A New Biography Looks at Sarah Vaughan, the Singer Known as Sassy
By JAMES GAVIN JULY 20, 2017
Sarah Vaughan, circa 1945. Metronome/Getty Images
QUEEN OF BEBOP
The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan
By Elaine M. Hayes
Illustrated. 419 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.
1990, had a chocolate-mousse contralto that dipped into bass territory and soared to birdlike highs. Vaughan improvised extravagantly melodic lines; she heard all the harmonic choices in a chord and breezed through them at will. Her voice had the textures and colors of an orchestra. And she swung.
With so much splendor at her disposal, she was like a child in a candy store; less was seldom more. Her nicknames, “Sassy” and “the Divine One,” suggest the vast range of her musical personality, from playful coyness to diva hauteur.
She sang about love, but it had not been good to her, and she avoided revelation; Vaughan took an instrumental approach with even the most candid lyrics. Occasionally a song pierced her reserve. In “Send In the Clowns,” from Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” an actress views her failed love life in terms of a play that ends tragically. This originally calm confession so moved Vaughan that she gave it the sweep of grand opera. The opening of her version is as hymnlike as a funeral dirge. Later, her voice trembles as she sings, “no one is there.” Reaching the climactic phrase, “maybe next year,” she intones it over and over with a gospel fervor, climbing ever higher in an agonized grasp for the unattainable.
There’s more than enough back story here for a compelling biography. Fans were hoping for a better one than Leslie Gourse’s sloppily written, musically flimsy effort from 1993, “Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan.” Now comes the far more scholarly “Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan,” by Elaine M. Hayes, a Seattle-based jazz historian. It reads like a graceful doctoral dissertation, sensitive to Vaughan’s technical gifts and the development of her art. But it goes awry in its attempt to politicize her as a civil rights and feminist groundbreaker — as though her artistic stature alone would not have justified this book.
The title itself is questionable. Although Vaughan had flowered through the language of bebop, it was just one feather in her plumage. Hayes calls Vaughan “the first vocalist to introduce bebop singing to the world”; but that crown is better worn by Fitzgerald, who released her first bop single through a major company, Decca, in 1945, when Vaughan was recording for tiny New York jazz labels. Vaughan herself said she hated being categorized. What she wanted most, it seems, was to sing with musicians she liked and feel the love of a good man.
Born in Newark in 1924, she focused at first on piano. But she wasn’t satisfied, for reasons explained astutely by Hayes: “The piano, with its fixed pitch and strict adherence to half and whole steps, simply cannot produce the microtones, nuanced slides and dramatic swoops that soon became a trademark of her vocal style.”
Vaughan’s singing went on fabled display in 1942, when she won the Apollo Theater’s renowned amateur contest in Harlem. The pianist Earl Hines hired her to join his band, which included Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, two of the budding masterminds of bop. Vaughan absorbed their innovations, adding to them her uncommonly beautiful sound. What she lacked was spelled out in a review: “She is not exactly handsome to look at.”
Enter the trumpeter George Treadwell, Vaughan’s Svengali and first husband. Seeing her potential, he invested in a complete makeover — coiffure, teeth straightening, gowns — and ingeniously guided her into the spotlight. Over many labored pages, Hayes analyzes the marriage in terms of the Pygmalion story and of fairy tales: expressions of “patriarchal values” used to “control women and undermine their individuality and accomplishments.” Treadwell, she adds, had a “savvy understanding” of the fact that audiences of the day, especially white ones, “needed Vaughan to seem silent, submissive, powerless and not disruptive so that, ironically enough, they could hear her voice, with its vitality, humanity, beauty and ability to challenge racial boundaries.” Might the story simply be that of an obscure sideman who wed a rising star and, knowing the realities of showbiz, exploited them to both his and her advantage?
Overtheorizing also strains her study of the featherweight hits Vaughan recorded in the ’50s for her new label, Mercury. The flirty “Make Yourself Comfortable,” the author writes, “reflected postwar views on domesticity and the acceptable role of women.” To Hayes, “How Important Can It Be” (“That I tasted other lips? / That was long before you came to me / With the wonder of your kiss”) was “a story line in harmony with contemporary gender roles and sexual mores.”
Skillfully as Vaughan rendered them, those tunes were picked with just one motive — to make a buck — and cannot withstand the weight Hayes heaps upon them. Along the way, she sails past many of the outstanding albums Vaughan’s hits helped pay for, including “Sarah Vaughan in the Land of Hi-Fi,” “Great Songs From Hit Shows” and “Sassy Swings the Tivoli.” Hayes goes on to write of how Vaughan’s singles “helped set the stage for the advances of the civil rights movement” by proving “that black women were not flat or one-dimensional and that a single black voice could sound multifaceted and complex.” For Vaughan to have sung for the love and the art of it apparently isn’t enough; music, Hayes insists, was how her subject “expressed herself in the face of intolerance and the way she brought about social change.”
Vaughan would probably have rolled her eyes at these claims. Hurtful as her early brushes with racism were — Hayes recounts several — they neither defined her nor held her back. Despite what the author states, Vaughan was no “race woman”; she was not inclined to march, campaign or crusade. Her racial significance is more that of a high-achieving, abundantly talented black woman who inspired by example.
The singer’s main battles were romantic, and Hayes details the post-Treadwell ones movingly. Vaughan kept inviting the men she fell for to manage her, which caused problems. In 1958, she married Clyde B. Atkins, an abusive charlatan who gambled away her money. She lived in the ’70s with the solid Marshall Fisher, who got her faltering career back on track. But in 1978, Vaughan switched to a giddy romance, then a brief marriage, with a much younger man, the trumpeter Waymon Reed, whom friends described as controlling and violent.
Her instrument, at least, had never let her down, and Vaughan took it for granted, smoking and snorting coke. In 1989, she learned she had lung cancer. At the Blue Note in New York, where she sang for the last time, her voice sounded magically untouched. She died six months later at the age of 66.
To imitate Vaughan, as many have, seems nothing but phony; her sound and style were her thumbprint, nontransferable. Her true legacy was summed up to me by the jazz singer Dianne Reeves, who recalled her first response to Vaughan: “You mean, there are those kinds of possibilities?” On that score, “Queen of Bebop” leaves no doubt.