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 to 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 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 Vaughan languished in “obscurity.” Her musicianship was widely recognized and appreciated in the communities that most valued the art form. Furthermore, as Hayes herself 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 structure 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 in Newark, 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 enormity 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.
Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor of English, comparative literature and African American studies at Columbia University in New York.
By Elaine M. Hayes
Ecco. 419 pp. $27.99