Born: December 21, 1924 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Rita Reys - since 1960 officially Europe's First Lady of Jazz- has been a professional performer for more than six decades. Even today, this jazz diva still knows how to charm audiences with her famously unique timing, legendary swing and fabulous performance.
HER EARLY YEARS Maria Everdina Reys was born on 21 December 1924 in Rotterdam, in an artistic family: her father was a violin player and conductor, her mother a dancer. At home, there was virtually no jazz music. Her parents preferred light classical music instead, so Rita grew up with the sounds of Tchaikovsky and Chopin. But the singing was already in her blood: As a teenager, Rita entered many local talent competitions and won them all.
RITA MEETS JAZZ In 1943, Rita met her first husband, jazz drummer Wessel Ilcken, who introduced her into the jazz scene. Rita Reys & the Wessel Ilcken Sextet, featuring Jerry van Rooijen (trumpet) and Toon van Vliet (tenor sax), regularly performed at the Sheherezade jazz club in Amsterdam and other Dutch stages. In the following years, Rita and Wessel also went on to perform in other parts of Europe; they performed with Ted Powder in Belgium and Luxemburg in 1945 and 1946 and toured Spain and North Africa with the Piet van Dijk orchestra between 1947 and 1950.
In 1950 Rita and Wessel founded their own combo, the Rita Reys Sextet, with which they would celebrate many successes in the following years, both in The Netherlands and in other European countries. Their first concert was on April 1st that of that year, in the Amsterdam Palace club. But most of the time the sextet performed outside of Holland. In England they played on American army bases and in several dance clubs, where Rita met people like Ronnie Scott, who later founded Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London. A picture of them was published in music magazine Melody Maker. A newspaper in Edinburgh (Scotland) wrote: Rita Gives Swing Fans A Dutch Treat. In 1953 Rita and Wessel resided in Stockholm (Sweden) for half a year, which was the jazz centre of Europe in those days. It was there that Rita made her first recordings, for the Swedish record label Artist. On 2 March 1953, the couple recorded their first tracks with the saxophone player Lars Gullin. Six months later, they returned to the studio with the Ove Lind sextet. Rita and Wessel also attended some recording sessions Quincy Jones was doing with Lars Gullin, Clifford Brown, and Art Farmer for the Artist label, and it was in Stockholm where Rita met people like Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson and Lester Young for the first time.
THE STATES After a very hectic period in Sweden, Rita and Wessel returned to the Netherlands, where Rita contributed to Jazz Behind The Dikes, an album featuring contemporary Dutch jazz talent. Her rendition of My Funny Valentine was her big break in her homeland. As Rita became a greater success in the Netherlands, America beckoned. Columbia record producer George Avakian, who had heard her sing at the Sheherezade club, invited her to visit the United States. She gladly accepted his invitation and in 1956 she went to New York on her own (Wessel was unable to get a visa owing to his smoking of joints). She had the opportunity to record half of an album in with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. The Cool Voice of Rita Reys features Horace Silver, Hank Mobley and Donald Byrd. Avakian later remembered: Rita could really swing. It was the swinging quality of her phrasing that persuaded me, and which also impressed the musicians. They recognized right away that she could stay right with them. That is exactly what happened on that record, and everybody can still hear it today. Some of the musicians did a number of shows with her at the renowned Village Vanguard in New York’s Greenwich Village. In New York Rita also got to know Tony Bennett, a friend of George Avakian. They regularly met in the following decades, when Bennett was on tour in Europe.
Rita returned to the USA a year later, where once again she performed at the Village Vanguard, this time with the Chico Hamilton group. She also played with a few other big names, including Oscar Pettiford, Zoot Sims and Clark Terry. In Teddy Powell's Lounge Rita performed with jazz organist Jimmy Smith for a week. She went to Toronto to work in Town Tavern. After that, back in New York, she performed with Herbie Mann and Oscar Pettiford. Recordings, for the Dawn label, were made with Milt Hinton op bass, Osie Johnson op drums and Mat Matthews on accordion.
