In Carmen McRae’s suitcase throughout her last year of touring was a tape of Rebecca Parris’ 1990 album, Love Comes and Goes. McRae told Parris that the recording was among her prized selection of “travel music.”
Now Parris’ traveling, like McRae’s, is over. “Boston’s First Lady of Jazz,” as she was known, died on June 17 at the age of 66 at Cape Cod Hospital in South Yarmouth, Mass. A blonde, zaftig, vivacious earth mother with a voice as deep and swaggering as a tenor saxophone, Parris could blow on a standard with freewheeling imagination worthy of Ben Webster, and she swung just as hard.
But it was as a worldly wise storyteller-in-song that she left her deepest mark. Her probing interpretations, edged with hard-earned wisdom, led her friend Charles Cochran, the veteran pianist/singer, to call her “the Uta Hagen of jazz.” Like that fabled actress, Parris was known almost as much for her teaching as for her performing. Her classes had a motivational zeal. In 2003, within earshot of this writer, she told a group of students: “What is the one thing that a singer has over a horn player? Lyrics! We’re the town criers; we’re the ones that remind people they have a soul…. We want to get in people’s faces and tell them the truth! Acknowledge being in the room with them. Acknowledge our similarities.”
Parris earned the respect not just of McRae but also of Sarah Vaughan and Shirley Horn, both of whom were her friends. On the walls of her home in Duxbury, Mass., hang nine Boston Music Awards. Although she never quite broke through on a national level, her career was studded with proud moments. In the mid-’90s she toured with vibraphonist Gary Burton to promote their GRP CD, It’s Another Day. She recorded nine other albums, including an acclaimed ballad collection, My Foolish Heart (Koch Jazz), featuring her longtime pianist, George Mesterhazy. She played Japan with the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars and opened for Count Basie and Ray Charles. When she and Dizzy Gillespie were both working at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Mass.—she in the Regattabar, he in the ballroom—they sat in with each other.
The hard knocks came in equal number. Born Ruth Blair MacCloskey on December 28, 1951 in Needham, Mass., Parris was a much-ridiculed school misfit, taller than everyone else and covered with eczema. Her voice was her salvation. After a few years singing in a Top 40 cover band, she switched to jazz and won almost immediate attention.
But demons loomed. Early on, Parris was drawn to abusive lovers; she developed addictions to cigarettes and food that she never shook. In her fifties, illness set in. She suffered a heart attack in 2004, followed by osteoporosis. Parris came to rely on two crutches, but she soldiered on, performing seated. According to her adopted daughter, Marla Kleman, she sang for the last time within hours of her death, at a jazz night at the Riverway Lobster House on Cape Cod. On piano was Paul McWilliams, her life partner for 34 years. After exiting the restaurant, she collapsed and was taken to the hospital, where she died peacefully.
Just before her death, Parris had been planning an album with pianist Mike Renzi. On March 31, he had accompanied her in her last concert, at the Spire Center for the Performing Arts in Plymouth. Singer Cheryl Bentyne had heard Parris four months earlier. “It was a master class,” she remembers. “She was a mistress of phrasing, of taking you deeply into a song. She made standards sound brand-new. She could pull you down, but she lifted you up with her incredible brightness and sense of humor. Watching her, I thought, this woman is deep as an ocean.”