Born in 1924 in Newark, New Jersey, Sarah Lois Vaughan was more than a mere singer. She was an audacious woman who, with spirit, substance and style, sought through that wondrous voice to define music in a way that no one before her ever had, and no one after her ever would. The certainty of each note for her was as sure as the morning, and she sang each note like a sunrise.
I have long loved the singing of this woman. It is a thrill for me to hear the thrill of her voice, to experience the range of that voice, to feel the power of her vocal control, to assess the mastery of so many musical forms achieved within just one song. And yet, I always sense that “Sassy” didn’t always appreciate the astounding attributes and exquisite qualities of her vocal gift. She innately reached with that voice toward so many heights that it’s possible she was unaware of the grandeur of those heights.
And that voice was indefinable, not easily pinned down with words: magical, sensuous, operatic, jazz-tinged, tender, bold, soaring, husky, smokey, pure. Vaughan was an innovator as much as she was a singer. She owned a lyric the way some women own a gorgeous coat. For Sarah Vaughan, however, the voice did not cover her; it came from deep within that vibrant woman.
She said once that she did not consider herself a jazz singer. I certainly agree with her. She was a musical artist with an ability to sing jazzy, or inflect the blues into the tone, but her style defied labels. SHE defied labels. She defied many things, and the nickname “Sassy” spoke to her approach to living and to singing.
As is the case with most vocal recording artists, her best songs are not necessarily The Hits. Listen to “My Funny Valentine” and her version becomes the gold standard against which any other singer’s version is compared: opulent, touchingly sentimental, soul-filled.
She was an original, and she knew it. Her intimate phrasing suited studio recordings to a “T”, or an “S”, but she captivatingly performed in front of an audience with the sense of mystery and immediacy that made any public singing by this woman compelling and, at the same time, delightful — part of the magic of her voice.
Her voice was an amazing instrument. Tactile, velvety, powerful, flexible, subtle, veiled at times, direct at others, her voice ranged from a resonant cello-sound to an achingly soft soprano. The vibrato could be heavy, annoyingly distracting on some notes, and yet that lush vibrato was as much a part of the pulsing of that voice as it was the pulsing of her heart.
Her voice was immediately recognizable: the sign of a truly great singer. She used it to express so many different moods and styles that, yes, Sarah, was not a jazz singer. Vast yet mellow, voluptuous yet ethereal, daring but intoning secrets, girlish yet womanly, the voice and its owner defied the categorizing of every note that she so lovingly called her own.
As a singer, Sarah Vaughan was a rare combination of practiced and spontaneous, disciplined but natural, whimsical and serious, commercial and artistic. Today, her singing would be deemed by the Marketing Suits as too complex, too broad in appeal to find much appeal to the slice-and-dice demographics of “music” sales. Thus, Vintage CDs once again rule the music world!
“The Divine One” died, too young, at the age of sixty-six. Tenderly, with a bright light touch of jazz, she adds her own splendour to the celestial choir.