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.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Extras
indybest

Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition