In the 1940s, when most female singers joined big bands as stage attractions rather than legitimate members of jazz ensembles, Sarah Vaughan, along with her predecessor Ella Fitzgerald, helped elevate the role of the singer to the same level as that of the jazz instrumentalist. A woman known for her many vicissitudes, Sarah Vaughan’s outspoken personality and artistic eloquence earned her the names “Sassy” and “The Divine One”. A talented pianist, she joined the ranks of the 1940s bebop movement and, as a member of the Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine bands, became one of its most celebrated singers. Her dynamic vocal range, sophisticated harmonic sense and horn-like phrasing enabled her to sell millions of records and lead a stage and recording career that lasted half a decade.
Sarah Lois Vaughan was born on March 27, 1924 in Newark, New Jersey, the daughter of Asbury and Ada Vaughan. In her youth, she took piano lessons and attended Mount Zion Baptist Church, where she was keyboardist. At home, Vaughan played the family upright piano and listened to recordings by jazz artists Count Basie and Erskine Hawkins. After discovering Newark’s many theaters and cinemas, she skipped school and left home at night to attend dance and theater performances. By the age of 15, she was performing in local clubs, playing piano and singing.
Soon after, Vaughan took the train across the river to Harlem to frequent the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theatre. One evening in 1943, she attended the Apollo’s amateur show, a fierce competition that often exposed lesser talents to the harsh criticism of the theater’s audience. Vaughan’s stirring rendition of “Body and Soul” not only provoked a fever of applause from the crowd, it also caught the attention of singer Billy Eckstine. Eckstine informed his bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines of the young singer’s presence. Hines allowed Vaughan to attend the orchestra’s uptown rehearsal. At the rehearsal, Vaughan’s singing was immediately acclaimed by Hines and his musicians. One of the first modern big bands of the era, Hines’ ensemble included such talents as trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro, saxophonist Charlie Parker and trombonist J. J. Johnson. The only woman in the group, Vaughan shares the vocal spotlight with Eckstine and plays piano, often in duet with Hines. Vaughan made her Apollo debut with Hines’ band on April 23, 1943.
Shortly afterwards, most of Hines’ modernist sidemen, including Gillespie, Parker and Eckstine, gradually left the band. Vaughan remained briefly in Hines’ orchestra until she accepted an invitation to join Eckstine’s newly-formed bebop big band in 1944. In December of that year, she recorded her first side “I’ll Wait and Pray”, backed by Eckstine’s band, which included Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons, and pianist John Malachi.
Thanks to the intercession of jazz writer and pianist Leonard Feather, Vaughan recorded his first date as a leader for the small Continental label. Under Feather’s production, Vaughan and his All-Stars take part in their session on New Year’s Eve 1944. Acting as producer and pianist for the session, Feather assembled sidemen such as Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Georgie Auld to cut four sides: “During a second session, Feather entrusted the piano to Nat Jaffe and reunited Gillespie with Charlie Parker.
After a nearly year-long stay with Eckstine, Vaughan left the group. With the exception of work with bassist and trombonist John Kirby’s sextet in the winter of 1945, she performs solo. On May 11, 1945, she recorded “Lover Man” with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. In October 1945, Vaughan signed with the Musicraft label and, that same month, recorded for the label with jazz violinist Stuff Smith’s group. Her 1946 Musicraft recording of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” is considered a modern classic. She also recorded with the Dickie Wells and Georgie Auld bands.
Hailed by Metronome magazine as “Influence of the Year” in 1948, Vaughan shot to jazz stardom. The following year, she signed a five-year contract with Columbia and recorded her classic “Black Coffee” with Joe Lippman’s orchestra – a number that reached number thirteen on Billboard’s pop chart. For Columbia, she recorded in a variety of settings, taking part in two sessions that gave rise to the albums “Summertime”, with Jimmy Jones’ band, and “Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi”, both with trumpeter Miles Davis. Vaughan now presented herself as a pop singer capable of interpreting popular ballads in a straightforward style, the soft, sultry sound of her voice unfolding with hypnotic effect, moving with ease between her soprano and contralto registers. The following year, Vaughan made her first trip to Europe. While in England, she sang to enthusiastic audiences at the Royal Albert Hall.
