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Vaughan, Sarah (1924-1990)

Vaughan, Sarah (1924-1990)

Sarah Vaughan is one of a handful of legendary jazz singers who brought the same level of creativity and musicianship to the vocal line that her colleagues brought to sax, bass, and drums. Vaughan was one of the first singers to be associated with the progressive sounds of bebop in its earliest incarnation. "It's Magic," "Make Yourself Comfortable," "Broken-Hearted Melody," "Misty," and "Send in the Clowns" are among her best-known songs.

Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1924. Both of her parents were musical. Her father played guitar, and her mother sang in the choir of their Baptist church. Vaughan was a serious student of piano as a young girl, and she often served as organist for the church. She maintained these skills throughout her career, along with her love for sacred music. But she also took an early interest in that "sinful" music called jazz. As a teenager, she would sneak out with a girlfriend into the burgeoning music scene in Newark and New York City. After watching her friend take a prize as runner-up in the talent contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater, Vaughan decided to give the contest a try. Her rendition of "Body and Soul" took first place and launched her musical career.

Soon thereafter, on the recommendation of singer Billy Eckstine, one of her earliest admirers and a lifelong friend, she took her first professional singing job with the Earl Hines big band in 1943 and went on to perform and record with the major innovators of the day, including Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. During her early days in the music business, Vaughan was known for her shyness and lack of physical glamour. With her very dark skin, her unspectacular figure, and her pronounced overbite, she lacked the beauty-queen allure of Lena Horne, but she quickly earned the respect of her musical colleagues. It was clear from the start that her talent and inventiveness would make it possible for them to do their best work. If any one jazz singer personified the capacity of the human voice to behave like a horn, Vaughan was it. Carl Schroeder, one of Vaughan's pianists in the sixties and seventies, said to Gourse, "She could walk the line between the melody and improvisation exactly the way a great saxophone player could."

Vaughan was grateful for the camaraderie of the boys in the band. Their good times together softened some of the difficulties of life on the road for black musicians in an era where racial segregation and bias remained the norm. She was less fortunate in matters of romance. She was often drawn to flashy, agressive men who ultimately "did her wrong," both personally and professionally. Showing no interest in the business side of her career, she would always tell her associates, "I sing. I just sing." She liked to have a manager with her on the road to take care of all the incidentals of bookings and hiring of personnel, and, to her way of thinking, no better person could do the job than the one who shared her bed. On several occasions, her lack of interest in practical matters lost her a great deal of money when the romance had also gone.

Vaughan maintained an active career on the road and in clubs like New York's famous Café Society from the 1940s through the 1960s. During these years, she recorded many of her landmark albums, often using potentially commercial pop songs to offset the commercial riskiness of straight-ahead jazz. The album Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie (Roulette, 1960) was named one of the 101 best jazz albums by critic Len Lyons. Like many jazz musicians, she suffered through rock's encroachment on the commercial music scene but kept a loyal cadre of fans. In her later years, her venues moved from the club to the concert stage, where she performed as guest soloist with several major symphony orchestras, developing an artistic relationship with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas of which she was particularly proud.

According to jazz historian Martin Williams, "Sarah Vaughan has an exceptional range (roughly of soprano through baritone) … a variety of vocal textures, and superb and highly personal vocal control. Her ear and sense of pitch are just about perfect, and there are no 'difficult' intervals for Sarah Vaughan." The same abilities that many have found praiseworthy, however, could be problematic to others. Vaughan was frequently taken to task by critics for allowing her facility for vocal pyrotechnics to obscure the lyrics of the great American popular standards in her repertoire. This criticism may have been exacerbated by the nature of the competition. Sarah Vaughan carried on most of her musical career in the shadow of Ella Fitzgerald, whose supreme gift among many was a precise and natural diction that made her the ideal singer for the sophisticated and witty lyrics of Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Larry Hart, among others. But where Ella offered an almost childlike clarity, Sarah offered dramatic highlights and greater emotional depth.

Vaughan often joked with friends that she was born in "Excess" (as opposed to "Essex") County, New Jersey. She was in fact prone to excess in many areas of her life: she smoked two packs of cigarettes a day (to the astonishment of fellow singers), loved a good cognac, and dabbled in cocaine. Nevertheless, she kept up a rigorous schedule of performances and recording dates well into her sixties, when she was diagnosed with an advanced stage of lung cancer and died a few months later. Leontyne Price sent a message of sympathy to the First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, where the funeral was held. Rosemary Clooney and Joni Mitchell were among those who attended a memorial service at Forest Lawn on the West Coast. Carmen McRae released the album A Tribute to Sarah in 1991.

—Sue Russell

Further Reading:

Gourse, Leslie. Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan. New York, Scribner, 1993.

Lyons, Len. The 101 Best Jazz Albums: A History of Jazz on Records. New York, William Morrow, 1980.

Williams, Martin. The Jazz Tradition (new and revised edition). New York, Oxford University Press, 1983.

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