Six days upon her return to the Netherlands, Rita suffered an enormous loss: her husband Wessel, died of brain haemorrhage. Nevertheless, Rita quickly went back to work in order to support herself and her daughter. She went to Germany, where she worked with Kurt Edelhagen and Bengt Hallberg. In Paris (France) she performed with legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
EUROPE'S FIRST LADY OF JAZZ In the Netherlands, Rita started to perform more regularly with the trio of pianist Pim Jacobs, who she already knew from his playing with Wessel. As it turned out, Pim had a huge crush on Rita. After a gig in the city of Groningen, during the drive back home in a minivan, he suddenly proposed to her, while guitarist Wim Overgaauw and Pim's brother, bassist Ruud Jacobs, were sleeping in the back. Their marriage in jazz even made news headlines. On their wedding day, the mayor of Hilversum (one of the Dutch music 'headquarters’) presented the couple with the first copy of their album Marriage in Modern Jazz (the album that would win Rita her first Edison Award). That same year, Rita and the Pim Jacobs Trio won the Juan Les Pins Jazz Festival in France, where Rita was named Europe's first lady of jazz , a title she would carry with grace for the rest of her career. The 60's ended with one of the greatest high points in Rita's career: in 1969 she was the first Dutch jazz singer to perform at the famous New Orleans Jazz Festival, where she played with a.o. Zoot Sims and Milt Hinton, accompanied by Pim on piano. She became a Citizen of Honour of New Orleans in 1980.
THE SONGBOOK RECORDINGS The following years, Rita wanted to prove to be not a unique “straight ahead” jazz singer, but moreover, a much more versatile vocalist. And so she started a very successful musical cooperation with conductor and arranger Rogier van Otterloo and his orchestra. “Rita Reys Sings Burt Bacharach” and “Rita Reys Sings Michel Legrand” both won an Edison Award and became Golden Records a few months after their release. Both composers were impressed by the way Rita performed their repertoire. “I love what I heard on the record. So happy to hear you again”, Bacharach wrote to her. Legrand recommended the recordings of his songs with these words: “From now on, everytime I will write a song, I will think of the great Rita Reys, who sings the love songs with such love, that I really love her, and you will too.” Later, she also recorded, with the same orchestra, albums with the repertoire of George Gershwin and Antonio Carlos Jobim, which also were great successes.
BACK TO BASICS In the 80's, Rita returned to classical American Songbook jazz, and recorded albums with tenor saxofinist Johnny Griffin and Lex Jasper’s string orchestra. In 1985, Rita was diagnosed with breast cancer, but luckily made a fast and full recovery. After severe medical treatment and having recuperated for weeks, she gave a marvellous performance at a sold out Concertgebouw (Amsterdam). Nobody knew about her sickness in the months before, and the newspapers were full of enthusiasm about this performance with the Pim Jacobs Trio and piano player Louis van Dijk. The concert, that was recorded for Dutch radio, was released on LP and CD a few months later. Years later Rita herself said “that concert was indeed like a new start for me”. In 1986 a long cherished wish came true for Rita, when she recorded her Christmas album Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas with the Pim Jacobs Trio and the Metropole Orchestra, conducted by Rogier van Otterloo. It would be her last album with Van Otterloo, as he regrettably passed away two years later. In 1991 the United States honoured Rita with the American Songbook Award, for her long time promotion of American jazz. It was presented to her by the American ambassador in The Hague. A few months later she won the Bird Award at the North Sea Jazz Festival. In 1992 two double albums were released: Rita Reys, The American Songbook, Volumes 1 & 2. These would be the last albums she recorded with Pim, who was diagnosed with cancer in 1995. As a result, the tour celebrating Rita's 70th birthday was cancelled and a long path of medical treatment ensued. Despite this, Pim died on 3 July 1996, only 61 years old. Ten days after his death, Rita collected the Bird Award on his behalf, promising to make a comeback as Pim wanted me to.