In 1954, Vaughan signed a contract with the Mercury label and recorded numerous sides, mainly in orchestral settings. In December of the same year, her trio – pianist Jimmy Jones, bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Roy Haynes – joined forces with 24-year-old talent Clifford Brown on trumpet, 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 of the original record notes wrote, “It is doubtful that anyone, including Sarah herself, would be able to find a more satisfying representation of her work or a more appropriate musical setting than those offered on this disc. These sides will certainly rank among the greatest achievements of her decade as a recording artist.”
During an appearance at Mr. Kelly’s nightclub in Chicago in August 1957, Vaughan recorded a live album with her trio: pianist Jimmy Jones, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Roy Haynes. The following year, she recorded with pianist Ronnell Bright with the Count Basie Band, and took part in a session in Paris with conductor Quincy Jones, published on the Mercury LP “Vaughan and Violins”.
By 1958, Vaughan was earning an annual income of $230,000. In July of the following year, she scored her first million-dollar 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 R&B pop charts.
When Vaughan’s contract with Mercury ended in the fall of 1959, she signed with Roulette Records, and over the next few years became one of the label’s biggest stars. Her 1960 sessions for Roulette included “The Divine One”, arranged by Jimmy Jones, and a session with the Count Basie Band, featuring talents such as trumpeters Thad Jones and Joe Newman, and saxophonists Frank Foster and Billy Mitchell. In duet with singer Joe Williams, the session with the Basie Band produced the sides “If I Were a Bell” and “Teach Me Tonight”.
Several arrangements recorded with the Basie Band in January 1961 were brought together on the album “Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie”. Vaughan re-signed with Mercury in 1963. In the ’60s, she recorded with the ensembles of Benny Carter, Quincy Jones and Gerald Wilson. Her trio accompanists include pianists Roland Hanna and Bob James. Vaughan made her debut on the Mainstream label with the LP “A Time in Life” in 1971. On her 1977 live recording at Ronnie Scott’s in London’s Soho district, 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 all-star line-up, she devoted two albums in 1979 to the music of Duke Ellington, “Duke Ellington Songbook One” and “Duke Ellington Songbook Two”. Although she was nominated for several Grammy Awards, notably for her 1979 album “I Love Brazil”, Vaughan didn’t win her first Grammy until 1982 for “Gershwin Live”.
Throughout the 1980s, Vaughan recorded on the Pablo label, often with the label’s star artists Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie. As she told Max Jones in Talking Jazz: “Now that I’ve been there so long, you know, I can work with whoever I want. I have more of a say in the jobs I do and how I want to do them.” On a trip to Brazil in 1987, she recorded the CBS album “Brazilian Romance”, and later performed at a festival in Rio de Janeiro. On her last recording, Quincy Jones’ 1989 album “Back on the Block”, she sang with Ella Fitzgerald on the introduction to “Birdland”. In February of the same year, she received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.
A tireless performer on stage with a beautiful voice, Vaughan showed few signs of artistic decline. Offstage, however, band members began to notice her slower gait and shortness of breath. Diagnosed with lung cancer, she died on April 4, 1990.
Jazz artists and critics described Sarah Vaughan as a musical innovator whose voice reached the level of the best jazz instrumentalists. Betty Carter recounted how “Sarah Vaughan took those melodies and made something of 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 a source of inspiration for those venturing beyond the role of popular vocal entertainer into the higher realm of musical art.
During her lifetime, Sarah Vaughan received an Emmy Award for Individual Achievement in 1981, a Grammy Award for Best Female Jazz Vocalist in 1982, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1985 and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1989.