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Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Greatest Voice of my Time

March 27 marks the 82nd anniversary of the birth of the Divine Sarah Vaughan, Jazz's greatest diva. Jazz critic Leonard Feather called her "the most important singer to emerge from the bop era." Ella Fitzgerald called her the world’s "greatest singing talent." During the course of a career that spanned nearly fifty years, she was the singer’s singer, influencing everyone from Mel Torme to Anita Baker. She was among the musical elite identified by their first names. She was simply Sarah, Sassy -- the incomparable Sarah Vaughan.


Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1924, Vaughan was immediately surrounded by music: her carpenter father was an amateur guitarist and her laundress mother was a church vocalist. Young Sarah studied piano from the age of seven, and before entering her teens had become an organist and choir soloist at the Mount Zion Baptist Church. When she was eighteen, friends dared her to enter the famed Wednesday Night Amateur Contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She gave a sizzling rendition of "Body and Soul," and won first prize. In the audience that night was the singer Billy Eckstine. Six months later, she had joined Eckstine in Earl Hines’s big band along with jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.


When Eckstine formed his own band soon after, Vaughan went with him. Others including Miles Davis and Art Blakey, were eventually to join the band as well. Within a year, however, Vaughan wanted to give a solo career a try. By late 1947, she had topped the charts with "Tenderly," and as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Vaughan expanded her jazz repertoire to include pop music. As a result, she enlarged her audience, gained increased attention for her formidable talent, and compiled additional hits, including the Broadway show tunes "Whatever Lola Wants" and "Mr. Wonderful." While jazz purists balked at these efforts, no one could deny that in any genre, Vaughan had one of the greatest voices in the business.

In the late 1960s, Vaughan returned to jazz music, performing and making regular recordings. Throughout the 1970s and '80s she recorded with such jazz notables as Oscar Peterson, Louie Bellson, Zoot Sims, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Don Cherry, and J.J. Johnson. Her recordings of the "Duke Ellington Song Book (1 and 2)" are considered some of the finest recordings of the time. While for many years her signature song had been "Misty," by the mid-70’s, she was closing every show with Sondheim’s "Bring In The Clowns." In 1982, while in her late fifties, Vaughan won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocalist for her album, "Gershwin Live"!

While she continued to work without the massive commercial success enjoyed by colleagues such as Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, and Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan consistently retained a special place in the hearts of fellow musicians and audiences alike. She continually performed at top venues, playing to adoring sell-out crowds well into her sixties. Remarkably, unlike many singers, she lost none of her extraordinary talent as time went on. Her multi-octave range, with its swooping highs and sensual lows, and the youthful suppleness of her voice shaded by a luscious timbre and executed with fierce control, all remained intact. In 1990, at the age sixty-six, Sarah Vaughan passed away. Shortly after her death, Mel Torme summed up the feelings of all who had seen her, saying "She had the single best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field." From PBS American Masters

I first became aware of the melodious voice when I was 12 years old. There was always music in my house and I would listen to everything. My grandmama and 'nem would go to garage sales in ritual fashion and someone would always bring back a stack of vinyl record albums. The Lonely Hours, one of Sarah Vaughan's Roulette recordings showed up in one of those stacks. It became my one of my favorites. It was with that recording that I learned to sing. I can truly say that Sarah Vaughan taught me now to breathe. Over the years I collected other recordings, mostly through the stacks at garage sales. Still, it was something I listened to at home... in secret.

I first heard Sarah Vaughan away from home in my Aunt Jane's basement when I was about 19. My late Uncle Charles was a jazz fan and would spend hours listening to his favorite recordings over scotch and cigarettes. He would tell wonderful stories about live performances. He also introduced me to After Hours, the quintessential Sarah Vaughan recording. She is accompanied only by piano, bass and rhythm guitar. It's one of the sexiest albums you will ever hear. After hearing that I began my bi-annual pilgrimages to New York's famed Blue Note supper club for Sassy's regularly scheduled appearances. I was blessed to see her a total of twelve times before she died on April 3, 1990.

At the time of her passing I owned over 30 of her recordings. Though she died in Los Angeles, she was returned to her native Newark, New Jersey to be eulogized at Mount Zion Baptist Church and laid to rest near her father in Bloomfield's Glendale Cemetery. Devoted fan that I am, I attended the funeral and continue to drop by her grave periodically, just to show love. It's the least I can do.

"Though she was neither as iconic as Billie or as universally loved as Ella, 'Sassy' was possibly the most technically gifted jazz singer of all time. Her incredible vocal range coupled with a daring improvisational ability made her a favourite with Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines. She died too early but remains an influence on singers from Dianne Reeves to Anita Baker."
From BBC Music.

Posted by Rodney :: 3:43 AM :: 8 Comments:

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