Rebecca Parris, a husky-voiced jazz singer known for both her blistering scat runs and her deeply affecting interpretations of ballads, died June 17 in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts. She was 66.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Marla Kleman, who said Parris had collapsed after a performance and was taken to Cape Cod Hospital, where she died. No cause was given, but Kleman said Parris’ health had been declining since 2004, when she had a heart attack and developed severe osteoporosis. Her osteoporosis caused her to lose 6 inches off her commanding height of 6 feet and required her to use crutches. But she never stopped performing.
Parris was hailed by local journalists as “Boston’s first lady of jazz,” but over a four-decade career she also earned the respect of the jazz world at large, playing with luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie, Gary Burton and Buddy Rich. She performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Blue Note in Greenwich Village, the Apollo Theater in Harlem and Tanglewood. She recorded 10 albums and was praised by some of her vocal heroes, including Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.
“Her voice, a rich contralto with a baritone resonance, is so commanding that when a song’s attitude is combative, she can scare you,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times in 2007. “But when the mood is playful, she can also enfold you in a musical bear hug.”
Rebecca Parris was born Ruth Blair MacCloskey on Dec. 28, 1951, in Needham, Massachusetts, the youngest of three sisters. Her parents, Shirley Robinson and Ned MacCloskey, were both accomplished pianists; her father also taught English at Boston University. She grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and went to Newton South High School.
She took the stage name Rebecca Parris in the 1980s. She met pianist Paul McWilliams in 1984 at a gig in Massachusetts and the two remained partners until her death. She also adopted Kleman in 1997. In addition to McWilliams and Kleman, she is survived by her sister, Susan MacCloskey. Her marriage to Robert DeGrassie ended in divorce.