Our featured album this month is a series of recordings of Sarah Vaughan performing at the legendary Birdland in 1952. Vaughan, affectionately known as ‘Sassy’, was one of the great vocalists and song stylists of the post-war Jazz era.
Vaughan herself distanced herself from being classed as a Jazz singer but it is in the Jazz idiom that she is most widely regarded.
“I don't know why people call me a jazz singer, though I guess people associate me with jazz because I was raised in it, from way back. I'm not putting jazz down, but I'm not a jazz singer ... I've recorded all kinds of music, but (to them) I'm either a jazz singer or a blues singer. I can't sing a blues – just a right-out blues – but I can put the blues in whatever I sing”
What characterised Vaughan was her amazing voice, of course. She was blessed with an impressively wide vocal range, her voice an instrument of liquid flexibility, tonally rich and highly engaging. Her fifty-years plus recording career saw her glide effortlessly from Great American Songbook standards, Bop sounds, even straight pop, and her voice never failed her.
Like many of her contemporaries, her initial vocal experience was picked up in church, but she also had classical piano lessons. Her career relocated to the secular world when she entered an amateur talent contest at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem – and won! This was in 1943, and her career gathered pace after vocalist Billy Eckstine recommended her to big band leader Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, who took her on as vocalist and second piano player. Vaughan’s reputation grew through her association with Hines’ band; both he and Eckstine were early proponents of the Bebop sound. Hines and Eckstine’s bands both featured the pioneering alto sax work of Charlie Parker (who played tenor with Hines’ band) and the great trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Vaughan’s own talent only grew in such exalted company.
Vaughan’s opportunities to record with Hines’ band were thwarted due to recording strikes in the period 1942-1944, although she did cut on track with Eckstine. Her first recordings were made on New Years’ Eve 1944, and not long after Vaughan struck out on her own. From 1946 through to 1949, she enjoyed hits such as ‘If You Could See Me Now’, ‘Tenderly’, and ‘It’s Magic’, and her career advanced still further. Hailed by Metronome magazine as the “Influence of the Year” in 1948, Vaughan rose to jazz stardom. In the following year, she signed a five-year contract with Columbia and recorded her classic “Black Coffee” with the Joe Lippman Orchestra—a number that climbed to number 13 on Billboard's pop charts.
For Columbia she recorded in various settings and attended two sessions that emerged as the albums “Summertime,” with the Jimmy Jones band, and “Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi,” both of which featured trumpeter Miles Davis. Vaughan was now presenting herself as a pop singer who could do popular ballads in a straightforward style, the soft, sultry sound of her voice unfurling with hypnotic effect, moving with ease between her soprano and contralto registers. During the next year, Vaughan made her first trip to Europe, and in England she sang to an enthusiastic audience at Royal Albert Hall.
Although she frequently recorded with string orchestras, her club dates had her backed by a scaled down trio, frequently piano, bass and drums. The night club dates were essential for any artist honing their stage craft, and New York’s Birdland was a major night spot of the 1950s and 60s. In the US music trade publication Billboard, dated 22nd March 1952, in their ‘Rhythm and Blues Notes’ column, penned by Bob Rolontz, there is a brief mention to the effect that “Sarah Vaughan will be heard over the national ABC network next week direct from Birdland in New York.”
Those performances were broadcast in sponsored segments, and included in our featured album are versions of hits such as ‘Tenderly’ and ‘Perdido’. Her voice is in great shape, as ever, and although her backing musicians are not known, they’re believed to probably include Lou Stein (piano), Al Hall or Joe Benjamin (bass), unknown drums, with ‘Wild’ Bill Davis organ. Aside from economy, the trio configuration was flexible and adaptable to differing performing conditions and to Vaughan's improvisatory whims. This minimal instrumentation also provided little distraction from Vaughan's unique styling and rich vocal timbre. Obviously, these recordings feature an artist whose talent was steadily maturing, but already the components are in place that would see her through the succeeding decades.
Sarah Vaughan died in April 1990 aged 66. She was even given the posthumous honour of featuring on a United States Postal Service stamp in 2016 – a rare honour, and perhaps giving some idea of the esteem in which her talent continues to be valued and highly regarded over a quarter of a century after her death.
Perhaps because of the individuality of her style, Sarah Vaughan has rarely been overtly imitated by subsequent generations of singers. Unlike other mid-century singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra or, later, Aretha Franklin, there are no prominent singers whose style is an obvious direct reflection of Vaughan's. However, even in death Vaughan retains a loyal following and attracts new fans through her recorded legacy.
With thanks to Alan Robinson