The art of the “Divine One”

Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan

By Elaine M. Hayes

Ecco, 2017

The increasing commercial gap between commercial pop targeting younger buyers and so-called “adult” music amplifies the urgency of reminding contemporary listeners that improvising jazz musicians were mainstream musicians for most of the previous century.

One example is the foremost singer of the bebop tradition, Sarah Vaughan (known as “the Divine One” and “Sassy”). After recording for independent record labels in the mid-1940s, she got a major recording contract with Columbia Records. This was significant because at the time only a handful of black artists had access to the financial resources and promotional support that could expose them to white audiences. Aside from cutting a few tunes with jazz musicians she mostly sang a lot of syrupy pop tunes with strings and dreadful “novelty songs.” Though her time there, 1949-53, yielded some gorgeous performances (e.g. “Black Coffee,” “Ooh What’cha Doin’ to Me”) she was only mildly successful commercially. Mutual frustration led Columbia Records to decline to renew her contract, and Sarah to pursue other opportunities.

Freed from their constraints, she found the right balance between pop and jazz singing with Mercury Records, which offered her an unorthodox arrangement: She would record pop material for Mercury, and release improvisational jazz-oriented material on their subsidiary EmArcy. As Elaine Hayes recalls in her excellent new Vaughan biography Queen of Bebop, this arrangement captured her artistic vision better than her previous arrangements. “Vaughan could now split her talent in two and experience the best of both worlds: fame and fortune as a pop starlet and the creative freedom of a jazz artist” (164). Vaughan had dueling instincts to fuse the lush grandeur and “legitimacy” of classical music (she had the voice for it) with the improvisational spontaneity and blues feeling of jazz. At Mercury/EmArcy she could record ballads with strings, which she loved, score a few profitable radio hits and simultaneously work with jazz musicians with whom she always had amazing chemistry.

Photo of Sarah Vaughan performing in New York City in 1949 (Herman Leonard Photography LLC).

Photo of Sarah Vaughan performing in New York City in 1949 (Herman Leonard Photography LLC).

The dual arrangement yielded some of the most beautiful and listenable albums of lush romantic music recorded in the 1950s, and even gave her a few “hit”  singles like 1954’s “Make Yourself Comfortable” and 1958’s “Whatever Lola Wants.” She and some of jazz’s most respected arrangers and musicians, including Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown, and Roy Haynes recorded canonical vocal jazz albums with vocal performances and solos that have provided a blueprint for generations of musicians. It was a simpatico arrangement that lasted from 1954-60 before she recorded for Roulette Records.

When she returned to Mercury in 1963 EmArcy had dissolved, and though her first few recordings included a few jazz oriented dates she was forced to record a lot of ill-fitting contemporary pop.  The notion of Vaughan recording songs by Burt Bacharach/Hal David and The Beatles is not fundamentally outrageous; but covering these songs was redundant and cheesy arrangements undermined her talents. More to the point, the company’s insistence reflected the larger reality that jazz influenced music was no longer the mainstream. Rock music was. The great divide was already in motion and record companies expected singers who had previously mined the nuances of Ellington and Gershwin to get with it or move on. Vaughan stuck it out recording suites of pop covers and a few jazz dates before ending her recording career for four years. She was tired of record company games and ironically, 32 years into her career, she began rediscovering her voice through building a robust concert career. More on that later.

Hayes makes a very convincing argument for Vaughan as the most musically accomplished vocalist in popular music history, a sentiment shared with others including third stream pioneer Gunther Schuller who she quotes in the Epilogue.  Hayes, who holds a Ph. D. in music, describes her “crossover moment” in the Prologue noting how Vaughan’s “amazing voice” and “musical mind” shifted initial attention away from studying Europe classical music to study jazz, so captivating was Vaughan’s artistry (1).  Bebop musicians grew up with big band jazz but as swing became increasingly generic and commercial they shifted toward a more self-consciously artistic approach to improvisation. By the mid-1940s they had developed an advanced harmonic vocabulary and a penchant for virtuosic performing that focused on listening rather than dancing. Vaughan was the first vocalist to absorb this new aesthetic, and in a sense was one of the first jazz oriented vocalists to see herself as an artist rather than just a commercial singer or entertainer. This is pivotal musically, and culturally since as Hayes illustrates, the white dominated music industry expected black singers to sing blues, novelty songs and so-called “ethnic” music, not “art” music (118-20).

Whereas Vaughan’s swing predecessors typically had roots in classic blues and/or swing, she learned gospel music as a child at Mount Zion Baptist church in Newark, New Jersey. Her training on piano and organ exposed her to classical music, and she was a prodigy who studied music relentlessly. Along with gospel, and classical music, she was also a big fan of swing and got her first break winning the Apollo Amateur night in 1942 singing “Body and Soul.” Vaughan never had formal voice lessons, but translated her keyboard skills and her eclectic stylistic knowledge into a singular vocal style. From there, pianist and bandleader Earl Hines band hired her to sing and play piano. She transitioned into singing in Billy Eckstine’s pioneering bebop orchestra before going solo recording for Musicraft, Columbia, Mercury and EmArcy, Roulette, and Mercury before taking a recording hiatus. Pop covers and awkward rock and funk production choices bogged down most of the albums she recorded for Mainstream Records (1971-74). But, albums like 1973’s Live in Japan and her late 1970s Pablo Records recordings (I Love Brazil! and How Long Has This Been Going On?) reminded people of her enduring commitment to jazz.

Sarah Vaughan realized her vision of fusing jazz and classical music on her 1982 album  Gershwin Live!  which won her the Grammy Award for Female Vocal Performance, Jazz in 1983.

