27.03. – Happy Birthday !!! In the 1940s, when most women singers adorned big bands as stage attractions rather than legitimate members of jazz ensembles, Sarah Vaughan, along with her predecessor Ella Fitzgerald, helped elevate the vocalist’s role as equal to that of the jazz instrumentalist.
A woman known for her many vicissitudes, Vaughan’s outspoken personality and artistic eloquence brought her the names “Sassy” and “The Divine One.” A talented pianist, she joined the ranks of the 1940s bebop movement and became, as a member of the Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine bands, one of its most celebrated vocalists. Her dynamic vocal range, sophisticated harmonic sense, and horn-like phrasing brought Vaughan million-selling numbers and a stage and recording career that spanned half a decade.
Sarah Lois Vaughan was born the daughter of Asbury and Ada Vaughan on March 27, 1924, in Newark, New Jersey. As a youth Vaughan took piano lessons and attended the Mount Zion Baptist Church, where she served as a church keyboardist. At home Vaughan played the family’s upright piano and listened to the recordings of jazz artists Count Basie and Erskine Hawkins. After discovering Newark’s numerous theaters and movie houses, she skipped school and left home at night to watch dances and stage shows. By age 15, she performed at local clubs, playing piano and singing.
Not long after, Vaughan took the train across the river to Harlem to frequent the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theatre. One evening, in 1943, she sat in at the Apollo amateur show, a fiercely competitive contest that often exposed lesser talents to the harsh criticism of the theater’s audience. Vaughan’s moving performance of “Body and Soul” not only brought a fever of applause from the crowd, it also caught the attention of singer Billy Eckstine. Eckstine informed his bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines about the young singer. Hines then allowed Vaughan to attend the band’s uptown band rehearsal. At the rehearsal, Vaughan’s singing won immediate praise from Hines and his musicians. One of the premiere modern big bands of the era, Hines’s ensemble included such talents as trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro, saxophonist Charlie Parker, and trombonist J. J. Johnson. As the only female bandmember, Vaughan shared the vocal spotlight with Eckstine and played piano, often in duet settings with Hines. Vaughan debuted at the Apollo with Hines’s band on April 23, 1943.
Not long after, most of Hines’s modernist sidemen, including Gillespie, Parker, and Eckstine, gradually left the band. Vaughan remained briefly with Hines’s band until she accepted an invitation to join Eckstine’s newly-formed bebop big band in 1944. In December of that year, she cut her first side “I’ll Wait and Pray,” backed by the Eckstine band, which included Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons, and pianist John Malachi.
Through the intercession of jazz writer and pianist Leonard Feather, Vaughan recorded her first date as a leader for the small Continental label. Under the production of Feather, Vaughan and Her All-Stars attended their session on New Year’s Eve 1944. Acting as the session’s producer and pianist, Feather assembled such sidemen as Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Georgie Auld to cut four sides: “Signing Off,” Feather’s “No Smoke Blues,” Gillespie’s “Interlude” (a vocal version of “Night in Tunisia”), and “East of the Sun,” on which Gillespie replaced Feather ona second session, Feather relinquished the piano duties to Nat Jaffe, and brought together Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
After a nearly year-long stay with Eckstine, Vaughan left the band. With the exception of a job with the sextet of bassist and trombonist John Kirby in the winter of 1945, she performed as a solo act. On May 11, 1945 she recorded “Lover Man” with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. In October of 1945 Vaughan signed with Musicraft label, and, in the same month, recorded for the label with jazz violinist Stuff Smith’s group. Her Musicraft 1946 recording of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” is considered a modern classic. She also recorded with the bands of Dickie Wells and Georgie Auld.
Hailed by Metronome magazine as the “Influence of the Year” in 1948, Vaughan rose to jazz stardom. In the following year, she signed a five-year contract with Columbia and recorded her classic “Black Coffee” with the Joe Lippman Orchestra–a number that climbed to number 13 on Billboard’s pop charts. For Columbia she recorded in various settings and attended two sessions that emerged as the albums “Summertime,” with the Jimmy Jones band, and “Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi,” both of which featured trumpeter Miles Davis. Vaughan was now presenting herself as a pop singer who could do popular ballads in a straightforward style, the soft, sultry sound of her voice unfurling with hypnotic effect, moving with ease between her soprano and contralto registers. During the next year, Vaughan made her first trip to Europe. During her stay in England she sang to enthusiastic audience at Royal Albert Hall.
