Get To Know: Musical Legend Sarah Vaughan

Long live the Divine One

by Dan Callahan

In our new column "Get to Know," we will be discussing cultural icons of the past, whose legacy continues to influence art in our world today.

A new biography of the prodigiously gifted singer Sarah Vaughan is called Queen of Bebop, but author Elaine M. Hayes knows that Vaughan herself would have disdained that title. What becomes clear in Hayes’ book is that Vaughan was a woman and artist who did not want to be put into a category. Yes, she did come up in the 1940s in a band that included saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and yes, she was often what had to be termed a jazz singer. But Vaughan insisted that what she wanted was to simply sing “good music.”

As an older woman, Vaughan turned away a young interviewer who confessed to not knowing about her or her art. “Do you think they’d send someone out to interview Beverly Sills with a line like that?” Vaughan asked her friend Gary Giddins, a jazz critic who revered her. Sills was a major opera singer, and it was often said that Vaughan herself might have sung opera if she had gotten the training. For Vaughan possessed one of the great freak singing voices of all time. She had a voice that could move seamlessly across four octaves, an instrument that only gained in strength and flexibility as she got older.

Vaughan grew up as a painfully shy girl with a strict father who disapproved of her eventual choice of profession. She learned to play the piano, but she couldn’t get her fingers to move fast enough to express all of her musical ideas. After a stint in a band with Parker and Gillespie, Vaughan went solo, and other singers gasped when they heard her musical audacity at Town Hall in 1947 with the saxophonist Lester Young. Vaughan was offering a new sort of splurging post-war sound: impudent, show-offy, and devoted to thrill seeking. The producer John Hammond wanted to turn her into a blues singer like Bessie Smith, but Vaughan firmly resisted this. She said she had “no feeling” for the blues.

Vaughan wanted to be her own woman, and this often meant being one of the boys. On grueling tours, she smoked and drank and caroused with her band, staying up all night and humorously back-talking, which earned her the nickname “Sassy.” She would get angry if a guy held a door for her and say, “What are you doing, fool?” And when Vaughan got antsy enough, she would drive the tour bus herself.

She could be physically tough when she had to be. When she and her friends were attacked by racists outside of the Café Society club in the 1940s, Vaughan got a split lip and a swollen eye; she fought them hard and did not back down. She did not want to be condescended to, but she could be innocent and naïve, which the jazz singer Annie Ross said was “part of her charm.” Vaughan once asked Parker if she could shoot up heroin with him, but he protected her and shot her up with water instead, and so she avoided the more extreme drug trouble that plagued so many musicians of her time. 

It was the Chicago radio host Dave Garroway who started calling Vaughan by another name that stuck: “The Divine One.” Her voice was thick and lustrous, like honey being poured into a pan, and Vaughan used it without restraint, dramatically swooping up and down her huge range just because she could. She was criticized for paying no attention to lyrics, but words of love and loss did not interest Vaughan. What interested her was the challenge of deconstructing a melody with fellow musicians, and Hayes is a knowledgeable enough music scholar to take you through terms like “microtones,” “arpeggiated chords,” and “flatted fifths,” so that you can understand the technical virtuosity and daring of Vaughan’s singing.

She had very bad romantic taste in men, unfortunately, and her first two husbands abused her and spent nearly all of her money. In reading Queen of Bebop, it becomes clear just why Vaughan wanted to avoid the meaning of the often-sad words she sang. For her, music was a luxury and a paradise and an escape, and that’s what she stubbornly offered us, both playfully and majestically, sassily and divinely.

Her own favorite album was Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown (1954), where she is relatively controlled and less self-indulgent than she would become later. But her miracle album, the one that you have to hear immediately, is the live Sassy Swings the Tivoli (1963), where she stays in her highest range a lot of the time and proves that she might have conquered the Metropolitan Opera House, too. She is at her most playful on Swingin’ Easy (1957), where she hits deliberately off-key notes on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

Her 1957 duet album of Irving Berlin songs, with her friend and mentor Billy Eckstine, is sumptuous, with their voices balancing each other ideally on harmonies. And there are two albums where she is heard with only guitar and double bass accompaniment, After Hours (1961) and Sarah + 2 (1962), that display her fabled voice at its peak. Of her later albums, the most representative are the Live in Japan from 1973 and Send in the Clowns from 1981 (avoid at all costs the 1974 album with that same title, which she hated). 

At the end of her life, Vaughan was singing with symphony orchestras in concert halls and gathering mainstream attention and respect. In a 1974 interview with the jazz critic Leonard Feather, Vaughan said, “It sure is a nice feeling to know that people will remember you after you’re gone, that you’ll manage to be a little bit of history.” Vaughan is not for all tastes. It can take a while to get used to her vocal exhibitionism, her wide vibrato, and her instinct to kick every musical gong in sight. But she should be remembered, indulged, enjoyed, and savored.