Sarah Vaughan (March 27, 1924- April 3, 1990) is the finest singer of popular music I have heard in a lifetime of listening. Her textural richness, infinite timbral range, sophisticated understanding of harmonic structures and bebop rooted improvisational skills are an irresistible combination to my ears. On March 29 the U.S. Postal Service issued a Forever Commemorative Stamp in her honor. As such she joins previous jazz luminaries who were honored in the Legends of American Music stamp series (including Mildred Bailey Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Bessie Smith) and the Black Heritage stamp series, which issued an Ella Fitzgerald stamp in 2007. My response: it’s about damned time. I totally geeked out recently buying a few books of her stamps, a commemorative booklet and a special faux postcard featuring the stamp. How often does one get to support great art and keep a vital government service afloat? Below is a reader’s guide to a representative sample of her vast discography, which spans from 1943 to 1990. Even 26 years after her death multiple albums, primarily concert sets, have emerged and confirmed her mastery of the concert form.
Most recently Resonance Records released the 1978 concert Live at Rosy’s recorded with her trio Paul Schroeder (piano), Walter Booker (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) at the New Orleans club. In addition to singing signatures like “Send in the Clowns” and “Poor Butterfly” she surprises with a playful version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” a lovely rendition of the ‘70s standard “Everything Must Change,” a swinging “A Lot of Livin to Do” (from Bye Bye Birdie) and hilarious patter. 34 years into her career her she has a slightly raspy patina but her falsetto flourishes and rhythmic instincts are as fresh as ever.
As a child musical prodigy, who won the Apollo Amateur Night, played second piano for Earl Hines’ Band and had a front row seat while Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie honed bebop—Sarah Vaughan had music in her blood and then some. That she went on to have a stellar and influential career over nearly six decades as a jazz and pop singer was not surprising. However her boundless versatility, dazzling interpretive creativity, and constantly deepening musicality were virtually unprecedented among jazz singers.
With her luminous, wide-ranging voice and rich grasp of popular song structures she synthesized the vocabularies of swing, bebop, and classical singing into one of the most distinctive expressive vocal styles of the 20th century. Possessing major technical skill and gaining interpretive perspective over time hers is one of the most exciting and diverse careers in popular music. Fortunately, like her esteemed peers Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington the majority of her recordings remain in-print and are widely available for purchase.
Vaughan’s earliest recordings from the early to mid-40s, available on Interlude and Musicraft, feature her young alluring voice in big band and orchestral settings. Vaughan’s recordings are generally divided between bebop anthems like “Interlude” (aka “A Night in Tunisia”), fine versions of jazz and pop standards--“Lover Man,” “The Man I Love,” and “What A Difference A Day Made”-and lush commercial fare such as “It’s Magic.”
Vaughan did not scat during this period but, like Billie Holiday, she incorporated subtle rhythmic and melodic embellishments that personalized her material, evidenced in her benchmark recording of “Mean to Me.” Though many of the pop arrangements are typical of the era Vaughan stands out, professional but never cold and appealing without sounding insipid. Town Hall is a rough, but enjoyable, recording of a 1947 concert where Vaughan showcases her impeccable skill and vocal prowess to an enthusiastic crowd. She also duets with Lester Young on two numbers.
After her success at Musicraft, Continental and smaller independent labels Vaughan recorded for Columbia from 1949-53. Typical of the era she recorded lushly arranged ephemera (“De Gas Pipe She Leaking Joe”) and pop standards “Summertime,” “Black Coffee,” etc. The import Linger Awhile/The Great Sarah Vaughan is a reissue of two LPs, essentially compilations of singles, from the period but they are more for posterity than enjoyment though Vaughan sounds glorious as always. Though Vaughan’s Columbia period is mostly well covered on Divine, Classics Records’s Sarah Vaughan 1951-1952 fills in some interesting gaps. The arrangements are as lush as ever and Vaughan sings in her usual colorful, luscious style. However there are some interesting song choices including the spirituals “Ave Maria” and “A City Called Heaven,” delivered in a majestic style, the overlooked “If Someone Had Told Me” and several period songs of varying quality, that are rarely included on U.S. compilations.
