With a vocal range that once soared over more than a half-dozen octaves, Rebecca Parris could touch every emotion in every listener, whether she was singing in a club, a concert hall, or an expansive outdoor venue.
Some critics took to simply calling her Boston’s first lady of jazz. Listeners, meanwhile, reveled in how she wove together jazz inflections, freewheeling scat singing, and an endless palette of vocal shadings into something all her own.
“Her phrasing was like intimate conversation,” said James Gavin, a music writer.
Ms. Parris was 66 when she died in Cape Cod Hospital Sunday night. Earlier in the day, at the Jazz Jam in South Yarmouth, she sang two songs — the last was “There Will Never Be Another You.” Her health had been increasingly frail the past dozen years, and she collapsed when she stepped outside afterward with keyboardist Paul McWilliams, her longtime companion.
She had “kept a brave face” through medical issues such as a heart attack and severe osteoporosis more than a dozen years ago, said her daughter, Marla Kleman, who shared a Duxbury home with Ms. Parris and McWilliams. Ms. Parris, however, “was basically in pain 24/7,” Kleman added, and on Sunday “her heart just stopped.”
Since first taking to the stage as a child, Ms. Parris had ranged widely in music throughout Greater Boston and around the world. Family lore had it that she was already masterful before leaving the crib.
“They tell me I was singing on pitch at 14 months,” she told the Globe in 2005. “I started in professional theater when I was 6 years old with summer stock. I knew my whole life I’d be a singer.”
She had been a conservatory student, an aspiring Broadway performer, a Top-40 singer belting out rock vocals, and a jazz chanteuse who performed with the best in the business — and drew praise from them, too.
“Carmen McRae loved her. Sarah Vaughan loved her. Shirley Horn loved her,” said Gavin, who has written biographies of Lena Horne and Chet Baker. “They recognized her as one of their own.”
Ms. Parris chose as her role models the jazz singers she called “the Trinity” — Vaughan, McRae, and Ella Fitzgerald.
“She sings for the people, reaching out to touch them individually and collectively with a warmth, gusto, and easy humor that is devoid of the usual showbiz banter,” Globe jazz critic Ernie Santosuosso wrote of Ms. Parris in 1985. “Her range could be classified as alto with alpine propensities and her tone rich and full. Her phrasing is free of cliches and flavored with soulish nuances.”
With a range that could scale heights and burrow into the depths, Ms. Parris “had these rich baritonal low notes — she could go down vocally as far as Sarah Vaughan could,” Gavin said.
Nevertheless, he added, “Rebecca’s main focus as a singer was as an interpreter. She was, in my opinion, the deepest interpreter of jazz alive. We will not see her likes again.”
Her life was its own improvisation, with octave leaps and joyous refrains. She was born Ruth Blair MacCloskey, the youngest of three sisters, and grew up in Newton, part of a musical family.
‘She sings for the people, reaching out to touch them individually and collectively with a warmth, gusto, and easy humor that is devoid of the usual showbiz banter.’
Her mother, the former Shirley Robinson, was a pianist and organist, and was very involved with church music. Her father, Ned MacCloskey, was a pianist and choir director. He taught English and speech at Boston University, French at Boston Conservatory, and directed and acted in summer stock throughout the region. Ms. Parris’s aunt and uncle Barbara and Blair McClosky, who spelled their last name differently, ran the McClosky Institute of Voice in Boston.
As a Newton South High School student, Ms. Parris was 6 feet tall and performed in every school play. “Theater was the one chance I had to shine,” she said in 2005. “I look back, and I’m just so damn grateful. If it weren’t for that department, I think I would have fallen apart.”
At 18, she left Boston Conservatory after only a few months and headed to New York, only to find that “there was no more musical comedy: It was all rock ’n’ roll musicals like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ or ‘Tommy,’ ” she told the Globe in 2000.
Disillusioned, she returned home to sell toys and cosmetics at Jordan Marsh. Now and then at a pub with friends, “I would sing to the jukebox,” she recalled, and her friends would say: “You should go back to singing.”
One friend arranged an audition with a Top-40 trio, which led to years with rock bands. Ruthie MacCloskey wasn’t an ideal stage name, so she created “Rebecca Parris” from her childhood nickname of Becky and the lyrics of a song about Paris.
Rock screaming, however, was awful for her voice. “I remember one night I had a fever of 102 and two notes to my name,” she said, “and I was so exhausted the only thing I could do on my breaks was go in the back room and cry.” The toll was enormous. “When I was 24, I had 6½ octaves to play with,” she said. “After one of the bouts of laryngitis, I didn’t get back a couple of octaves.”
Then one night in 1979, while Ms. Parris listened to saxophonist Sonny Stanton in the Back Bay, he asked her to sit in. “I sang ‘Shadow of Your Smile,’ ” she recalled. “Afterward, Sonny said, ‘Honey, you’re a jazz singer — you ain’t no rock singer.’ ”
Switching to jazz was a revelation for Ms. Parris, who left behind “these three-chord, four-word tunes” and suddenly was “singing songs with emotional content and whole thoughts and good poetry. My intelligence wasn’t being insulted anymore. I didn’t have to prance around in leotards and a kimono and a wild wig and nine pounds of makeup. I could be a growing, evolving human being and share my experience through the music.”
Away from rock bands, Ms. Parris also settled into a more stable personal life, living in the Duxbury house her parents once owned. “Duxbury Beach is my solace, my place to heal,” she said in 2006. “I wouldn’t live anywhere but here.”
She and McWilliams had been a couple for 34 years, and in the late 1990s, Ms. Parris adopted Kleman, when she was an adult.
They both survive Ms. Parris, who also leaves her sister, Susan MacCloskey of Marshfield. While Ms. Parris had no biological children, she remained very close to her nephew Chris Agnew and her niece Allison Agnew Berry.
McWilliams and Kleman will announce a concert to celebrate the life and career of Ms. Parris.
As a vocalist, she won nine Boston Music Awards, and she released 10 albums. Despite her health, her career was ongoing — she did a full concert in Plymouth in March.
“I thought Rebecca’s artistry was at its peak,” Gavin said.
Though Ms. Parris was a generous singer, over the years on the road, she learned to practice economy on music’s business side.
“I’d love to have strings. I’d love to travel with a trio,” she confided in 2000. “But my situation is, I leave on a plane and land in Indiana, shake hands with the rhythm section, have an hour or less to go over my show and have it be letter-perfect. That, my dear, takes talent.”Bryan Marquard
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