Sarah Vaughan deserves more recognition

This article was originally published on OpenSalon.

The three big divas of jazz are unquestionably Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. Yet Vaughan seems to have been relegated to the status of insider’s gem. Think of Ken Burn’s Jazz series; you came away with a strong sense of Billy and Ella, but Sassy? Not so much.

For the uninitiated, Vaughan had an enormous range that she used flawlessly and at will. Like Holiday, she sang like a horn, often departing mightily both tonally and rhythmically from the melody and truly improvised, not only from one performance of a song to the next, but even from beginning to end. Like Ella, she could scat to beat the band.

I’ve been a fan for decades, but watching the Jazz Icons DVD of her live in Europe in 1958 and 1964, I was just blown away. Vaughan has had the rap with some people that her awesome technique got in the way of expressing the song. Seeing her live, not so. You can connect with her face and see the expressions change with the words and feel her moods change as she smiles, or becomes pensive.

You can also see that she’s somewhat shy and awkward, not a big secret. And here in lies the source, I believe, of her reduced posthumous popularity. She has no personal hook to hang on to. Billy is the archetypal black jazz story: poor, addicted, overcoming those to become a great artist, Lady Day. Ella, the crossover star. Sarah? Just another ordinary Afro-American singer, albeit with arguably the greatest popular singing talent of the 20th century.

And I wonder how much our twisted racial sensibilities play into this, at least for white folks. All three of these singers deserve adulation on their merit. But does Billy’s tragic life help us confront our tragic history? Is Ella easier to take? Does Sarah fit into that no-man’s land, like maybe Dinah Washington, of the black singer who sang on her own terms, whose only attraction is talent? Yes, it’s a strange country we live in.

Anyway, listen to Sarah Vaughan sing two very familiar tunes, signature tunes of other singers (always a brave act!)  — Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Lover Man — from her 1958 Dutch tour and see if you’re not bowled over not just by her talent, but by the aching beauty of her interpretation. Listen to Lullaby of Birdland on her 1954 album with Clifford Brown and see if you don’t think she could swing as well as anyone; listen to the delicate interplay with Brown on the break of Jim and see if you don’t think she was one of the great musicians of jazz history.