In Other Words Queen of Be­bop: The Mu­si­cal Lives of Sarah Vaughan by Elaine M. Hayes

by Elaine M. Hayes, Ecco Press, 432 pages

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Bill Kohlhaase

It’s not unusual for jazz bi­og­ra­phers to be big fans of their sub­jects. In her new study of Sarah Vaughan, Elaine M. Hayes ad­mits to her ad­mi­ra­tion for her sub­ject in the first few pages of this thought­ful, de­tailed read­ing of the singer. A clas­si­cally trained pi­anist and mu­sic his­to­rian, Hayes was in­tro­duced to the singer by a col­lege room­mate and im­me­di­ately fell for Vaughan’s ex­quis­ite tone (“like vel­vet or ooz­ing honey”), im­pec­ca­ble pitch, play­ful, won­der­fully free “mu­si­cal mind,” and the “sheer force of her pres­ence.” It’s easy to for­give Hayes’ slightly triv­ial ef­fu­sive­ness — “Sarah Vaughan was a jazz singer par ex­cel­lence,” she writes — for the sim­ple rea­son that Vaughan was ev­ery bit that good.

Hayes traces Vaughan’s ca­reer with de­tails about the singer’s ap­pear­ances and record­ing ses­sions along with ob­ser­va­tions about the cul­tural hur­dles that stood in her way. She de­scribes the mu­sic scene as it re­lates to Vaughan’s life, tak­ing us into clubs and to ne­go­ti­a­tions for record­ing and side­man salaries. Vaughan’s path, de­spite her pop­u­lar­ity, was not an easy one. She had to fight, Hayes writes, to have her voice heard and sing the way she wanted. “She bat­tled a dys­func­tional record la­bel. She en­dured over­bear­ing record pro­duc­ers, the cen­sure of jazz crit­ics, and the de­mean­ing re­quests of club own­ers.” But, Hayes de­clares, Vaughan stood up to all of them in her own way. She balked at singing racially de­mean­ing ma­te­rial as well as pieces she thought be­neath her artis­tic stan­dards. “She held firm to her mu­si­cal vision and in­tegrity,” Hayes as­serts.

But Vaughan was more enig­matic than that. Known both as “The Di­vine One” and “Sassy,” the singer wasn’t al­ways so de­ter­mined to avoid record­ings that might make her a liv­ing. She was a strong woman who stood against seg­re­ga­tion and sex­ism and for artis­tic in­tegrity. Yet she was ma­nip­u­lated by dom­i­neer­ing record pro­duc­ers and self-ob­sessed hus­bands who also served as her man­agers. She re­spected the mem­bers of her band and was known to en­gage warmly with her fel­low mu­si­cians while on the road, play­ing games and join­ing them in a drink. On hol­i­days, she pre­pared meals and in­vited their fam­i­lies to join hers. But she was also known to cast with­er­ing, au­di­ble-to-the-au­di­ence in­sults to mu­si­cians while on the band­stand.

Queen of Be­bop doesn’t seem an ac­cu­rate ti­tle for a bi­og­ra­phy of a singer whose big­gest chart hits — “Bro­ken Hearted Melody,” “What­ever Lola Wants” — were more pop than jazz. (Hayes imag­ines that Vaughan her­self would not have ap­proved of the book’s ti­tle.) True, much of Vaughan’s for­mi­da­ble tech­nique was learned from be­bop­pers. She sang with star­tling abil­i­ties and range in the same way that bop pro­gen­i­tors Char­lie Parker and Dizzy Gille­spie, her band­mates in the Earl Hines and Billy Eck­s­tine bands of 1943-1945, played their horns. But as her ca­reer be­gan to blos­som, she was pushed by record­ing com­pa­nies to cover pieces framed to at­tract the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence, like “The Ba­nana Boat Song (Day-O)” in 1956, the same year Harry Be­la­fonte had a chart-top­ping hit with the quasi-ca­lypso num­ber

Hayes de­scribes Vaughan’s strug­gles to main­tain artis­tic in­tegrity — one chap­ter is ti­tled “I’m Not Singing Other Peo­ple’s Ideas” — and makes strong points that stereo­types at­tached to black and fe­male per­form­ers, as well as out-and­out racism and misog­yny, are what drove record com­pany ex­ec­u­tives seek­ing prof­its to force artists into a mold. She cel­e­brates Vaughan for find­ing “a way to bal­ance the com­pet­ing de­mands of com­mer­cial pop star­dom with her de­sire to re­main a jazz artist.” But Vaughan also paid a price, both with jazz fans and crit­ics dis­ap­pointed she pur­sued ma­te­rial they felt was be­neath her, and with a lack of in­ter­est from record­ing com­pa­nies, who felt she hadn’t crossed over enough. As rock mu­sic was reach­ing new pin­na­cles of fi­nan­cial suc­cess, Vaughan went through five years with­out record­ing a sin­gle record.

The book has small flaws. The fa­mous alto sax­o­phon­ist Can­non­ball Ad­der­ley is iden­ti­fied as a tenor sax­o­phon­ist. Vaughan’s dis­avowal of the blues is taken by Hayes to sug­gest that be­bop had lit­tle re­la­tion to the blues, de­spite the fact that so many bop tunes are based on blues changes. The au­thor makes more sense when sug­gest­ing that Vaughan’s blues aver­sion re­sulted from her de­sire not to be pi­geon­holed as a Bessie Smith-style singer, some­thing that noted folk and blues pro­ducer John Ham­mond imag­ined for her. And Hayes leaves open the ques­tion of why Vaughan was so vul­ner­a­ble to cer­tain ma­nip­u­la­tive men. The sug­ges­tion from a friend that Vaughan’s lack of ac­cep­tance from her fa­ther and his dis­ap­proval of her ca­reer path was a life­long frus­tra­tion only hints at what was lurk­ing in her psy­chic background.

Hayes doesn’t go in depth when ex­am­in­ing the psy­chol­ogy of a bril­liant artist, but her book ex­cels as a mu­si­cal por­trait of a long and some­what un­ful­filled mu­si­cal ca­reer, along with the cul­tural im­ped­i­ments that kept that amaz­ing voice down. Like all the best jazz bi­ogra­phies, it will send read­ers back to their old vinyl LPs (or to Spo­tify) to hear just where Vaughan’s ge­nius lies. May we sug­gest Sarah Vaughan With Clif­ford Brown (1954)?

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