Jazz Institute of Chicago

Sarah Vaughn

Sarah Vaughn
by Stuart Nicholson

Sarah Vaughan
Sassy Swings the Tivoli (Complete Version)
+Emarcy (J) 832 788-2.
Vaughan (vcl); Kirk Stuart (p); Charles Williams (bs); George Hughes (d).
Copenhagen, 18–21 July 1963.

I feel pretty. Misty. What is this thing called love (two versions). Lover man (two versions). Sometimes I’m happy. Won’t you come home Bill Bailey. Tenderly. Sassy’s Blues. Polka dots and moonbeams. I cried for you (two versions). Poor butterfly. I could write a book. Time after time. All of me. I hadn’t anyone till you. I can’t give you anything but love. I’ll be seeing you. Maria. Day in, day out. Fly me to the moon. Baubles, bangles and beads. The lady’s in love with you. Honeysuckle rose. The more I see you. Say it isn’t so. Black coffee. Just one of those things. On Green Dolphin Street. Over the rainbow.

Of all the sounds in jazz, the vocal is the most accessible because it contains within it the potential to be more readily understood by a wider audience than its instrumental counterparts because of its ‘storytelling’ privilege.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that most jazz vocalists have at some point in their careers either succumbed or have been importuned into distinctly non-jazz environments with songs and arrangements designed for the widest possible appeal.

This is certainly true of the career of Sarah Vaughan whose discography and curriculum vitae betray no single, exclusive commitment to jazz. In many ways her voice reached beyond the arbitrary boundaries of both jazz and pop, described by some as of operatic proportions while Gunther Schuller went the whole distance by describing her as the ‘greatest vocal artist of our century’[i], a question that remained moot when she performed alongside Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras in the 1980s.

What is beyond question, however, was that from a technical standpoint, her voice was perhaps the finest to be applied to jazz and vernacular singing. Her range, her technique, and her tone, from a cavernous baritone to a voix céleste, saw to that.

Yet there were times when this remarkable voice was used as an end in itself, the song merely a vehicle to demonstrate her astonishing virtuosity, and there were others when her artistic integrity was surrendered to commercial expediency.

What is surprising about Sarah Vaughan’s recorded legacy is that for all the hyperbole that has been expended on describing her great talent, there are surprisingly few albums when deeds actually match those words and it would be fair to say that her reputation was based more on her live performances.

As early as 1949, just two years after her stay in with Billy Eckstine, whose big band was at the vanguard of the bebop movement, and coincidentally, whose reputation is also based on live performance rather than discs, she was contracted for four years to Columbia Records singing, for the most part, with lush orchestras arranged and conducted by the likes of Joe Lippman, Hugo Winterhalter, Paul Weston, and Percy Faith.

Vaughan was just under twenty-five when she began her recording contract with Columbia and just under twenty-nine at its conclusion in 1953. She then moved to Mercury where she remained until 1959 and it is interesting to note that she claims she had no limitations imposed on her until "After Quincy Jones left, [then] there was nothing." [ii]

Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of both Columbia and Mercury was a ‘hit’ record, as it was with Teddy Reig’s Roulette label with whom she was contracted between spring 1960 to early 1963 and her output during all those years was biased towards such an end. Vaughan duly obliged, as she had in 1947 with "Tenderly"and "It’s magic" which provided the Musicraft label with their most successful releases.

She had several big sellers for Mercury, including "Make yourself more comfortable," "How important can it be," "Whatever Lola wants" (which reached six on the Hit Parade chart), "Experience unnecessary," "C’est la vie," "Mr. Wonderful," "Fabulous character," "The banana boat song," "Passing strangers" with Billy Eckstine and her biggest hit of all, the million-selling "Broken hearted melody" from 1959. However, none of the arrangers Mercury used, including Quincy Jones, ever gave Capitol’s Billy May or Nelson Riddle any sleepness nights.

Of the relatively few out-and-out jazz performances on record during this period, Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown (Emarcy 814 641-2) and Swinging Easy (Emarcy 514 072-2), both from 1954 for Mercury’s jazz subsidiary EmArcy, number among her finest work on record.

