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'It's been a drag,' but it's spring, again, for Parris

A lifetime of glamour and fame has always set singer Rebecca Parris apart from common folk. But last year, the Duxbury resident, commonly referred to as the First Lady of Boston Jazz, found herself in a situation that could have forced an end to her life as a celebrity.

She was struggling to recover from heart and back problems that had left her unable to walk. When she appeared onstage at The Real Deal in Cambridge in March 2005 with two canes, the audience let out a collective gasp.

''She was barely able to move," said Fenton Hollander, director of the Water Music series, which books acts for The Real Deal. ''I thought to myself, 'This is going to be hard, because people are going to focus on her infirmity, not on her music.' "

But Parris, who has appeared on stages around the world with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie and Woody Herman, maneuvered herself onto a stool and took over the room in her usual style.

''She made them forget all about those canes," Hollander said. ''She brought happiness to that crowd, just like always. She's a consummate professional, and her fans are passionate about her."

On Saturday, Parris takes the stage at The Real Deal again, this time in much better health -- both physically and emotionally, she says -- than 14 months ago.

The boost has come in part from friends in the jazz world who learned that her illness had left her with considerable medical bills and mortgage payments and staged a benefit for her at the Regent Theatre in Arlington last August.

''Rebecca has done benefits for every cause -- she was always there for everyone," said Susan Sloane of Duxbury, a friend who helped organize the event along with Parris's daughter, Marla. ''We wanted to raise money for her this time."

Virtually every jazz great in Boston -- including Paul Broadnax, Herb Pomeroy, and Carol Sloane -- wanted to perform, which meant they were limited to just one song each. Parris herself was helped onstage to close the show with ''I'm Glad There Is You," to a standing ovation.

''It was a roomful of love for her, which was just what she needed," Hollander said.

Parris, who estimates that her voice has probably raised more for AIDS research and other causes than for her own expenses, said it was strange to be on the receiving end of charity.

''But it was an amazing night, amazingly emotional," she said in a recent interview. ''And it saved me."

Her many fans are surely relieved. Critics have hailed her as a jazz singer in the true sense of the word; one Globe writer said she ''handles lyrics as if each syllable was a precious jewel." Her distinctive sound, and gift for making each song her own, result in an uncommon connection between Parris and her audience.

She arrived for the interview at a Marshfield coffee shop with a walking stick, sparkling jewelry, and a wide-brimmed straw hat that barely covered her mane of golden hair. She spoke in a husky voice, peppered what she said with jazz colloquialisms, and recalled when ''Dizzy" used to play the ballroom at the Charles Hotel while she performed at the hotel's famous Regattabar. The two of them would cross the lobby to meet up on their respective stages.

''Dizzy was fun, and a real pro," she said. ''When you were onstage with him, boy, you had to know what you were doing."

She laughed about the time Shirley Horn ''stole" her pianist from her but welled up at the mention of her late friends and champions, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, who both died in the early 1990s. She also talked about the heart attack she suffered two years ago, which was followed by early-onset osteoporosis that landed her in a wheelchair for four months.

''When I first stood up from that chair, I found I was about 6 inches shorter," the once-6-foot diva said with a rueful smile. ''It's been a drag, man." She patted the cane by her side, then added: ''But I'm coming back."

She's especially glad to return to her gardening at the house she shares with her daughter; her partner of 22 years, the pianist Paul McWilliams; and her dogs, Eubie and Louis. She's also happy to be able to resume walks on the beach.

''Duxbury Beach is my solace, my place to heal," she said. ''I wouldn't live anywhere but here."

She was raised in Newton, but her family always summered at a beach cottage in Kingston's Rocky Nook. Those, Parris said, were the happiest times in her childhood and adolescence.

She's grateful for her concert-pianist mother and her teacher father, who always encouraged her to pursue her dream to perform on stage, without ever pushing her.

The youngest of three daughters, Parris was born Ruth Blair MacCloskey in 1951. She later changed her first name to Rebecca because she liked the name Becky, and her last name to Parris after the song ''Paris in the Spring." Her uncle, Blair MacCloskey, was a world-famous vocal coach who helped hone her talent. By age 6, she was appearing in Boston summer stock.

After high school, Parris studied opera and theater at the Boston Conservatory of Music, then moved to New York City to conquer Broadway. ''I thought I'd be the next Mary Martin or Julie Andrews," she said. ''But that was the '70s, and it was all ''Hair" and rock musicals."

So she came home to Boston and began singing Top 40 and rock music in clubs. But pop music wasn't enough for Parris. In the early 1980s, she made a permanent switch to jazz and never looked back.

Seven CDs and nine Boston Music Awards later, Parris still performs regularly. She also teaches singing to select students, including Sonya Kitchell, the 17-year-old jazz sensation from Western Massachusetts.

It's getting harder for musicians to make ends meet these days, she said. She bemoans the fact that fewer people venture out to clubs to see live music, and blames MTV, the VCR, and anything else that causes the public to settle for at-home entertainment.

''They say that if you look to the end of any great civilization, you'll see that music and art were the first things to go," she said. ''It's the beginning of the demise."

More music education in school, she says, would encourage youngsters to appreciate and create melody. She bristles at the notion of ''rap music."

''Please, please, don't call rap, music," she said. ''It's beat poetry, and some of it's groovy. But if you can't hum it, it's not music."

The Rebecca Parris Quintet, featuring Brad Hatfield, Peter Kontrimas, and Matt Gordy, will perform at The Real Deal in Cambridge on May 20. Go to for more information.

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