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Remembering Rebecca Parris

Remembering Rebecca Parris, Boston's "First Lady of Jazz"

Rebecca Parris
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Remembering Rebecca Parris

She has been called Boston's "First Lady of Jazz." But now, she is gone. Noted jazz singer Rebecca Parris died this past weekend at age 66. She was local born at Glover Memorial Hospital in Needham, raised in Newton. She played in the top venues here, nationally, and abroad...and with the best: Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie. She had been in declining health for years. Reports are that she collapsed after leaving the stage following a performance on Cape Cod and passed away at a hospital on Cape Cod Sunday night. Paul McWilliams is Rebecca’s longtime partner and keyboardist, and Marla Kleman is Rebecca’s adopted daughter. Both spoke with WGBH's All Things Considered host Barbara Howard about Rebecca’s life and legacy. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Barbara Howard: Now I understand you two shared a house with Rebecca Parris, which was her longtime family home, in Duxbury.

Paul McWilliams: Yes, we acquired it from her parents.

Howard: Paul, you’ve been with her for a long time?

McWilliams: 33 years — I can hear her in my ear saying 34.

Howard: Now I understand you were performing on Cape Cod that last night?

McWilliams: Yes.

Howard: What happened?

McWilliams: I was playing Bart Weisman's Jazz Jam and then she did a couple of tunes. The gig was over a short time later, and when we got to the car she lost consciousness. She went to the hospital by ambulance and they could not resuscitate her.

Howard: How did you meet? When did you start playing with her?

McWilliams: We started playing together off and on right at the very beginning. But in fact, I was certainly not her peer. And the hottest piano players on earth wanted to play her gig. From a musician’s standpoint, she could be thoroughly intimidating and warm and inviting all at the same time.

Howard: She was sought out by other musicians to perform together?

Marla Kleman: Well, Keith Lockhart, for one.

McWilliams: She was the guest on Keith's debut at Tanglewood.

Kleman: With the Boston Pops. When Rebecca was playing at the Regatta Bar, Dizzy Gillespie was down the hall in the ballroom, and he'd come down, and he just loved her and he'd come down and sit in with her.

Howard: Marla, how is it that you came into Rebecca's life?

Kleman: It was actually through vocalist Sarah Vaughan's pianist girlfriend, who said 'you've got to meet Rebecca Parris. I think you'll be great friends.'

Howard: Well, you became more than friends. She adopted you as an adult?

Kleman: Yes. I was 39.

Howard: That's unusual.

Kleman: Very, but I lost my birth mom at the age of 2, and there's always been a search for a mom, and she said 'how would you like me to adopt you, how would you like me to be your mom?' It says a lot about Paul and Rebecca's character, because he had to agree to this, too. They were partners.

Howard: Are you glad you did it now?

McWilliams: Oh, absolutely.

Howard: You've got each other.

Kleman: Yes, we sure do, and we need each other right now.

Howard: Here’s a little background on her childhood — she was born in Needham and raised in Newton, but she wasn't born Rebecca Parris. She was born Ruth Blair MacCloskey, into a very musical family.

When she was a child, her talent was already recognized quite young?

McWilliams: Yes, in the crib she could sing in tune, and she could create melodies. Her mother said it was astonishing.

Howard: So she's young, she's in the crib, she's singing in the proper pitch, and then she started performing, right?

McWilliams: As a child in the summer stock shows with her dad.

Howard: How old was she?

McWilliams: Six, seven, and eight.

Howard: Did she have a lot of friends when she was a child?

McWilliams: No, she did not.

Howard: Why?

McWilliams: Well, she was a head taller than everybody. She had a terrible eczema condition on her face. Kids make fun of that, and sometimes to a level of cruelty.

Howard: She says she was 6 feet tall in high school. She says that it was performing at the high school plays that got her through.

McWilliams: She could always sing, and people reacted just in wonder, and it felt really good to go from the dumped on kid to the 'oh my God, who are you?'

Howard: So she headed to New York and there she found gigs as a rock and roll singer.

McWilliams: She went into rock and roll after she returned to Boston.

Howard: She performed with a rock and roll band? That's a different kind of singing altogether.

McWilliams: Oh, altogether.

Howard: So she gives up rock and roll. How did that come about?

McWilliams: A friend of ours said 'you've got to come to this jazz club with me, you just would really like it.' And she sat in and sang a standard tune, The Shadow of Your Smile, and it was strongly received and that was the corner turned.

Howard: Where was that?

McWilliams: At a place called Satch’s.

Howard: Oh, here in Boston? Satch Sanders place.

McWilliams: Yes, absolutely. And the bandleader was a man named Sonny Stanton, who told her that 'You shouldn't be singing rock n roll baby it’s going to kill your throat. You're a jazz singer.' And she started thinking about that and going to every open mic she could find and everybody's mouth fell open and she went suddenly from not working to having a gig six nights a week.

She teamed up with a production and songwriting partner named Stan Ellis. I believe they actually made a recording first, and played it on Eric's show.

Howard: Eric Jackson, you're talking about? Here on WGBH?

McWilliams: Yes, and asked the public, 'should we make a record?' And she had overwhelming support for it. After that, they put this record together and it was strongly received.

Howard: And she didn't just sing ballads, she could scat?

McWilliams: Like such a bird.

Howard: So she goes deep into jazz and she's doing really well in the jazz world. But then things kind of started constricting. She had a lot of health issues?

McWilliams: She had a lot of health issues, that is true, but her audiences were fervent and they were loyal. They would show up time after time after time.

Howard: Which clubs did she like to play in locally?

McWilliams: She loved to play at Scullers, that was probably her favorite room. Probably the best known gig was Ryles — she did about 70 Sunday nights in a row. She also loved to play at the Regatta Bar.

Howard: She was suffering some medical issues in the past 15 years or so?

McWilliams: She had a heart attack in 2004. That was also a time when an undetected case of osteoporosis that was quite severe caused her upper spine to collapse. In about 100 days, she lost 6 inches of height.

Howard: Marla, you were around then — this caused her a lot of pain?

Kleman: A lot of pain on a constant, everyday basis, from that time until the day she passed.

Howard: But she kept performing?

Kleman: It was her comfort. One night, I remember there was a local Jazz Jam in Plymouth. I said something to her about maybe not going. She said, 'I have to go, I have to sing.'

Howard: It was really nice meeting both of you.

McWilliams: Oh, thank you.

Kleman: Thank you so much for having us.

Howard: That’s Marla Kleman and Paul McWilliams, the adopted daughter, and partner respectively, of local jazz singer Rebecca Parris, born to the name Ruth Blair MacCloskey, of Newton. Parris died this past Sunday after performing on Cape Cod. She was 66 years old. This is All Things Considered.

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