ON HER OWN Being the fighter that she is, Rita performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival only one year later, together with the trio of her new accompanist and piano player Lex Jasper. She started to perform regularly again, both in The Netherlands as abroad. She recorded a new album with the Hannover Philharmonic Orchestra, which was her fifth songbook recording: Loss of Love, Rita Reys Sings Henry Mancini. In order to celebrate her 75th birthday, she recorded The Lady Strikes Again with the Lex Jasper Trio, the Cor Bakker Trio and the Rosenberg Trio. The first copy of the album was presented to her by the Dutch prime minister Wim Kok, who seemed to be a big fan of hers for a long time. In 2004 Rita wrote her life story, Rita Reys, Lady Jazz, co- written by journalist Bert Vuijsje (published by Thomas Rap/De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam). In August, she went into the studio to record a new album. Together with Peter Beets (piano), her brother-in-law Ruud Jacobs (bass) and recent Bird Award winner Martijn van Iterson (guitar), she recorded 14 tracks she had never sung before. This CD Beautiful Love pays homage to Pim Jacobs.
RECENT At the end of 2006 Rita Reys was the first Dutch jazz artist, after a.o. Tony Bennett and Herbie Hancock, to win the Edison Oeuvre Award. The jury praised her as with no doubt the greatest jazz singer our country has brought forth. She recorded a DVD at a sold out Royal Carré Theatre in Amsterdam, in 2007. Last season she toured the Dutch theatres once again, with the Ruud Jacobs Trio. Last July she performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival for the 19th time, this time with the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw.
Awards:Edisons (the Dutch equivalent of the Grammy®) 1961 - for Marriage in Modern Jazz (Philips) 1969 - for Rita Reys Today (Philips) 1971 - for Rita Reys Sings Burt Bacharach (CBS) 1972 - for Rita Reys Sings Michel Legrand (CBS) 1988 - for Two For Tea (ft. Louis van Dijk) 2006 - Edison Oeuvre Award ￼ Rhyhtme Poll 1954 - Rhythme Poll: Best Dutch jazz singer 1956 - Rhythme Poll: Best Dutch jazz singer 1957 - Rhythme Poll: Best Dutch jazz singer 1958 - Rhythme Poll: Best Dutch jazz singer 1959 - Rhythme Poll: Best Dutch jazz singer 1960 - Rhythme Poll: Best Dutch jazz singer Jazzwereld Poll 1966 - Best Dutch singer 1967 - Best Dutch singer ￼Golden Records 1971 - for Rita Reys Sings Burt Bacharach (CBS) 1972 - for Rita Reys Sings Michel Legrand (CBS) 1992 - for The American Songbook, Volume I (Masters Music) 1992 - for The American Songbook, Volume II (Masters Music) Other important awards: 1958 - Playboy Jazz Poll (USA), nomination for best jazz singer 1960 - Rita Reys & Trio Pim Jacobs win the jazz festival of Antibes/Juan-les-Pins 1963 - Award for best vocalist on the Prague Jazz Festival 1980 - Citizen of Honour of New Orleans 1981 - Knight in de Order of Oranje Nassau 1991 - Bird Award (the award of the North Sea Jazz Festival) 1991 - Certificate of Appreciation for her promotion of the American Song Book (presented by the American ambassador in the Netherlands)
“I love what I heard on the record. So happy to hear you again” - Burt Bacharach (1971)
“From now on, everytime I will write a song, I will think of the great Rita Reys, who sings the love songs with such love, that I really love her, and you will too.” - Michel Legrand (1972)
“Rita Reys makes a glorious come back” - Rotterdams Dagblad (1998)
“Rita Reys: Brilliant timing” - Trouw (2004)
With no doubt the greatest jazz singer our country has brought forth - Jury Edison Oeuvre Award (2006)