With a wide range and a de­sire to break free of rules, Sarah Vaughan be­came an in­no­va­tor

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY FARAH JASMINE GRIF­FIN book­world@wash­ Farah Jasmine Grif­fin is a pro­fes­sor of English, com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture and African Amer­i­can stud­ies at Columbia Univer­sity in New York.

Along with Bil­lie Hol­i­day and Ella Fitzger­ald, Sarah Vaughan is part of the tri­umvi­rate of clas­sic jazz vo­cal­ists. To­gether they laid the foun­da­tion of con­tem­po­rary jazz singing and, as such, helped shape all of pop­u­lar music.

Hol­i­day has been the sub­ject of sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant bi­ogra­phies, and there is at least one au­thor­i­ta­tive tome de­voted to Fitzger­ald, with another long-awaited one soon to fol­low. But Vaughan has not in­spired the same at­ten­tion, which makes “Queen of Be­bop,” by Elaine M. Hayes, all the more nec­es­sary and ex­cit­ing. This com­pre­hen­sive ex­am­i­na­tion of Vaughan’s life and work ben­e­fits from Hayes’s tech­ni­cal knowl­edge of music and her thor­ough re­search on the his­tor­i­cal con­text.

In a sense, though, “Queen of Be­bop” is a mis­lead­ing ti­tle: It lim­its the scope of Vaughan’s music and the book’s ac­tual ex­plo­ration of her ca­reer. Al­though Vaughan estab­lished her­self as an in­no­va­tive be­bop vo­cal­ist, she spent much of her life try­ing to break free of the lim­i­ta­tions of that cat­e­gory. Hayes doc­u­ments this jour­ney with painstak­ing de­tail. Hav­ing col­lected a rich trove of ma­te­rial, she or­ga­nizes her pre­sen­ta­tion around the con­cept of cross­over as a way to honor Vaughan’s “flex­i­bil­ity as a per­former and the breadth of her ca­reer.” Fol­low­ing that cross­over jour­ney yields a solid nar­ra­tive that doc­u­ments Vaughan’s strug­gles, tri­umphs and un­prece­dented suc­cess as a “sym­phonic diva, singing jazz in venues pre­vi­ously re­served for classical music and opera.”

As a Ne­wark choir­girl, Vaughan won the Apollo’s famed Am­a­teur Night and toured with Dizzy Gille­spie, Char­lie Parker and Billy Eck­s­tine. Af­ter her ap­pear­ance at New York’s Town Hall in 1947, crit­ics took no­tice and iden­ti­fied her as the bearer of some­thing new. Here was a vo­cal­ist who, like her in­stru­ment-play­ing com­pa­tri­ots, trans­formed jazz from the dom­i­nance of swing to the realm of a com­plex, ab­stract, high art through be­bop. For Hayes, this marked the first phase of Vaughan’s jour­ney from “ob­scu­rity” to “cross­over.”

While use­ful for or­ga­niz­ing a lin­ear nar­ra­tive of Vaughan’s ca­reer, one of the un­for­tu­nate lim­i­ta­tions of this ap­proach is a de­val­u­a­tion of the so-called ob­scure pe­riod. Just be­cause Vaughan was un­known to white fans of pop­u­lar music does not mean that she lan­guished in “ob­scu­rity.” Her mu­si­cian­ship was widely rec­og­nized and ap­pre­ci­ated in the com­mu­ni­ties that most val­ued the art form. Fur­ther­more, as Hayes notes, when Vaughan crossed over, she broad­ened the sonic palate of Amer­i­can au­di­ences, in­tro­duc­ing them to “ev­ery­thing new and mod­ern” through her so­phis­ti­cated, avant-garde singing.

Vaughan, who started out as a pi­anist, brought a knowl­edge of music’s un­der­ly­ing har­monic struc- ture to her singing. “I’m re­ally a singer,” she once said. “I wish I could play pi­ano like I think, but I can’t. My fin­gers. My mind. I sing faster. I can think what I’m think­ing and sing it, but I can’t play it.” De­spite its vast pos­si­bil­i­ties, the pi­ano was too lim­it­ing for Vaughan’s quick think­ing cre­ativ­ity. Her voice was the only in­stru­ment that al­lowed her to ex­press the full range, tone and depth of what she heard in her head.