Her skills as an improviser are more evident on four recordings featured on Columbia’s Hi-Fi compilation which mixes pop recordings with adventurous bebop inflected interpretations on “Nice Work (If You Can Get It),” “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” “East of the Sun (West of the Moon),” and “Come Rain or Shine.”
Vaughan recorded what is arguably her most impressive work for Mercury Records from 1954-1960. Predictably she recorded many lush commercial sides that made maximum use of her lush, gorgeous voice and the skills and in house arrangers like Hal Mooney. Many of her 50s and 60s Mercury albums are out-of-print but available thanks to (the expensive) Complete boxed set series on Mercury. Both her pop and jazz oriented recordings warrant attention.
Jazz highlights of this period include the gorgeous intimacy on Sarah Vaughan featuring Clifford Brown which features superb, definitive versions of jazz and pop standards highlighted by an effervescent “Lullaby of Birdland,” and languorous “April in Paris.” Land of Hi-Fi features blazing versions of “Cherokee,” and “How High the Moon” mixed with lush versions of “Over the Rainbow” and “Soon.” On Swingin’ she reprises “Lover Man,” debuts the clever “Shulie-A-Bop” and swings hard on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “All of Me” featuring a fierce scat solo. No Count Basie, available on Complete, features her superb scat “No Count Blues” and a delicious version of Horace Silver’s “Doodlin’” with Jon Hendricks’ lyrics.
The Berlin set, recorded with Hines’ bandmate Eckstine, the Gershwin songbooks and the Broadway collection showcases Vaughan as both singer and actress. The combination of Vaughan’s velvet tones with Hal Mooney’s sweeping orchestrations provides a perfect dramatic punch for some of the most finely crafted theatre songs of the 20th century. The Complete set also features numerous live concerts where Vaughan’s impeccable musicianship and charming persona make for very intimate listening including her recordings at Mister Kelly’s and her London Opera House set where she famously flubs “Thanks for the Memory.”
In the early 60s Vaughan signed with Roulette, joining other jazz luminaries--Eckstine, Dinah Washington, Joe Williams and Count Basie. At Roulette she recorded the requisite mood music and lounge albums—Dreamy, Snowbound, The Divine One collected on Mosaic’s Roulette boxed set-- popular in the 60s. She also recorded a solid, if predictable album with the Count Basie band, a flowery semi-classical set and a session comprised of ephemeral pop singles.
Despite these diversions she made some of her most invigorating jazz statements at Roulette. Her two Benny Carter arranged recordings (The Explosive Side and The Lonely Hours available on a two-fer as the Benny Carter Sessions) are flawless exemplars of dynamic swing and burnished torch singing, respectively. The Quincy Jones-arranged You’re Mine You is an entertaining lounge set with a great version of “One Mint Julep,” an ecstatic near operatic “Maria,” and fine versions of Sinatra style tunes—“Witchcraft,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” For the spare, intimate side of Vaughan check out the bass and guitar set After Hours and its sequel Sarah + 2 (available only on the box set) For the soulful side of Vaughan check out what is perhaps her most satisfying Roulette album, Sarah Sings Soulfully a jazz organ set featuring stellar performances of “Sermonette,” “Easy Street,” “Round Midnight,” and “The Gravy Waltz.”
Vaughan heralded her return to Mercury with the sizzling Tivoli, a set of concerts recorded in Copenhagen, compiled as a two-disc set. Vaughan combines the swagger of a veteran jazz musician with a newly acquired operatic flair. Vaughan surveys highlights of her career gracing everything from “Over the Rainbow,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Maria” from Westside Story, to “Misty,” and the scat “Sassy’s Blues” with her beautiful voice, supported by a supple, swinging band. Alas, this kind of jazz artistry was short-lived during her second Mercury stint.
