Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Vaughan, Sarah

Singer Sarah Vaughan brought the same level of creativity and musicianship to her craft that her bandmates brought to the sax, bass, and drums. Known to her peers as a “singer’s singer,” she was one of the first who dared to sing the progressive sounds of bebop, then went on to conquer the pop charts.

Sarah Vaughan

Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1924, into a musical family. Her mother was a church vocalist, and her father was an amateur guitarist. She was a serious student of piano as a young girl, and often served as organist for the church. She maintained these skills throughout her career, along with her love for sacred music, but also showed an early interest in that ‘‘sinful’’ music called jazz.

The Newark of her teens was bustling with jazz, with the era's top acts booked at the Paramount downtown, and dancers doing the "Jersey Bounce." She and a girlfriend would sneak out to get a taste of the action, sometimes venturing as far as New York City. After her friend won 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.

On the recommendation of singer Billy Eckstine, one of her earliest admirers and a lifelong friend, Vaughan took her first professional singing job with the Earl Hines big band in 1943. There she met, and later recorded with, Charlie ‘‘Bird’’ Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. She quickly earned the respect of top-drawer instrumentalists such as Bird and Diz, because it was clear from the start her talent and inventiveness would make it possible for them to do their best work. One example of this is "If You Could See Me Now" from 1946, recorded with pianist Bud Powell and trumpeter Freddie Webster.

If any one jazz singer personified the capacity of the human voice to sound like a horn, it was Vaughan. In the words of Carl Schroeder, one of Vaughan’s pianists in the sixties and seventies, ‘‘She could walk the line between the melody and improvisation exactly the way a great saxophone player could.’’ Ella Fitzgerald called her “the world’s greatest singing talent,” and singer and composer Mel Tormé said “she had the single best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field.”

Entering the 1950s, Vaughan steered her course away from bebop, and recorded albums that frequently landed her on the pop charts. Nonetheless, she continued to surround herself with some of the era's best instrumentalists, such as Clifford Brown and George Shearing in 1954 on "Lullaby of Birdland."Her 1960 album Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie, which includes "Teach Me Tonight," was named one of the 101 best jazz albums by critic Len Lyons. A 1961 album for Blue Note, After Hours features her surprisingly stripped-down and lyrical renditions of songs such as "In A Sentimental Mood." Her elegance during this period made her the perfect model for Diane Reeves’ performance as a fifties jazz singer in the CBS Studios from the 2005 film Good Night and Good Luck, based on the career of newscaster Edward R. Murrow.

Like many jazz artists, Vaughan suffered rock’s encroachment on the commercial audience for jazz after the 1960s, but she retained a loyal cadre of fans. In her later years, her performances shifted 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. Her album Gershwin Live for CBS Masterworks featured the Los Angeles Philharmonic under his direction, won the Grammy for best jazz vocal performance in 1982. The fine form of her later years can also be heard on the 1982 Pablo album Crazy and Mixed Up, which included her irresistible rendition of "Autumn Leaves."

Vaughan's extraordinary musicality and command of her instrument earned her both friends and enemies. Critics often took her to task for allowing her facility for vocal pyrotechnics to obscure the lyrics of the great American popular standards in her repertoire. Vaughan was well aware of this criticism, and often joked with friends that she was born in ‘‘Excess,’’ rather than ‘‘Essex’’ County, New Jersey.

Indeed, Vaughan was 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. She died in 1990 at the age of 66 at her home in Los Angeles.

Select Discography

1944 Sarah Vaughan and Her All-Stars (with Dizzy Gillespie, Continental Records)

1949 Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi (reissued 1997 on Sony)

1954 Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown (reissued 2000 on Polygram with bonus tracks)

1957 At Mister Kelly's (reissued 1991 on Polygram)

1957 Swingin' Easy (reissued 1992 on Polygram)

1957 No Count Sarah (reissued 1991 on Polygram)

1959 After Hours (reissued in 1997 on Blue Note)

1961 The Divine One (reissued 2007 on CFP Domestic)

1960 Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie, 1960 (Roulette)

1962 Sarah + 2 (reissued 2006 on Blue Note)

1963 Sarah Sings Soulfully (reissued 1993 on Blue Note)

1963 We Three (with Joe Williams and Dinah Washington, on Roulette)

1965 Sarah Vaughan Sings the Mancini Songbook (reissued 1998 on Polygram)

1972 With Michel Legrand (Reissued as import, Sony/BMG Japan, 2008)

1974 Send in the Clowns (with Count Basie, reissued in 1981 on Pablo)

1978 How Long Has This Been Going On? (with Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Ray Brown, and Louis Bellson, reissued 1991 on Pablo)

1979 The Duke Ellington Songbook, Vol. 1 (reissued 1990 on Pablo)

1979 The Duke Ellington Songbook, Vol. 2 (reissued 1990 on Pablo)

1981 Songs of the Beatles (reissued 1990 on Atlantic)

1982 Crazy and Mixed Up (reissued 1991 on Pablo)

1982 Gershwin Live (CBS Masterworks)

1990 Brazilian Romance (Sony)

1994 The Benny Carter Sessions (Blue Note)

Contributor: Sue Russell