It is significant that both these albums present her in a small group setting, the former with a rhythm section and a trumpet, tenor and flute and the latter with just a rhythm section. Not until relatively late in her recording career was her voice to be regularly heard away from the formal constraints imposed by larger ensembles and elaborate arrangements.

However, in contrast to her performances in front of big studio orchestras, the day-to-day business of earning her living as a singer was in clubs up and down the country in front of her piano trio. She always kept a strong group together, but her first live album, At Mr. Kelly’s (Emarcy 832 791-2) from August 1957 with Jimmy Jones (p), Richard Davis (bs) and Roy Haynes (d) failed to capture the dynamism and sheer exuberance she generated at her best.

Boasting ‘all new’ material on the album cover, she sang everything from lead-sheets, an inhibiting factor for a singer as dramatic as Vaughan, particularly in matters volti subito, so that she ended up tip-toeing gracefully through her material with great professional competence but little inspiration.

Six years later, on Sassy Swings the Tivoli, she appears as a far more confident, out-going artist. The tessitura of her voice had changed and was now more mellow than the lighter, somewhat emotionally naive singer of the Columbia and Mercury sessions.

Buoyed by a wildly enthusiastic audience she produced a series of performances that are as riveting as they are powerful. In her later years the charge was leveled at Vaughan that she got more and more into her voice than she did her material, a point not without some foundation as some of the more rococo moments of Sarah Vaughan Live in Japan, Vols 1 & 2 (Mainstream MDCD701/702) from ten years later reveal.
However, at the Tivoli she was backed by the uncompromising swing of the Kirk Stuart trio and is goosed into a forthright mood that is sustained throughout the album.

In her prime, when this album was recorded, Vaughan was a stunningly attractive woman, and part of her presentation, or act, was to play the ‘sexy chick’ on stage. She used "I feel pretty" to open her performances for years; in 3/4 it was a throw-away number to establish rapport with her audiences.

Only when she launched into "What is this thing called love" (Disc 1) did the gloves come off as she hits a swinging groove that is both joyous and soaring. The second version (Disc 2) lacks the focus of the earlier version and makes for interesting comparison; those milli-second variations of emphasis in the placement of notes that make one version appear to ‘swing’ more than the other.

"Lover man" had been in her repertoire since at least 1945, and here she is clearly experimenting with the sound of her voice and that of her vibrato at the expense of emotional content. She approaches each of the song’s stanzas with an entirely different ‘voice’; a clear contralto, then closing her throat she produces a sour sound for the next four bars, then a nasal sounding voice, then a round operatic tone with a huge vibrato and so on, each a different Sarah Vaughan bearing in on the songwriter and lyric writer’s original intentions.

This virtuostic approach to singing does not, as becomes clear throughout subsequent ballad interpretations such as "Tenderly," "Polka dots and moonbeams," "Poor Butterfly" and "Maria" make for a coherent presentation or interpretation of a song’s lyrics. Instead of responding to a song’s inherent ‘story’ she appears more interested in tonal manipulation and in so doing has the effect of divesting the lyrics of meaning and focusing attention onto her voice.

This aspect of her style would become more and more pronounced and in her final years she made a showpiece out of "Send in the clowns" that became, in essence, a repository for every vocal effect she had worked-up.

Although at medium and fast tempos these techniques of tonal manipulation were also employed, the effect appeared less stylised on a faster moving lyric line with less time to dwell on individual notes.

Here the ear is drawn not so much to her technique as to her extraordinary rhythmic vitality. The lyrics of "Sometimes I’m happy" are dispensed with in just one chorus before she launches out into scat. Scat is vocal improvisation using phonetic sounds traditionally (but not always) similar to the instrumental sounds of jazz. The sound of scat is a mixture of consonants and vowels (phonyms) and most scat lines have a preponderance of phonetic consonants, particularly words which begin in a ‘b’ or a ‘d’, known as plosives because the sound production involves the release or ‘explosion’ of retained breath.

