching out to each other at what was obviously a strange time in her life. And then the news came. It was shocking. I didn’t know how ill she had been.

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She was definitely Boston’s premier jazz empress. And I think Boston will always have her as their own, which is really beautiful—I love that. But I wish I knew why she didn’t become revered all over the world instead of being known as a phenomenon mostly in New England. Last night I was sitting here watching some of her performances, and there was a live show at Chan’s in Rhode Island, and from song to song I’m going, “This should be Carnegie Hall.” She would have blown it apart. She was that spectacular.

It makes me very emotional [welling up], because she talked about the trifecta: Sarah and Ella and Carmen. Well, it should have been a quartet that included her. And those singers agreed! I know Sarah and Carmen felt that way about her. I don’t think I knew until recently, when I was reading more about Rebecca, how she felt about Carmen and how Carmen felt about her. Carmen is my goddess; I’ve always had her at the top of my list, as far as her tone, her phrasing, the recklessness yet the perfection in her improvisation. It’s like I’m describing Rebecca as well. Now, when I put the two together, I get it.

Rebecca seemed to know the song beyond the composer’s original thoughts, and she would absolutely make it a better song. Even more than I think Carmen did, because Carmen would stay inside the groove. But Rebecca, from note one in a song she would start flying, yet you’d still know what the song was and you’d love the song. It’s like she knew the song and would one-up it. I can’t listen to her sing “My Foolish Heart” enough. She gives me permission to have fun and to interpret a song not just for the sake of scatting and improvising away from it.

Sarah Vaughan had more of an opera sensibility. I think Sarah was a little more studied with regard to where she wanted a note to go. Rebecca simply went there. She wasn’t predetermining where she was going note by note. That’s what I loved about her. You had to hang on and ride with her. That’s a good ride, I’ll tell ya [chuckles]. That’s the difference—and please don’t get me wrong; Sarah Vaughan is Sarah Vaughan. But I feel Rebecca had more freedom in her voice, and still there wasn’t ever a note out of place. Everything worked. When you listen to a ballad of hers, it doesn’t just sit there; she takes you on a journey. She opened the heart when she sang. She and Shirley Horn could do hours of ballads and transport you. And her range, when she was younger—oh my God. She’d be down in the basement of her voice, and then she’d soar way up high, and you’re going, “What?

I’m upset that I won’t be able to continue learning from her. So all I can do is thank God there are the recordings. I can go back and glean from her whatever I can. There’s a lot for me to learn, from everything she was. She left us too soon.

[as told to Evan Haga]

Read Rebecca Parris’ obituary.