At the end of World War II, jazz kings Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk created a new musical genre called bebop. Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) was the queen of this new era. This talented singer acted like one of the boys in the band so they gave her the nickname Sassy. Elaine Hayes has written 432 pages about Sassy, the musically gifted, creative and intelligent jazz singer, in “Queen of Bebop.”
Hayes first heard Vaughan’s recordings while she was studying classical piano. She was mesmerized by Vaughan’s beautiful voice and captivated by the artist’s musicality and technical artistry. Hayes became a lifelong devotee of this musician.
Like so many other African-American singers, Vaughan got her musical start in her church choir. She grew up in a working-class family in Newark, New Jersey and dreamed of becoming an opera singer like her idol Marian Anderson, the first African-American opera singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Unlike Anderson, Vaughan did not have the wherewithal to pursue private classical training. Instead, she plied her talent in jazz clubs in Newark and New York City.
When the shy 18-year-old sang “Body and Soul” in an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1942, she won the competition. She soon appeared with headliners Earl Hines and Billy Eckstein and then branched out on her own by sitting in with Harlem musicians who were experimenting with new sounds.
Vaughan consistently gave first class performances, even though many musicians disrespected and denigrated her because of her gender and race and because they coveted her exceptional talent. She made frequent appearances with DJ Dave Garroway in Chicago. He dubbed her “The Divine One” because of her heavenly voice. Garroway ardently promoted her by inviting her to be a guest on his radio program many times, which made her popularity soar.
After Vaughan began the tour circuit, when she reached southern towns, she was subjected to Jim Crow laws. This popular vocalist had to use side entrances, separate restrooms and stay in second-rate hotels while she performed south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Consequently, she became a trailblazer for racial equality, frequently standing her ground, when challenged by racist practices in the South and in the music industry.
Vaughan was a contemporary of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. Together they integrated the radio airwaves. Some of Vaughan’s early, often requested radio hits included “Misty” and “Whatever Lola Wants.”
Eventually, Sassy obtained a recording contract with Columbia Records. Columbia tried to cast her as a pop star. She had to record according to the dictates of producer and director Mitch Miller. Miller did not grasp her amazing jazz talent and ordered her to sing traditional standards and novelty tunes. This frustrated Vaughan, but the recordings provided her with an income.
“The Divine One” could sing four octaves, which made it possible for her to perform wide-ranging improvisations and innovations like her musical peers, Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday. She continually resisted the male-dominated industry and its preconceived ideas of the way women should perform. She often risked career opportunities and broke record contracts to avoid being “packaged” in line with some male producer’s idea of how alluring she should act, what she should wear and how she should sing. She eventually produced her own records so she could sing the way she wanted to sing and dress the way she wanted to dress.
Vaughan’s personal life was turbulent. Married three times, she insisted each husband become her manager. None were prepared for the task, all became jealous of her success and each drained her of her assets. Hayes gives detailed information about each of these failed relationships.
Vaughan toured nonstop during her 47-year career and continually expanded her repertoire. She continued to sing after her diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, and performed until six months before she died at the age of 66.
This is an informative, meticulously researched biography of “The Divine One’s” contributions to American music. Although first-time author Hayes could use some of the magic in her writing that Vaughan conveys in her singing – some of her phrasings are unimaginative and dreary – all in all, the book is a fine homage to this influential 20th-century jazz artist.