These are further categorised by the place in the mouth where the sound is articulated, those from the front are known as bilabial plosives, from the back lingua-alveolar plosives. Vaughan also extensively used sounds beginning with ‘s’ and ‘h’, known as frictives because their production involves a friction-like sound, the former is a lingua-alveolar frictive and the latter a glottal frictive[iii].

Thus her scat style can be said to make extensive use of bilabial and lingua-alveolar plosives and glottal and lingua-alveolar frictives. These tonal resources were at the disposal of a remarkably sophisticated musical imagination. Although she had a range of almost three octaves, her line remained sharply focused in her middle register and seldom wandered into chest or head tones, developing and toying with one idea after another with great clarity and wit.

Because so much has been written about Vaughan’s ‘harmonic daring’, her virtuosity and how she emerged as a part of the bebop revolution singing with Parker and Gillespie on "Mean to me" for the Continental label in May 1945, it is generally assumed she was a scat singer, the vocal equivalent of bebop’s instrumental flights of fantasy.

However, it is worth noting that Vaughan rarely scatted and recorded examples of her employing scat are few and far between. Thus to have two examples of her scatting on one album is a rare thing indeed. In fact, the second example on this album, "Sassy’s blues," is one of her most impressive performances in the idiom. Although the most commonly cited example is "Shulie a bop" from the album Swingin’ Easy, this live performance is a far better in both conception and execution, with a greater emphasis on structural unity, as back-to-back comparison will reveal.

Her move into falsetto is achieved seamlessly, without any break in her voice while her tone remains as full as ever as she works towards a climax that incorporates a long, sustained note that swells and swells in tone that is topped by a stock rock n’roll riff.

Although Ella Fitzgerald is usually cited as the prime exhibit for driving scat performances, Vaughan, when she wanted to, could turn up the heat to a point were few singers could live with her, and while Ella’s performances always exuded a great sense of fun, the sense of a pleasure shared, there is a profundity and majesty to "Sassy’s blues," due in part to the deeper texture of her voice as much as the structural linkage of her ideas that put her in a class of her own.

One rarely cited influence on Vaughan’s singing was Billy Eckstine, something that comes through very clearly as she makes great use of chest tones and vibrato on "Time after time."

Certainly, when she signed with Columbia she began to record more and more material patterned after the Eckstine MGMs. However, the highspots of these performances are the medium tempo and uptempo numbers, where Vaughan turns in a series of tour-de-forces, of questing brilliance that leaves the listener in no doubt that with a microphone in her hand and a rhythm section behind her, she was best served in a small group setting.

"Just one of those things" sees her riding the tonic, a cliché in lesser singers but something that brings the song alive and on "I cried for you" there is an impish touch of humour in the final chorus. "Baubles, bangles and beads" is a good example of how well rehearsed the Kirk Stuart trio was; Stuart himself frequently plays block chords providing a very orchestral type of backdrop for the singer and it is clear he and the trio are working to quite specific arrangements. Even so, they create a lot of latitude for themselves and provide her with an expansive, highly swinging accompaniment that contributes enormously to the success of the album.

These sessions show Vaughan in exuberant mood performing at the top of her form, reaching out to the audience who in turn take her into their hearts. It is the sort of two-way exchange that often inspires performers to reach the sort of creative highs that somehow appear beyond their grasp in the recording studio. But while these performances reveal her as one of the finest singers in jazz, it also reveals a flaw, her love of excessive ornamentation on slower numbers that while at times could appear engagingly eccentric is ultimately distracting.

Here artifice struggles to become art and raises a curious paradox. While practically every other singer in jazz had a reach that exceeded their grasp, Vaughan was practically alone in being able to reach any note or combination of notes that she could ever dream of singing. The result, curiously, was not the heaven one might expect but a stylistic narcissism that at times might appear heroic, but could ultimately lack emotion.

i. Musings by Gunther Schuller (Oxford University Press. New York, 1986) page 103.
ii. down beat, 27 July 1967, page 20.
iii. The words labial and labio refer to the lips, lingua to the tongue, glottal the throat and alveolar to the gum ridge.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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