Rita Reys: Jazz singer of huge talent and longevity

 

She was known as "Europe's first lady of jazz" and first to last Rita Reys called the shots, overcoming cancer, confounding endless speculation about her retirement and still performing into her late 80s. Reys was a singer in the Ella Fitzgerald/Sarah Vaughan style who managed to incorporate large elements of cabaret into her work and in doing so won an ever-wider audience. The "first lady" title was given to her at the Juan-les-Pins festival in 1960, at a time when only the Swedish singer Alice Babs, who was a little under a year older, might have laid similar claim. Both women, though, won the admiration of senior American figures and she later recorded with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and with admired composer/arrangers Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones. One of the most cherished honours of her long life was being made a Citizen of Honour in New Orleans in 1980, a decade after her first appearance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

She was born Maria Everdina Reijs in Rotterdam. "It's a port city", she told a British journalist, "so I think it was my destiny to see the world." The family was musical. In 1989, she said "I think I'm drawn to romantic songs because I grew up listening to romantic music, Chopin and Tchaikovsky".

Reys came of age in a war-battered Netherlands and was introduced to jazz by another drummer (and water skier) Wessel Ilcken, who became her first husband. It rapidly became clear that she was the real star and in 1950, after extensive touring, the couple formed the Rita Reys Sextet.

The next few years were spent largely outside Holland. Reys made a reputation in the UK and spent a period in Sweden at a time when Stockholm was a safe and creative berth for American players. She recorded with the legendary Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin, material that can be found on a Dragon compilation called Modern Sounds. Energised by her reception, Reys and Ilcken returned to the Netherlands where she became a star in her own country with a recording of "My Funny Valentine" and an album with the somewhat embattled title of Jazz Behind the Dikes.

It 1956 Reys was invited to visit the US by producer George Avakian, a tireless and infallible talent spotter. The Cool Voice of Rita Reys pitched her in with leading figures in the hard-bop style and she came out of the experience strongly, returning to America the following year and establishing a friendship with Tony Bennett that lasted for many years.

Ilcken had not been able to accompany her to the US because of drug issues. A week after her return from the second visit, he died suddenly. It was somewhat ironic that her prizewinning album Marriage in Modern Jazz should have celebrated not the man who established her career, but her second husband, pianist Pim Jacobs, who had worked with the Ilcken group. Nevertheless, it was a stable and happy marriage which lasted until his death in 1996 and yielded two superb albums of American songbook material.

Reys' style had evolved from cool jazz to torch songs and more textured orchestral accompaniments. She began to specialise in songs by George Gershwin, Michel Legrand and Henry Mancini. She made several recordings with Rogier van Otterloo, a brilliant composer/arranger best known outside the Netherlands for his Eurovision entries.

In 1985 Reys was diagnosed with breast cancer, but defied pessimistic rumours by making a quick sell-out comeback at the Concertgebuow in Amsterdam, an event described by one of her musician admirers as "part-coronation, part-resurrection, pure Sarah Bernhardt stuff".

Her autobiography Lady Jazz described six decades as a performer, from the Rotterdam and Amsterdam talent shows of her youth to the final years with Pim, who was remembered in a touching CD called Beautiful Love. It was again misread as a full-stop to her career. Reys continued to sing and to build new audiences, who were attracted by her youthful appearance and unstaunchable energy. She was the first Dutch performer to receive the Edison Award, after her friend Tony Bennett. Jazz has its own aristocracy – Dukes, Earls, Counts – but also its own elective heads of state. "First lady" was the verdict not of an advertising man, but of Rita Reys' peers.

Maria Everdina Reijs (Rita Reys), singer: born Rotterdam 21 December 1924; married 1945 Wessel Ilcken (one daughter; died 1957), 1960 Pim Jacobs (died 1996), died Breukelen, Netherlands 28 July 2013.

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