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.


Singing the colorline: “Ol’ Man River” and the politics of race

Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”? The Lives of an American Song

By Todd Decker

Oxford University Press, 2015

 One of the most entertaining moments I’ve heard on a recording is when Sarah Vaughan briefly breaks into laughter singing Ira Gershwin’s  lyric, “I’d give the world to be/Among the folks in D-I-X-I-E/Though my mammy’s waiting for me…” on her version of “Swanee” on 1982’s Gershwin Live! Vaughan, an African-American woman who was born in New Jersey in 1924, could not be further removed from the lyric’s ridiculously nostalgic lyrics. Vaughan, singing a live “songbook” album, surely included it for reportorial thoroughness rather than any deep personal relation. Though “Swanee” is a “classic” by virtue of being the Gershwins’ first hit, and being popularized by actor-singer Al Jolson in blackface in 1919, it was painfully anachronistic in 1982 and sounds even more so today. Rather changing the lyrics Vaughan signifies on the song, gently recognizing the irony of her singing this ode to a mythic South, and the moment passes.

 I thought of this moment reading about the myriad ways black singers have approached the standard “Ol Man River” in musicologist Todd Decker’s Who Should Sing Ol’ Man River? Black singers have spent generations trying to cross over and appeal to broad audiences, and detaching themselves from race is often the condition for gaining acceptance. “Ol’ Man River” is the rare song to refuse this at every turn. When you sing it you inherit its baggage based on what you keep and what you exclude.


                                                               Copyright  ©  2015 Oxford University Press. 

                                                               Copyright © 2015 Oxford University Press. 

“River” was originally written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for the pioneering musical Showboat. They wanted Paul Robeson to sing it originally but musical theater actor Jules Bledsoe premiered it on Broadway in 1927.  Robeson’s 1932 recording on Brunswick is considered definitive, and he immortalized it in the 1936 film version; interestingly, he almost never sang it as written originally. “River”’s lyrics depict the laments of black laborers to capture the black struggle to survive against white racial oppression. Lyrically, it is infamous for an opening verse that included the phrase, “Niggers all work on de Mississippi/Niggers all work while de white folks play” which was changed later to “darkies” then “colored folk” by Hammerstein. At a certain point in the mid-1940s most white singers who included the verse sang, “Here we all work” and similar variations. The song is also famous for using dialect in its lyrics (i.e. “somethin’” instead of “something”), and for depicting what many listeners read as a condescending portrait of “noble suffering.”

 Musically its indelible melody and harmonically advanced structure has made it a musical showcase for vocalists who solidified it as a standard.  Decker describes how it is “built along an AABA pattern but Kern shaped the melody of each A phrase differently, slowly expanding the range of the song to peak at the end of the thirty-two bars. The song practically—indeed, physically—demands a big finish” (30). Hammerstein authorized multiple lyric changes over time, and the song’s structure has accommodated an astonishing range of changes, such as spoken passages and radical tempo changes. The song continually evokes the question of what makes a song “classic,” and for whom? Black singers seem to have responded to its soaring music, but also to have assumed some ownership of how blacks are understood in the lyric. White singers also seem drawn to the music, but the lyric’s appeal seems far more ambiguous. There is a spectrum of interpretive approaches that offer answers to these questions.

 I’m uncertain when I first heard the iconic standard “Ol Man River,” but it was probably when I was a kid and most likely on TV.  Like many American standards from the 1920s its evocative melody and potent themes pervade American pop and seem as old as music itself. Simultaneously, as a casual listener of various versions of this song over the decades, and as an African-American, it has always seemed dated formally and tonally.  Songs by composers like Stephen Foster, and other minstrel era writers, and songs with references to “mammies” (i.e. “Swanee”) and “darkies” (i.e. “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”) are obviously outdated and yet still embarrass me and many black people in the present.  It’s hard to believe millions of listeners enjoyed this kind of material without wincing collectively.