Inevitably, rock’s commercial domination affected the recording choices of jazz singers who wanted mainstream attention. Like Ella, Carmen, Tony Bennett and Sinatra, Vaughan tried her hand at contemporary 60s pop with mixed results. Her new Mercury phase largely included competent but trendy recordings including a perky Latin-pop set, a Henry Mancini songbook, sets mixing contemporary pop and rock tunes (i.e. Lennon-McCartney, Bacharach-David), and a set of songs organized around men (i.e. “Jim,” “Alfie,”) collected on Complete. Perhaps in response to commercial pressures Vaughan ended her reign with a superb swing set Sassy Swings Again where she reminded listeners of her formidable powers on sensational versions of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Take the A Train” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” among others.
Sarah Vaughan’s recordings at Mainstream Records, where she recorded from 1971-76 vary from garish attempts to apply her rich style to inappropriate ‘70s pop/rock to sublime displays of her prowess, notably Live in Japan. In between these efforts is her recording of Legrand tunes on the rich and ripe Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand. Her singing is as sultry as ever but the often bathetic lyrics and overwrought arrangements can bring out her most indulgent instincts.
Two of her finest and most representative concert recordings from the 1970s include her two Live in Japan Vols. 1 and 2 sets recorded in 1973, and a 1971 Monterey Jazz Festival Concord Records released in 2007 for the first time. On both sets her sense of humor, musical control and audience rapport are abundant. She sings some of her favorites including standards like “’Round Midnight,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” “I Remember You” and “The Lamp is Low” alongside a few contemporary hits of the era such as “Love Story” (Japan Volume 1) and “And I Love Him” (Monterey). Two of the highlights of the Japan include her nearly wordless rendition of “Willow Weep for Me” and languid, delicately unfolded versions of “My Funny Valentine” and “The Nearness of You.” On Monterey she cuts loose on the five minute “Scattin’ the Blues” and a jam session with jazz titans Zoot Sims and Clark Terry.
From 1969-71 Vaughan did not record for any record labels, concentrating on live dates and her early 70s recordings for Mainstream were pop records with little tie to her jazz roots. After her death several concert recordings of the era have surfaced on independent labels including her great 1969 Newport Jazz performance on Jazzfest Masters. The 70s were mostly a transitional period for Vaughan. Her voice grew darker and huskier in tone and timbre, she interpreted lyrics with more feeling and her newfound flair as a live performer made her one of the premiere jazz singers in concert.
Vaughan’s recordings for Norman Granz’s Pablo Records are amazing recordings both for the stylistic range Vaughan covers and the quality of her instincts four decades into her career. How Long is a brilliant small group set recorded with Ray Brown and Joe Pass where she reinvents the title track as a light samba and adds classical touches to old warhorses like “Teach Me Tonight” and “More Than You Know.” Brazil is a skillful set of suadades and sambas recorded in Brazil and often featuring their composers and star musicians including Milton Nascimento, Dori Caymmi, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Vaughan has rarely sounded as blissful and energetic. Copacabana is a delightful but less consistent set of similar material.
The two-volume Ellington sets are uneven but feature many fine performances including a sexy soulful duet with Eddie “ ‘Cleanhead’ ” Vinson on “Rocks in My Bed,” a hard swinging “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” a wistfully dramatic take on “I Got It Bad,” and a hushed, ethereal “Daydream.” Send in the Clowns is most famous for her unique, near-operatic performance of “Send in the Clowns” but she really shines on a swinging “All the Things You Are” and a reprise of her signature “If You Could See Me Now.” Her finest set of the era is the stunning self-produced Crazy and Mixed Up which mixes everything from romantic standards, such as “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” to Ivan Lins’s “Love Dance” and “The Island,” and an all scat version of “Autumn Leaves.”
