“Hey Rita, where’s your accent?” - George Avakian, producer at Columbia Records (1956)

“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)

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.

Rita Reys Wessel Ilcken

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.


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 gig was on April 2st of the year, at 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 also met 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. Here Rita made her first recordings, for the Swedish record label Artist. On 2 March 1953 the couple recorded their first tracks with saxophone player Lars Gullin, six months later they returned to the studio with the Ove Lind Sextet. Rita and Wessel then also attended recording sessions Quincy Jones was doing with Lars Gullin, Clifford Brown and Art Farmer (for the Artist label as well), and it was also at that time in Stockholm where Rita met people like Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Lester Young for the first time.

    After a very hectic period in Sweden, Rita and Wessel returned to the Netherlands, where gave birth to her daughter Leila. Two years later 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 big success in the Netherlands, America beckoned. Legendary record producer George
Art Blakey Rita Reys
Avakian (Columbia), who had heard her sing at the Sheherazade club, invited her to come to the States. She gladly accepted his invitation and went there in 1956 (without Wessel, who was denied a USA visa because he was on a list of known marijuana users, which he did openly to reduce the pain from kidney problems). She had the opportunity to record an album in New York with one of the most famous jazz bands of all times: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. The Cool Voice of Rita Reys features Horace Silver, Hank Mobley and Donald Byrd. Because they had such a ball working with Rita, these famous musicians did a number of shows with her at

the renowned Village Vanguard in New York’s Greenwich Village. The following months, Rita also performed with jazz organist Jimmy Smith and accordionist Mat Mathews.

     Rita returned to the USA a year later, where once again she performed at the Village Vanguard, this time with the Chico Hamilton Orchestra. She also played with other big names, including Oscar Pettiford, Zoot Sims and Clark Terry.

     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.


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 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.


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".


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.



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. The following season she toured the Dutch theatres once again, with the Ruud Jacobs Trio and Piet Noordijk. In July 2008 she performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival for the 19th time, this time with the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw. With that same orchestra she did also did a concert at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw at the end of 2009, together with singer Trijntje Oosterhuis.

In 2010 Rita Reys released her new studio album Young At Heart, which features Scott Hamilton on tenor saxophone and Thijs van Leer on Hammond organ.




Content & design: Jurjen Donkers, pr Rita Reys  - in cooperation with: Sascha van Esdonk Productions

© 2007-2013 Jurjen Donkers



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