When examining “Ol’ Man River”'s lyrics it’s hard not to ask: What the hell did its white authors know about the subjectivity of black laborers?   Of course the same question applies to other songwriters. For example, what did Harold Arlen really know about rainbows? What did the band Toto know about the continent of Africa? One potential answer is the artistic imperative toward metaphor, but also the desire to empathize and connect as much as humanly possible. The adaptation of “Summertime” (whose lyrics feature “mammy” but has frequently been altered to “mommy”) is another example of the empathic relational attempt. What is always at stake is Decker’s core point: “A song such as this can never be a ‘classic’: it’s too wrapped up in history to achieve any supposed universal expression—if indeed any piece of music can make such a claim (I don’t believe any can).” (25). As such he challenges readers to place the song, and others of its ilk, in a context rather than excusing the song on aesthetic grounds. He clearly appreciates the song’s advanced harmonics and its noble intention, but neither absolves the song from scrutiny.

 Decker’s provocatively titled book effectively tells the storied tale of the song’s formal origins and adaptations, especially during the “high season” of recordings and TV performances from 1958-the early 1970s. Central to his argument is the song’s rotational utility for multiple singers in multiple eras. For example, the black musical theater actor Bledsoe on (not Robeson) originated it on Broadway.

 Robeson rarely-to-never sang the full lyrics as written, and consciously adapted the songs to the political times. Two 1928 versions include a version recorded with the Paul Whiteman orchestra that shifts from the slow verse to a dance tempo, and the cast album version. These were followed by the lusher and more self-consciously serious 1932 version. But Robeson pushed the song in 1937 at a political rally in London altering “I’m tired of livin and feared of dyin’” to “I must keep struggling until I’m dyin.’” (39). These modifications paralleled Robeson’s outspoken objections to celebrity and the kinds of roles blacks were offered at the time. At a 1947 concert in Manhattan he altered his alteration to “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’” and altered the verse on a 1947 version recorded for Columbia Records to distance himself from the song. This was followed by a more overt shift in a 1949 Tchaikovsky Hall concert he sang “You show a little grit/And you land in jail” rather than “Git a little drunk/And you land in jail” (42). Robeson continued modifying the song treating it as a folk song rather than a merely pretty star vehicle. His final performance of it came in 1958 years after he had been blacklisted.

 Comparatively, many instrumentalists ignored the seemingly “heavy” lyrics altogether, and several instrumental and vocal renditions (i.e. Bing Crosby’s 1928 version) treated the song as either a rhythm tune for dancing or as easy listening mood music. Classical singers and crooners were more ambitious, adapting the song to showcase their virtuosity and by association affirm their manliness. Though Decker analyzes a few white female singers he cites their renditions (i.e. Judy Garland) more for extending their public personae than making a political point about hard labor or the plight of working people, the two most common interpretive approaches employed by white interpreters.

 Black singers have tended to do more with the song for understandable reasons. Many sang it seriously and imbued its character with dignity, rather than wallowing in the lyric’s implicit “noble suffering” persona. Another common approach was a subversive angle, ranging from Robeson’s politically themed versions to Duke Ellington and Al Hibbler’s exaggerated 1951 absurdist rendition to Lou Rawls’s swinging 1963 soul version. The idea of blacks as nobly suffering in the mythic South countered the burgeoning political sensibility of blacks, especially urban blacks who spent much of the 20th century defining their own culture in their own voice, simultaneously rejecting external constructions.

 Decker’s nine chapter inquiry, which includes chapters dedicated to Robeson’s approaches, rhythmic versions, easy listening versions, TV performances, and others, effectively contrasts the ways musicians in pop, opera, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and jazz have adapted and interpreted the song’s nuances. The author is a skilled musical and lyrical critic, and even when one disagrees with his readings, I appreciated the irresistible conversation he offered. There are so few contemporary songs that have anything at stake politically or emotionally that it’s genuinely surprising when a song warrants book-length coverage.

 The book’s title question is perhaps too big to answer but its provocations get at the inescapable force of race in popular music.  American blackness is so dense with history that Blacks predictably navigate race more carefully than any racial group. A politically fraught song like “Ol’ Man River” is bound to inspire complex responses.

 Some of the more notable renditions of the song, dense with political inflections include Robeson, Hibbler, Rawls, as well as  Ray Charles’s brilliant 1963 version cited by Decker as his favorite, Sammy Davis Jr’s 1969 TV rendition on The Hollywood Palace, and Aretha Franklin’s live 1994 TV version sung at the Clinton White House featuring an intro about her foremothers and forefathers  Each of these is an important touchstone of a racialized political moment.

