Tina May 1961-2022

Top English Jazz Vocalist and CAA member Tina May passed away as a result of a brain tumour on 26th March 2022. Her bubbly personality and great humour backed up by a truly brilliant and well informed mind, meant It was always a joy to be in her company.

She was just 60 and was up there with the greatest jazz singers this country has produced. As the Observer critic Dave Gelly wrote in 2014, “Tina can sing a straight melody such as ‘I’m Through With Love’ and make it open like a flower.”

Gloucester born, she was the younger daughter of Daphne, a cosmetics company manager and Harry May, a former professional footballer, who went on to be a Manager in the engineering industry. Both parents were musical and amateur pianists and Tina’s early influence was Fat’s Waller. 

Tina attended Cheltenham Ladies College and went on to study French at University College Cardiff. The course involved Tina spending a year in Paris, where she started singing in Parisian Jazz clubs. In Paris she met Rory Bremner who became a leading impressionist and satirist.

 She formed a performing duo with Rory which saw them appear at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She was also a founding member of the Back Door Theatre Company in Cardiff. Tina sang with a Latin American Band and played the Bath Festival in 1990. 

Tina May
Tina May 1961-2022

She moved to London and quickly became an in demand singer on the jazz scene recording for the Indie 33 Jazz label. In 1992 the first of several albums ‘Never Let Me Go’ was released and she built up a large fan base. 

She was a regular performer at Ronnie Scotts Club. At that time she worked closely with pianist Ray Bryant with whom she recorded and became an accomplished lyricist, writing witty and stylish verses to accompany his brilliant playing. 

Tina later formed a close association with pianist Nikki Iles who regularly played for her. In 2000 she made the acclaimed album ‘Tina May Live in Paris,’ followed by ‘Tina May sings Piaf.’ Tina was fluent in French and made bilingual tours of France. She always showed utmost respect for a lyric, yet interpreted songs in her own unique style to perfection. Her voice literally was another instrument.

A gifted music educator, Tina was widely respected at the Royal Academy of Music, Birmingham Consevatoire and the Royal Welsh College of Music.

In 1989 she married drummer Clark Tracey and they had a son Ben and daughter Gemma. They later divorced and, at the time of her death, Tina’s partner of nearly three years was saxophonist Simon Spillett.

by Chris Hare

Saxophonist Simon Spillett was Tina May’s partner for nearly three years. A month or so after her death he published this so poignant piece which, with his permission, we reproduce here.

Simon Spillett
Simon Spillett

Winchester Services, London-bound, the dying minutes of Friday night. I’m heading back after a lovely gig with my quartet in Poole. For two hours music made sense of things, putting all else on hold. I’m sat here eating an over chilled sandwich  accompanied by the distant noise of Beyonce piped from an overhead speaker and the up close scraping of chairs on the floor of Costa Coffee, as the bored night staff mop and sweep their way into Saturday. Save for them, I’m the only person in the place. It’s hardly ‘One For My Baby’ territory, especially as the thumping, pumping, invasive background music suddenly seems to have made a decibel leap of such exponential levels that I’m beginning to feel as if I’ve been marooned in a dystopian disco.

Time was Winchester distinguished itself by being one of the few service stops which had no canned music. Indeed not so very long ago I remember stopping on a way home from a gig with a band I was in with the late John Critchinson, Dave Green, Henry Lowther and Trevor Tomkins. One by one they appeared through the automatic sliding doors, each of us sharing the same bright idea of coffee and cake. There I sat, awed in such company, listening to jazz folklore being bandied about by those who were there. There was nothing but conversation, laughter and love around the table that night.

But now, amid the combined din of dragged furniture and droning divas, I’m sitting alone, wondering idly how many times I’ve been in this scenario. I daren’t even hazard a guess but I’d imagine it might add up to several thousand hours of killed time, an attrition rate you could measure out in unsuitable food stuffs, coffee of wildly varied quality and melancholy by the mile. I don’t think I’ve ever truly got used to it but now, feeling like I’ve been dunked into cold water after  the reassuring warmth of a genuine home life, there’s something oddly magnetic about it, the sort of ‘better the devil you know’ familiarity you might cling to when all else spirals away out of control.

I think of people like John Critch, with whom I gigged about in all sorts of places as we criss-crossed these islands for thirteen years. We’d sit in countless godforsaken spots like this and share some deep talk, with John usually being the kind of font of wisdom that trickled rather than gushed. And I think of my Dad too, of how I’d tell him the morning after a gig where I’d been and what I’d done. ‘I go to bed and think where are you tonight,’ he used to say. ‘I think of you driving through the night. I don’t know how you do it.’

And tonight, as I sit here, lukewarm coffee and strip-lit ceiling combining to keep me wide awake I think of Tina. How I wish I could go home to her again, even just once. I wouldn’t be lingering here if I could, wouldn’t waste a moment where I needn’t be. I’d know precisely where my heart lay. Still, this is all just late-night rumination, facts and fantasy formulating together to help kill yet another hour. A friend told me I should take things hour by hour, sage advice I know, but some hours are easier to handle than others. Those like tonight seem to stretch on forever. Maybe best to just crack on after all?

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