By Emily Clark
Posted Jun 19, 2018 at 2:00 PMUpdated Jun 19, 2018 at 2:21 PM
She could take a song and spin it like a top, toss it over her shoulder and flip it.
She could take a song and spin it like a top, toss it over her shoulder and flip it. A composer wrote it and Rebecca Parris would rewrite it, building the plane as she flew it, with dips and yaws and banks you never saw coming. Iconic Boston scene jazz DJ Ron DellaChiesa likened her six-octave voice to a Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, jazz legends who were Parris’ dear friends. Fans likened her voice to nothing they’d ever heard before. She was a prototype, both professionally and in person. To those who knew her, Parris loomed iconic – a tall, commanding and fearless presence who mentored and inspired the fearful.
Parris died Sunday evening at age 66, leaving untold numbers mourning a jazz great with a heart of gold.
Her daughter, Marla Kleman, whom Parris adopted in her mid 40s when Kleman was 39, stressed her mom’s dual powers.
“What stands out the most with her, other than her extraordinary talent, is her mentoring, her mothering, her encouragement of others whether you were a singer or a friend,” Kleman said. “She was an earth mother. She built people up. At JazzCamp she had everybody do her thing. She’d say, ‘You gotta get rid of the ‘I suck’ monster.′ She made insecure people feel secure, like me. In any one of her classes, you came out of there a new person with more confidence.”
Parris’ open-door policy meant people in trouble could park on her couch and find support and love in her environs. Parris had friends everywhere, Kleman added. She drew respect and a certain awe from strangers as well, by the shear force of her formidable presence. Parris entered a room and conversations stopped as eyes turned.
“My admiration for her was her ability to take a song and play with it and scat with it, you know?” Plymouth author, stress guru and humorist Loretta LaRoche said. “All the musicians thought she was amazing. She was bold and she was sassy. She was in your face. She didn’t suffer fools. And she was a survivor. She’d been through heart attack, hip replacement and lost a number of inches. She used to be almost 6 feet tall. Her discs collapsed. She had diabetes and she just kept on trucking. She just had a set, ma’am.”
Plymouth jazz musician Kenny Wenzel said he and Parris were dear friends who had known each other for decades. He recalled the days when they both attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. Most recently, Parris was a regular, sitting in with Wenzel’s jazz group, Kenny Wenzel and Friends, which plays Tuesday nights at Martini’s Bar and Grill in Plymouth.
“We were good friends,” he said. “I feel terrible. I’m blown away that this whole thing happened. I knew her 50 years. She used to sing jazz like a horn player! She was really talented. She always sang when she came to Martini’s. She’d come almost every week and sing three or four songs.”
Wenzel said Parris was a master at improvisation. He would no sooner have briefed his fellow musicians on what she would typically do at a certain point in the song, when she would change it up and surprise them.
“She knew what she was talking about,” Wenzel said. “She was smart and very musical. She had a great time. She was one of the best musicians I ever was with. Absolutely.”
Parris was born Ruth Blair MacCloskey on Dec. 28, 1951, in Needham, into a family of musicians and educators. Her mother and father, Shirley Robinson and Ned MacCloskey, were both accomplished pianists. A choir director, he also taught speech and English at Boston University and French at Boston Conservatory, directed and acted in summer stock.
As her career gained altitude, Parris replaced her original moniker because she preferred the name Becky and added “Parris” due to a favorite song with the city Paris in the title.
Her uncle was the renowned Blair McClosky, (who spelled the name differently), a classical baritone, voice teacher and therapist who taught Parris in addition to the likes of President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Her parents encouraged her to study music and she made her stage debut at age 6. Parris went on to study music at Berklee and, later, at Boston Conservatory of Music.
In time, she would perform in venues worldwide, commanding the stage with Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Terry Gibbs, David “Fathead” Newman, Norman Simmons, Harold Jones, Andy Simpkins, Gerry Wiggins, Bill Cunliffe, Red Mitchell, Buster Cooper and Nat Pierce, among others.
She produced 10 albums, received a Grammy nomination, won 10 Boston Music Awards – nine for outstanding jazz vocals and one for producing an outstanding indy jazz album. When Gary Burton decided to do a vocal album he chose Rebecca Parris. She played the Monterrey Jazz Festival and every other jazz festival in between.
Parris lived in Duxbury with her beloved partner of 34 years, Paul McWilliams, a jazz pianist, and continued to perform in venues around the region.
Known for her signature swagger, Parris’ health had restricted her movements since the early 2000s when she suffered a heart attack. Kleman said her mom also endured crippling back problems, but stressed that Parris was never defined by her illnesses; she was defined by her extraordinary talent, her limitless ability to love and her refusal to buckle to the pain she suffered daily.
“She was first and foremost a storyteller,” Kleman said. “In addition to her genius for improvisation and scatting, when she sang a ballad she wouldn’t go all over the place and do vocal gymnastics. She would get to the heart of the story and have you in the palm of her hand.”
An outpouring of sadness on social media attests to the dizzying breadth of Parris’ sphere of influence as untold numbers of fans mourn her loss.
The dean of Boston jazz radio, Eric Jackson, of WGBH’s “Eric in the Evening” fame, posted a picture of Parris on his Facebook page, declaring that he is heartbroken at her loss.
One of Parris’ dearest friends, Susan Sloane, said Parris’ influence was mind-blowing.
“She touched so many lives; she was like the mother hen,” Sloane said. “She had her flock. People followed her not only to hear her. She made people feel she cared so much about them. When she taught JazzCamp in California there were a number that moved to this area to be near her. She had that much force.”
Sloane said she loved Parris’ sense of humor and her strength of character.
“She had this indomitable spirit,” she added.
Kleman said she was shy and unsure of herself when she met Parris in New York more than 21 years ago. The two became great friends, assuming a mother-daughter relationship as Parris encouraged Kleman and folded her into her life. Kleman, whose birth mother died when she was 2, would visit Parris and McWilliam in their Duxbury home every weekend, she said. In time, it became obvious Kleman was a member of the family.
“She asked me, ‘Would you like me to adopt you?’” Kleman said. “She just had an innate sense that I was missing something. I remember her saying once, before the adoption, ‘You can keep testing me and I’m still going to love you.’ She was one of the most comforting people you could ever meet. She gave encouragement, comfort and unconditional love. She brought out the best in people even if they didn’t think they had it.”
Parris had finished sitting in with McWilliam at a jazz jam at The Riverway in South Yarmouth, Sunday night when she collapsed outside. Parris was taken to Cape Cod Hospital where she died.
The last song she sang was “There Will Never Be Another You,” a fitting tribute to the love of her life who accompanied her on piano.
It was a fitting tribute that defined Parris as well. Sloane put it in a nutshell:
“There will never be another Rebecca Parris.”
Follow Emily Clark on Twitter @emilyOCM.