At Pablo Vaughan seemed to be improving with age and two live 80s sets confirm just how in her element she had become. Her Grammy winning concert Gershwin Live! is a brilliant jazz and classical synthesis where she gives grand, sweeping interpretations of Gershwin including a “Porgy and Bess Medley,” a stunning 10 minute “Man I Love,” an intense “My Man’s Gone Now” and a hard swinging “Fascinating Rhythm.” She reprises her mastery of Gershwin on the superb live Paris set City of Lights. A virtual career retrospective she sings virtually all of her signature songs including confident, often playful versions of “Wave,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Sassy’s Blues,” “Misty,” and “If You Could See Me Now.”
Tragically Vaughan, a lifelong smoker, died in 1990 but left behind a rich, substantial career. Shortly after her death, Vintage Jazz Classics released a 23-song collection of unreleased performances on I’ll Be Seeing You: The Sarah Vaughan Memorial Album. Spanning from two lush pop studio recordings from 1949 to eight jazz performances from ~1961-62, it is a very entertaining glimpse of Vaughan in multiple styles and settings. It does not fully cohere but it is a trove of good to exceptional performances across a decade. The two opening pop recordings, “Tonight I Shall Sleep” and “While You Are Gone” sound like Columbia era Vaughan where her voluminous voice and infinite colors uplifting her material even in the most enveloping orchestral settings.
However her jazz roots are on full display in several brilliant performances from a 1960 set at the Madison Square Jazz Festival and the ‘61/’62 recordings. Her perfect sense of swing, intricate soloing and masterful balladeering abound especially on two superb versions of “Just One of Those Things,” a breath-taking solo on “Sometimes I’m Happy,” and some of the finest versions of “But Not for Me” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Elsewhere she and Nat King Cole glide through a live “Love You Madly” with a few words from Ellington and a fun take on “Teach Me Tonight” with Joe Williams where she almost forgets the lyrics and they cheerfully laugh it off before continuing on.
Several fine recordings have surfaced since her death such as the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival performances on the Linger Awhile compilation and the excellent discovery of a 1961 radio recording Soft & Sassy where Vaughan’s vocal purity and improvisational prowess sparkle in a minimalist piano, bass and drum arrangement.
Collectors Choice Music’s Divine Lady of Song is a 20 song collection of rare radio and concert performances by Vaughan and small groups. No recording dates are featured but they seem to stem from the late 50s-early 60s given the fullness of her voice and the repertoire. As always she sings beautifully and thrives within the lean spacious arrangements. The songs include signatures like “Just One of Those Things,” “What is this Thing Called Love,” and unexpected songs including “Lover Come Back to Me,” “Careless” and “Gone with the Wind.”
For the budget conscious shopper Verve, Roulette and Pablo have all released various single-disc collections of her finest recordings on CD, and in digital form, making her career readily accessible for the curious.