 Whereas many white singers approach the song in a de-racialized, detached manner more focused on the song as a “classic” than its racial commentary black singers could not detach so easily.  Tellingly, many of the most significant black performers of the century (i.e. Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday) never performed or recorded the song. This is an area Decker could explore even further. The economic and social aspirations of black entertainers are inseparable from the larger reality that Americans more readily accepted blacks when politics, commentary, and other conscious acknowledgements of race were hidden. Respectability always looms in the background for black public figures. On the flipside, singing the song straight as a literal commentary happened even it if was probably impolitic within many black communities. Decker notes many oddly “backwards” versions of the song ranging from Bledsoe’s overly dramatic 1931 rendition to the Temptations’ 1969 TV special’s medley of “The Best Things in Life are Free/Swanee/ /Old Folks at Home/Ol’ Man River.”

 Decker avoids reducing the book to a simple racial polemic by legitimately probing how a white singer can take such a fraught text and make it meaningful. For many white singers it seems to function as a technical exercise for dramatic and vocal chops, and for others a blandly “nostalgic” tune evocative of the antebellum south. On instrumental versions, that yoke the song with tunes like “Dixie,” Decker notes how such readings negate the song’s intended meaning. More thoughtful renditions tacitly acknowledge race but struggle to make sense. For example, Sinatra goes from singing the song as though he is black in the 1940s to removing references to race in an attempt to make the song universal via a 1967 version substituting “here we all work while the rich folk play” (161).

 Decker wisely notes the folly of this: a white singer erasing the racial premise of the song is unearned privilege that misses the point of the song which is that specific people have had specific struggles in a racialized context.  This universalizing approach conveniently shifts the tune away from social divides toward something that makes the song easier for the singer to relate to and for audiences to “enjoy” guilt free.  No matter how skillfully a singer navigates the song Decker interrogates the implications of certain lyric changes such as “here we all work” which collapses all workers under one banner.

 The best examples of Decker’s critical prowess are his readings of Sinatra’s interpretations.  He shows how Sinatra changed the “darkies” lyric after Black press protests regarding his 1943 radio performance to “here we all work.” Though this was progressive there was still the thorny issue of how Sinatra positioned himself in the song. He avoided overdramatizing the part where the white boss shouts orders, but kept the lines where the protagonist sings “white folks play” and “white man boss” interpolating himself as one of the oppressed. This is an interesting gesture, but to this listener it’s ludicrous. In 1967, as the Black Power movement began altering the Civil Rights climate he took these lines out. For Decker, Sinatra’s primary contribution was musical, not lyrical—notably his ability to sing some of its bigger passages subtly, which instantly differentiated it from operatic renditions and theatrical versions. This grounded the song emotionally, and served the dual purpose of positioning Sinatra as a serious vocalist with skilled breath control and interpretive acumen, not just a crooner.

 The lingering critical question is how we can tell if a white singer’s rendition is intended as a show of solidarity (necessitating certain lyric changes to avoid silliness) or a convenient form of denial, masked as “universal” when racial references are removed; or if it’s always a mix of both?

 The individual renditions tell their own story, and while Decker shares his takes the questions themselves provide the reader with opportunities to evaluate these questions critically. As such Decker’s study is not just an appraisal or critique, but a genuine conversation about the art of interpretation. Taste, judgment, and context are as important as chops and intentions.  Decker praises Charles’s version which juxtaposes the cooing sounds of a white choir with Charles’s intense readings of the lyrics, including a repeated refrain of “I want you to know …” as a preface to several lyrics, three time. For Decker, “‘Ol’ Man River’ is given voice by a powerful black man using the powerful expressive tools of soul music while the song’s white audience not only listens but responds—as it turns out, uncomprehendingly” (203). He reads this call-and-response structure as an intentional comment from Charles about race notably, “black and white have lived side by side in the soundscapes of popular music history and the landscape of the nation” (203).  Even if you challenge this reading he taps into an undeniable power in Charles’s choice. Charles is saying something and it’s not polemical or apolitical but something closer to the recognizable truthfulness at the heart of soul music.