Sarah Vaughan realized her vision of fusing jazz and classical music on her 1982 album Gershwin Live! which won her the Grammy Award for Female Vocal Performance, Jazz in 1983.

Two key developments Hayes highlights that are pivotal to helping her realize her expansive jazz and classical fusion was recording Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” in 1973 and Michael Tilson Thomas’s invitation for her to collaborate on a travelling program of Gershwin songs in 1974. Though her initial “Clowns” was recorded in an unfortunate funk arrangement, she found the song intriguing and revisited the song making it her signature closing song. In her hands, the showtune became a “jazz aria” that displayed the full range of her talents (302-05). She and Thomas performed their Gershwin program successfully with symphonies for many years, which finally gave Vaughan the “legitimacy” she had been seeking throughout her career (307-10). Her 1982 version of “The Man I Love” recorded on their Grammy winning Gershwin Live! Is perhaps the definitive example of how classical music, jazz, and even elements of gospel music could cohere into an exciting whole, one that defied genre boundaries (341-42). As Hayes recounts, by the mid 1960s Vaughan was very open about her dislike at being labeled a “jazz” singer because her art transcended formulas. For Vaughan, “Either one is a singer or one isn’t. I like doing all types of material—just as long as it’s good” (273).

Queen of Bebop’s emphasis on Vaughan as a unique vocal artist parallels a central thread in several 21st century books on black female jazz vocalists. These including Farah Jasmine Griffin’s If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (2001), William R. Bauer’s Open the Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter (2002), Nadine Cohodas’s Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington (2004) and  Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (2012), and John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician & the Myth (2015). Notably, these books acknowledge the musical aesthetic of and the cultural context for these artists and posits them as formidable artists with an enduring creative imprint, rather than just “icons” or “figures.” 

Leslie Gourse’s 1993 Vaughan biography Sassy has served as major source of insight on Vaughan for many years. Queen, however, distinguishes itself by virtue of Hayes’s musical background. Her discussion, for example, of what made Vaughan’s hit recordings of “Make Yourself Comfortable” (176-80) and “Whatever Lola Wants” (168-70) are original readings that made me revisit the recordings.  Throughout the book, she parses many of Vaughan’s musical innovations in an authoritative but accessible fashion.  Hayes also has a firmer and intentional approach to addressing racism and sexism as important factors in Vaughan’s career. For example, she relates Vaughan’s tendency to surrender personal and professional control over to her three husband-managers as a reflection of gender norms. This also connects to the way male executives and promoters expected female artists to comply with their wishes rather than challenge them, hence Vaughan’s reputation for being “difficult” and “temperamental.”

Vaughan's 1954 single "Make Yourself Comfortable" was her first major commercial hit at Mercury Records.

Vaughan's 1954 single "Make Yourself Comfortable" was her first major commercial hit at Mercury Records.

In addition to drawing from previously published articles and interviews, Hayes quotes from a wide range of sources such as radio broadcasts. She also interviews several musicians and associates who worked directly with the vocalist, adding to the primary source Vaughan archive. From these sources, she is able to depict what Vaughan navigated on the road, her struggles with record companies and promoters, and her relationships with her musicians more fully than ever. What becomes clear throughout is that even when she was struggling with bad sound systems or hot weather, Vaughan charmed her audiences wowing them with the richness of her voice and her mastery of the stage. During her late -60s recording hiatus, she developed a more confident concert style laced with a cheeky sense of humor, and a flair for spontaneity. Hip contemporary vocal jazz artists Ann Hampton Callaway, Cecile McLorin Salvant, and Dianne Reeves also testify to the gospel of Vaughan’s spell.

Though musicians and critics adore Vaughan, other jazz divas like Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald have always overshadowed her in the public imagination. She seemingly lacked Holiday’s dramatic life, and Fitzgerald’s crowd-pleasing affability. But, Queen exposes these perceptions as facile. Vaughan endured racism and various kinds of abuse from her male lovers. She simply hid this from public view as much as she could. Dealing with these corrupt figures, rather than true talent management professionals, prevented her from having the kind of economic success and recording consistency that Fitzgerald experienced when she allowed Norman Granz to manage her career. Further, Vaughan was a relentless experimenter whose unwillingness to confine herself to expectations falls outside of the American popular music norm. After a few years, you knew where Fitzgerald might go with “Oh, Lady Be Good,” or “How High the Moon,” but Vaughan was even more unpredictable and playful expecting her bandmates to listen closely for the next daring feat. They were not merely accompanying or supporting her; they were keeping up with her.

Two elements that would enhance Queen. First, I wish Hayes had discussed certain albums in greater depth. For example, her 1961 album Sarah Slightly Classical (Roulette) was her attempt to record classical melodies, and given the book’s discussion of her aspiration toward classical music, I would love to read Hayes’s take on its execution. Her Roulette career is highlighted briefly, but its vastness warrants more attention. The reality is that Vaughan recorded 45 years’ worth of material so any writer would have to be selective. Second, I wish the book featured a discography of Vaughan’s albums. Since her death in 1990, several posthumous releases have expanded our understanding of Vaughan’s artistry. These include 1994’s Soft & Sassy (Hindsight Records) recorded in 1961 for the “Navy Swings” public service program, In the City of Lights (Justin Time Records), recorded in Paris in 1985, but released in 1999, and the superb Live at Rosy’s recorded in 1978 in New Orleans but only released in 2016 by Resonance Records. The digital age has made many previously rare Vaughan recordings more accessible so it is possible there are even more recordings waiting for release. A novice to Vaughan might benefit from this resource even in abridged form.

These are minor issues in a major book that sits alongside the acclaimed titles listed above. Queen of Bebop is a superior memoir with a credible understanding of the musical innovations and cultural realities of Vaughan the artist, the woman, the African-American, and the musician.