One-Five scale: Poor, Mediocre, Good, Great, Classic
♦♦♦♦ Interlude: Early Recordings 1944-1947 (Naxos Jazz Legends, 2001)
♦♦♦♦ Complete Musicraft Master Takes (The Jazz Factory, 2001)
♦♦♦ Linger Awhile/The Great Sarah Vaughan (Columbia/Sony Music Entertainment UK, 2001)
♦♦♦♦ The Divine Sarah Vaughan: The Columbia Years 1949-1953 (CBS Records, 1988)
♦♦♦½ Sarah Vaughan 1951-1952 (Classics Records, 2003)
♦♦♦♦ Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi (Columbia/Legacy, 1996)
♦♦♦♦½ The Complete Columbia Albums Collection (compilation) (featuring: ♦♦♦♦ After Hours, 11949-1952; ♦♦♦♦ Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi, 1950; ♦♦♦♦ Gershwin Live, 1982; ♦♦♦ Brazilian Romance, 1987)
Verve, Mercury and EmArcy:
♦♦♦♦♦ Sarah Vaughan featuring Clifford Brown (Verve, 1954/2000)
♦♦♦♦♦ In the Land of Hi-Fi (Verve, 1955)
♦♦♦♦♦ Swingin’ Easy (Verve, 1957)
♦♦♦♦ Sings Broadway: Great Songs from Hit Shows (Mercury Records, 1957/1995)
♦♦♦½ The Irving Berlin Songbook [with Billy Eckstine] (EmArcy Records, 1957/1984)
♦♦♦♦ The George Gershwin Songbook, Volume 1 (Verve 1957/1990)
♦♦♦♦ The George Gershwin Songbook, Volume 2 (Verve 1957/1990)
♦♦♦♦♦ Sassy Swings the Tivoli (EmArcy Records, 1963/1987)
♦♦♦ Viva Vaughan! (Mercury Records, 1964/2001)
♦♦♦ It’s A Man’s World (Mercury Records 1967/2002)
♦♦♦♦♦ Sassy Swings Again (Mercury Records 1967/1983)
♦♦♦♦♦ The Complete Sarah Vaughan on Mercury Volumes 1-4 (boxed sets)
Roulette (Various Roulette CDs have been available as single CDs; most are downloadable in this form as well):
♦♦♦ Count Basie/Sarah Vaughan (Roulette Records, 1961)
♦♦♦♦ After Hours (Roulette Records, 1961)
♦♦♦♦♦ The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan (Roulette Records, 1961)
♦♦♦♦ You’re Mine You (Roulette Records, 1962)
♦♦♦♦♦ Sarah Sings Soulfully (Roulette Records, 1963)
♦♦♦♦♦ The Lonely Hours (Roulette Records, 1964)
♦♦♦½ Sweet ‘N’ Sassy (Roulette Records, 1963)
♦♦♦♦♦ The Complete Roulette Sarah Vaughan Studio Sessions (boxed set) (Mosaic Records, 2002)
♦♦♦ Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand (Mainstream Records, 1972)
♦♦♦♦ I Love Brazil! (Pablo Records, 1977/1994)
♦♦♦♦♦ How Long Has This Been Going On? (Pablo Records, 1978)
♦♦♦½ Duke Ellington Songbook One (Pablo Records, 1980)
♦♦♦½ Duke Ellington Songbook Two (Pablo Records, 1980)
♦♦♦ Copacabana (Pablo Records, 1981/2002)
♦♦♦♦ Send in the Clowns [with the Count Basie Orchestra] (Pablo Records, 1981)
♦♦♦♦♦ Crazy and Mixed Up (Pablo Records, 1982)
Concert Recordings and Radio Transcriptions:
♦♦♦♦♦ Live in Japan Vol. 1 (Mainstream Records, 1973)
♦♦♦♦♦ Live in Japan Vol. 2 (Mainstream Records, 1973)
♦♦♦♦½ Sassy at Ronnie’s (Ronnie Scott’s Jazz House Records, 1977/1991)
♦♦♦♦ Gershwin Live! [with Trio and L. A. Philharmonic Orchestra] (CBS Records, 1982)
♦♦♦♦ In the City of Lights (Justin Time Records, 1985/1999)
♦♦♦♦ I’ll Be Seeing You: The Sarah Vaughan Memorial Album (Vintage Jazz Classics, 1990)
♦♦♦♦ Jazz Fest Masters (Scotti Brothers, 1992)
♦♦♦♦♦ Soft & Sassy (Hindsight Records, 1993)
♦♦♦½ One Night Stand: The Town Hall Concert 1947 [with Lester Young] (Blue Note 1997)
♦♦♦♦ Divine Lady of Song (Collector’s Choice Music, 2004)
♦♦♦♦♦ Live at Monterey Jazz Festival (Monterey Jazz Festival Records/Concord, 2007)
♦♦♦♦½ Live at Rosy’s (Resonance Records, 2016)
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