In ad­di­tion to its in­sight­ful dis­cus­sions of Vaughan’s tech­ni­cal ge­nius, “Queen of Be­bop” also ex­am­ines the times in which she worked. Born in 1924, Vaughan was a child of the Great Mi­gra­tion and lived un­der the painful re­al­ity of Jim Crow Amer­ica. Her par­ents went North from Vir­ginia in search of greater eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity and po­lit­i­cal free­dom. How­ever, the Ne­wark to which they moved had an estab­lished his­tory of racial seg­re­ga­tion and op­pres­sion, which shaped Vaughan’s ex­pe­ri­ences as a young artist. On tour, she and her band­mates en­coun­tered one in­dig­nity af­ter another.

While all the mu­si­cians with whom she trav­eled faced racial vi­o­lence, Vaughan also faced gen­der-based vi­o­lence. Her col­leagues beat her. It was a high price to pay for ad­mis­sion into the boys club of jazz in­stru­men­tal­ists. But these con­di­tions both in Ne­wark and within the Earl Hines and Billy Eck­s­tine bands pro­vided Vaughan op­por­tu­ni­ties to hone her nat­u­ral abil­i­ties and to ex­per­i­ment within a com­mu­nity that ap­pre­ci­ated in­ven­tion. Black au­di­ences and white jazz fans and DJs were cen­tral in mak­ing sure broader au­di­ences heard her.

But if the com­mu­ni­ties that pro­duced Vaughan nur­tured in­no­va­tion, the world she sought to en­ter did any­thing but. Hayes does an es­pe­cially good job of ex­plain­ing the mu­si­cal land­scape of post­war white Amer­ica. In the sec­ond phase of her cross­over, Columbia Records signed Vaughan and as­signed Mitch Miller to pro­duce her records. Hayes cor­rectly iden­ti­fies Miller as com­mit­ted to com­mer­cial­ism. He pro­duced hits for other artists with nov­elty songs and stereo­typic eth­nic tunes, a strat­egy that lim­ited artists both black and white but sat­is­fied the tastes of pop music au­di­ences. “Mitch Miller didn’t know . . . how not to use race (or eth­nic­ity) as a nov­elty de­vice,” Hayes writes. “He was in tune with white, main­stream Amer­ica, but he strug­gled to present the cre­ations of black artists in a way that wasn’t stereo­typ­i­cal or re­duc­tive.”

Vaughan re­sisted both “the bla­tant com­mer­cial­ism of Miller” and the “anti-com­mer­cial­ism of jazz purists” by carv­ing her own path. She took her music to places unimag­ined by pre­vi­ous jazz vo­cal­ists. By the end of her ca­reer, es­pe­cially with the suc­cess of her in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Stephen Sond­heim’s “Send in the Clowns,” Vaughan emerged as a sin­gu­lar artist who merged her jazz foun­da­tion, her pop­u­lar music as­pi­ra­tions and her de­sire for the re­spect of­fered to the grand opera di­vas.

Al­though Hayes rightly fo­cuses on Vaughan’s music, she does not gloss over Vaughan’s long-stand­ing tastes for co­caine and mar­i­juana or her un­for­tu­nate pat­tern of mak­ing her of­ten-abu­sive hus­bands her man­agers de­spite their lack of busi­ness acu­men and ex­pe­ri­ence. But while drug use and bad re­la­tion­ships are a re­al­ity, they do not dom­i­nate Hayes’s pre­sen­ta­tion of Vaughan’s life; they do not take away from the cen­tral­ity and bril­liance of her tal­ent and mu­si­cal con­tri­bu­tion. This is as it should be. “Queen of Be­bop” mod­els a way of un­der­stand­ing the lives and artistry of jazz mu­si­cians — one that es­tab­lishes their im­por­tance and cen­tral­ity in cre­at­ing the best that Amer­ica has of­fered the world.


Jazz singer Sarah Vaughan’s strug­gles, tri­umphs and suc­cess as a “sym­phonic diva” form the nar­ra­tive of “Queen of Be­bop.”

By Elaine M. Hayes Ecco. 419 pp. $27.99

QUEEN OF BE­BOP The Mu­si­cal Lives of Sarah Vaughan

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