There are not many world-renowned jazz singers stemming from the little low-lands across the Channel, especially not with a career ranging over six decades, and it’s with a sad heart I am writing this tribute for a singer whose vivacious energy, performance and no-nonsense attitude I have always greatly admired.
Rita Reys had an extensive career, she won six Edison awards, a Bird award, the American Songbook Award and was crowned ‘Europe’s First Lady of Jazz’ after winning the international jazz festival Juan-Les-Pins with husband Pim Jacobs in 1960. She was also notably the first European to record with Blue Note in 1990.
Reys performed her last gig at the North Sea Jazz Club in Amsterdam after recovering from a hip operation (report and photo on her website). Eighty-eight years of age and no sign of slowing down, with the first ever jazz gig planned at concert hall Paradiso in Rotterdam for September.
“Performing keeps me young and it’s wonderful’ (RR)
Born into an artistic family Rita already won several vocal competitions from the age of 16 though it wasn’t until her twenties that Rita really delved into jazz through drummer and later husband Wessel Ilcken. They played with their sextet in The Netherlands, the then jazz capital of Europe: Sweden and all over Europe.
Internationally she got known after being noticed singing in an Amsterdam jazz club by Colombia producer George Avakian, who invited her to New York where she recorded with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In the US she played with greats such as Chico Hamilton, Oscar Pettiford, Zoot Sims, Clark Terry but also Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Stan Getz and Duke Ellington. She played through illness and sadness, losing both her first and second husband, as well as battling breast cancer in the eighties.
Rita was direct, level-headed and always stayed with both feet firmly on the ground, with a large dose of ‘Nederlandse nuchterheid’, preferring to speak before thinking, a quality she knew probably didn’t endear her to everyone, and a juxtaposition to her aversion to speaking on stage. I actually thought that slight recognisable awkwardness was lovable; it completely disappeared when communicating with her ‘men’; the band. Having fought her way from a young age into what was a very male-dominated scene, she learned very quickly to stand her ground.
Known for her great feel of timing, her ability to swing and never repeat a performance twice, the key to her success according to Rita was the visible enjoyment on stage together with her band: they never stopped swinging.
Rita Reys has left behind an incredible oeuvre. Sadly, I feel as if Rita’s passing is yet another end of an era; there are few left of that brilliant generation. One of my other great jazz loves from back home, who is still with us and still playing today is the incredible Belgian harmonica player Toots Thielemans, and it is with this short bit of footage from a Dutch TV show celebrating the life of Willem Duys, I would like to say goodbye to the grande dame of Dutch jazz.
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