Skip to main content

Vaughan, Sarah

Vaughan, Sarah

March 29, 1924
April 3, 1990

Nicknamed "Sassy" and "the Divine One," Sarah Vaughan is considered one of America's greatest vocalists and part of the triumvirate of women jazz singers that includes Ella Fitzgerald (19171996) and Billie Holiday (19151959). A unique stylist, she possessed vocal capabilitieslush tones, perfect pitch, and a range exceeding three octavesthat were matched by her adventurous, sometimes radical sense of improvisation. Born in Newark, New Jersey, she began singing and playing organ in the Mount Zion Baptist Church when she was twelve.

In October 1942, Vaughan sang "Body and Soul" to win an amateur-night contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Billy Eckstine (19141993), the singer for Earl "Fatha" Hines's big band, happened to hear her and was so impressed that he persuaded Hines to hire Vaughan as a second pianist and singer in early 1943. Later that year, when Eckstine left Hines to organize his own big band, Vaughan went with him. In his group, one of the incubators of bebop jazz, Vaughan was influenced by Eckstine's vibratolaced baritone, and by the innovations of such fellow musicians as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Besides inspiring her to forge a personal style, they instilled in her a lifelong desire to improvise. ("It was just like going to school," she said.)

Vaughan made her first records for the Continental label on New Year's Eve 1944, and she began working as a solo act the following year at New York's Cafe Society. At the club she met the trumpeter George Treadwell, who became her manager and the first of her four husbands. Treadwell promoted Vaughan and helped create her glamorous image. Following hits on Musicraft (including "It's Magic" and "If They Could See Me Now") and Columbia ("Black Coffee"), her success was assured. From 1947 through 1952, she was voted Top Female Vocalist in polls in Down Beat and Metronome jazz magazines.

Throughout the 1950s, Vaughan recorded pop material for Mercury Records, including such hits as "Make Yourself Comfortable" and "Broken-Hearted Melody" and songbooks (like those made by Ella Fitzgerald) of classic American songs by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin; she also recorded jazz sessions on the EmArcy label (Mercury's jazz label) with trumpeter Clifford Brown, the Count Basie Orchestra, and other jazz musicians. By the mid-1960s, frustrated by the tactics of record companies trying to sustain her commercially, Vaughan took a five-year hiatus from recording. By the 1970s, her voice had become darker and richer.

Vaughan was noted for a style in which she treated her voice like a jazz instrument rather than as a conduit for lyrics. A contralto, she sang wide leaps easily, improvised sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic melodic and rhythmic lines, and made full use of timbral expressivenessfrom clear tones to bluesy growls with vibrato. By the end of her career, she had performed in more than sixty countries, in small boîtes and in football stadiums, with jazz trios as well as symphony orchestras. Her signature songs, featured at almost all of her shows, included "Misty," "Tenderly," and "Send In the Clowns." She died of cancer in 1990, survived by one daughter.

See also Fitzgerald, Ella; Holiday, Billie; Jazz; Jazz Singers


Azrai, Ahmad. "Sublimely 'Sassy'." Asia Africa Intelligence Wire,July 1, 2003.

Giddins, Gary. "Sarah Vaughan." In Rhythm-a-Ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the '80s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 2634.

Jones, Max. "Sarah Vaughan." In Talking Jazz New York: W.W. Norton, 1988, pp. 260265.

"Sarah Vaughan." Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 13. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1996.

bud kliment (1996)
Updated bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Vaughan, Sarah." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . 18 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Vaughan, Sarah." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . (August 18, 2018).

"Vaughan, Sarah." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.