When jazz singer Rebecca Parris is not performing and teaching throughout the world, she lives in a 1950s elongated, Cape-style house where her parents, now long deceased, retired in the 1970s. “Duxbury is such an idyllic town; I immediately fell in love with it,” says Parris, 49, as she recalls childhood summers in nearby Kingston with her parents and two older sisters. One sister is 8 years older, and the other 11 years. “My mother was almost 50 when she had me. I always told her it took three tries to make one perfect!”
Parris has lived in Duxbury for 20 years, but this is the first home she has owned. She decorated it in a cozy, comfortable fashion despite the limited budget of a jazz musician. She points to a few special items: a large, inviting couch; a fireplace mantel crowded with photos of family members and friends; knickknacks; books; and a picture of famous jazz singer Billie Holiday.
The few priceless items in the home are those she inherited from her parents: “Two Chinese vases and probably the most valuable piece in the house, a 1785 genealogy of the Howlands,” she says of a family heirloom from her mother’s side of the family.
“Your forebears,” clarifies Paul McWilliams, 48, Parris’s partner of 16 years, whom she affectionately calls “Daddy.” McWilliams is a free-lance pianist and teacher who often plays piano accompaniment when Parris coaches voice students in her home studio. Otherwise, they usually work separately.
Parris, who is scheduled to perform in several local venues this fall, including Regattabar in Cambridge Saturday, has won 10 Boston Music Awards and produced nine CDs. Recently she achieved a “very big coup for me,” she says: She signed with John Levy Enterprises Inc., a personal manager who has represented many jazz greats.
Music is in her genes: mother, father, uncle, aunts, sisters. “We’ve been musical for generations,” she says. Now she is “raising” an adult daughter whom, she says, “should be a jazz historian; she is quite eloquent on the subject.”
Parris legally adopted Marla Kleman, 44, five years ago. Kleman, a jazz fan and friend to the close-knit jazz community since she was a teenager, was 2 when her mother died and is long estranged from her father. Parris and Kleman first met a decade ago in New York through a mutual friend in the jazz industry. Parris, who quickly befriended the extremely shy woman, began inviting her to recording sessions in New York, and, later, she and Paul asked Kleman to visit Duxbury.
“She came to Duxbury and fell in love with us, and with Duxbury. After that, she’d start coming every weekend. When we thought about buying this house, we offered to have her live with us. We moved her up and she got a job here.”
Eventually, Parris was concerned that Kleman still didn’t feel she was a part of a family. “I asked her, ‘Would it make it easier on you if we made this relationship legal?’ She lit up like a Christmas tree and said `You would do that?!’ So we signed some forms, got a court date.
“Marla needed a mother so badly. It seemed appropriate for me to adopt her,” Parris says about the adult adoption. “I’ve always been a mother type, a caretaker of other people. I felt the need to pass on the stuff my mother taught me.”
Curling her 6-foot-tall, caftan-covered body into a bamboo chair transplanted from Kleman’s prior home, Parris relaxes while Eubie, one of her two beloved Maltese terriers, dozes at her feet. This chair, like nearly everything in and out of the house, needed major repairs, she and McWilliams say.
They purchased the house five years ago from Parris’s parents’ estate, but after 12 years of renters living there and “no maintenance to speak of,” says Parris, it needed massive work.
“We were very `virginesque’ on how-to’s,” McWilliams says with a laugh, holding Louis, half-brother to Eubie, the dogs with the jazz-great names.
“We had been apartment-dwellers; every crisis was solved with, `Hello, landlord. The toilet (or whatever) is broken. . ..'”
With help from friends and neighbors, they painted inside and out, planted grass and gardens and even repaired the wood floors. “There was 30 years of dark orange varnish,” says Parris. “When we finally sanded them, we were blown away.”
Although the house is still a work in progress, they have guests over often and love to entertain. “We’re very sociable people,” Parris says. “It’s almost an open-door atmosphere here.”
When Parris wants to be alone, she heads for the nearby beach to walk, sit, read, and write music.
“I get to Duxbury Beach as often as I can,” she says. “I need to be near the shore. I go to the Midwest, the lakes are nice, but it’s not the ocean. The ocean has a lot to do with my mental health, my creativity, and my affirmative process.”
Her “affirmative process” is rooted in a tradition her mother began and Parris continues: She picks up a white quartz stone, makes a wish, and tosses the stone into the ocean. Parris says she wishes for anything from fiscal success, to improving her relationships, to increasing her exercise level.