Tina May obituary

<span>Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

The buoyancy and warmth of the British jazz singer Tina May, who has died of a brain tumour aged 60, were lifelong virtues that made a difficult art sound natural, drew every listener into an intimate space that seemed to be receiving her full attention, and allowed her to impart a beguiling freshness to lyrics that she might have sung hundreds of times before.

Like many of the best vocal artists of the genre, May understood and liked the company of jazz’s instrumentalists, and closely studied their phrasing and timing – but she used these informal lessons in her own ways, interpreting lyrics in both English and fluent French. She avoided the temptation to mimic iconic American models except in an effortless alertness to swing, and shaped her own palette of blues inflections, beboppish rhythmic twists, wordless improv and inventive new lyrics to old songs. She was a shrewd handler of classic materials.

As the Observer critic Dave Gelly wrote of May’s 2014 album My Kinda Love, “she can sing a straight melody, such as I’m Through with Love, and make it open like a flower”.

Across the decades from her emergence as a theatre, cabaret and jazz performer in the late 1980s, May’s career reflected her openness to many ways of making music. She was at ease in big, hard-riffing outfits including the BBC Big Band and Stan Tracey’s orchestras, and shared breezy trad-to-mainstream gigs with Humphrey Lyttelton’s bands.

She tiptoed through delicate chamber-jazz spaces requiring listening skills as delicate as her vocal ones, as she did in some closely attuned 2004 performances in a quirkily lyrical trio with the great British saxophonist Tony Coe and Nikki Iles, the pianist, who would become her regular playing partner and close friend. Iles was one of several world-class jazz pianists May was inventively at ease with - a group including Tracey, Enrico Pieranunzi, Patrick Villanueva and Ray Bryant.

May was born in Gloucester, the younger daughter of Daphne (nee Walton), a cosmetics-company manager, and Harry May, a former professional footballer, and by then a manager in the engineering industry. Tina’s older sister, Vivienne, learned the guitar and violin, while Tina played the clarinet, until switching to lessons in classical singing at the age of 16.

Their parents were both amateur pianists (show tunes for Daphne, stride-piano jazz for Harry), and Tina’s early influences as a child in the quiet village of Frampton-on-Severn were her father’s Fats Waller records.

She attended Stroud high school and Cheltenham ladies’ college, and continued vocal lessons and clarinet studies, but when her mother died suddenly at the age of 46, she followed her distraught father’s wishes that she should pursue a more orthodox path than a musical life, and took up French at University College, Cardiff. The course took May to a year in Paris, where she began singing in jazz clubs with the city’s musicians.

Tina May at the Brecon jazz festival, 1990.
Tina May at the Brecon jazz festival, 1990. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

In a Paris cafe, she also met the budding impressionist and satirist Rory Bremner, with whom she formed a revue duet that found its way to the Edinburgh festival fringe. Returning to Cardiff, May sang in Frevo, a Latin American band with the folk/jazz guitarist Dylan Fowler, and in 1990 the group played the Bath festival alongside the Brazilian player and composer Egberto Gismonti, who invited May to guest with his trio on the gig.

She divided her time between theatre workshops and jazz gigs (as a founder member of the Back Door Theatre Company, she was a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe), and continuing to sing with Fowler, but on moving to London, began recording the first of many albums for the Luton-based jazz indie 33 Jazz. Highlights among many fine releases for the label included the chanson-themed Jazz Piquant - N’Oublie Jamais (1998), with Coe on saxes and clarinet, One Fine Day (1999), a flawless standard-songs album with Iles and the reeds virtuoso Alan Barnes, the improvisationally impetuous May/Coe/Iles collaboration More Than You Know (2004), and a crackling classic-jazz get-together with Bryant for The Ray Bryant Songbook (2007).

In later years, a standout May triumph was the heartfelt and skilful tribute she crafted to the American vocalist Mark Murphy with Cafe Paranoia (2017). May also recorded fruitfully for the Scottish labels Linn Records and Hep.

Among wider collaborations, May’s career also included participation in the powerful Tracey orchestral account of Duke Ellington’s sacred music at Durham Cathedral (Duke Ellington - The Durham Connection, 1998), and in 2000 she recorded the popular show Ella Fitzgerald Song Book Revisited for Spotlite Records with her fellow singers Barbara Jay and Lee Gibson and the saxophonist Tommy Whittle.

She also lectured and taught at Trinity College of Music, Leeds College of Music, Birmingham Conservatoire, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and the University of West London, as well as regularly attaching workshops and masterclasses to her own tours.

A witty and inventive creator of lyrics for famous jazz instrumentals, May also wrote words for pieces by Bryant, Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul, the trumpeter Nat Adderley and the saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Just before her diagnosis at the end of 2021, May and her partner, the saxophonist and jazz historian Simon Spillett, were about to start work on a new venture stretching her librettist’s skills – setting words to the 1950s/60s compositions of the saxophonist Tubby Hayes.

As she told the pianist Terence Collie in an interview/performance podcast last summer: “I’m happy when I’m learning new things. And there’s an awful lot of music out there.”’

May is survived by Simon; by her son, Ben, and daughter, Gemma, from her marriage to the drummer Clark Tracey, which ended in divorce; and by her sister.

• Tina May, singer, born 30 March 1961; died 26 March 2022