In Other Words Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan by Elaine M. Hayes
by Elaine M. Hayes, Ecco Press, 432 pages
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)?