In 1954, Vaughan signed a contract with the Mercury label and recorded numerous sides primarily in orchestral settings. In December of the same year, her trio–pianist Jimmy Jones, bassist Joe Benjamin, and drummer Roy Haynes–joined 24-year-old trumpet talent Clifford Brown, saxophonist Paul Quinichette, and flutist Herbie Mann to record the LP Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown. Surrounded by first-rate musicians sensitive to her vocal talent, Vaughan produced an album that, as the author to the original LP’s notes wrote, “It is doubtful whether anyone, including Sarah herself, is likely to be able to find any more completely satisfying representation of her work, or any more appropriate musical setting than are offered in this LP. These sides are sure to rank among the foremost achievements of her decade as a recording artist.”
During a stint at Chicago’s Mr. Kelly’s nightclub in August of 1957, Vaughan recorded a live album with her trio: pianist Jimmy Jones, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Roy Haynes. In the following year, she and pianist Ronnell Bright recorded with the Count Basie Band and took part in a session in Paris under the direction of orchestra leader and conductor Quincy Jones, issued as the Mercury LP, “Vaughan and Violins.”
In 1958, Vaughan was earning a yearly income of $230,000. In July of the following year, she scored her first million-selling hit, “Broken Hearted Melody,” with the Ray Ellis Orchestra. A hit with both black and white audiences, “Broken Hearted Melody,” which was nominated for a Grammy Award, reached number five on the pop R&B charts.
When Vaughan’s contract with Mercury ended in the fall of 1959, she signed with Roulette Records and became, over the next few years, one the label’s biggest stars. Her 1960 sessions for Roulette included “The Divine One,” arranged by Jimmy Jones and a session with Count Basie Band featuring such talents as trumpeters Thad Jones and Joe Newman and saxophonists Frank Foster and Billy Mitchell. Featured in duet numbers with singer Joe Williams, the Basie Band session produced the sides, “If I Were a Bell” and “Teach Me Tonight.”
Several arrangements recorded with the Basie Band in January of 1961, were complied as the album “Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie.” Vaughan signed with Mercury again in 1963. Her recorded work in the sixties featured the ensembles of Benny Carter, Quincy Jones, and Gerald Wilson. Her trio accompanists included noted pianists Roland Hanna and Bob James. Vaughan debuted on the Mainstream record label with the 1971 LP “A Time in Life.” On her 1977 live recording at Ronnie Scott’s in the Soho section of London, Vaughan produced a classic with her rendition of “Send in the Clowns.”
In 1978, she recorded an album backed by pianist Oscar Peterson, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Louie Bellson. Recorded with an-star line up, she devoted two albums, in 1979, to the music of Duke Ellington, “Duke Ellington Songbook One,” and “Duke Ellington Songbook Two.” Though she had been nominated for Grammy Awards several times, including a nomination for her 1979 effort “I Love Brazil,” Vaughan did not win her first Grammy until 1982 for “Gershwin Live!.”
Throughout the 1980s Vaughan recorded on the Pablo label, often with the label’s featured artists Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Dizzy Gillespie. As she told Max Jones in Talking Jazz; “Now that I’ve been in so long, you know, I can work with whom I want to. I have more say now over what jobs I do and how I want to do them.” During a trip to Brazil in 1987, she recorded the CBS album “Brazilian Romance,” and afterward appeared at a festival in Rio de Janeiro. On her last recording–Quincy Jones’s all-star 1989 album “Back on the Block,” she sang with Ella Fitzgerald on the introduction of “Birdland.” In February, of the same year, she received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.
A tireless live performer who still maintained a fine voice, Vaughan showed little signs of artistic diminution. Offstage, however, band members began to notice the slowed pace of her walk and her shortness of breath. Diagnosed with lung cancer, she died on April 4, 1990.
Jazz artists and critics have described Sarah Vaughan as a musical innovator whose voice reached the level of the finest jazz instrumentalists. Betty Carter told how “Sarah Vaughan took those melodies and did something with them. She opened the door to do anything you wanted with a melody.” From her first appearances on the jazz scene in the early 1940s until her death, Vaughan’s voice became a model of excellence and an inspiration of those venturing to strive beyond the role of popular vocal entertainer and into the higher realm of musical artistry.
Sarah Vaughan received in her lifetime an Emmy Award, for individual achievement, 1981; Grammy Award for best jazz vocalist, 1982; Hollywood Walk of Fame Star, 1985; Grammy Award, for lifetime achievement, 1989.