“Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan” sheds some welcome new light on the vocal giant. Author Elaine M. Hayes will appear July 6 at Elliott Bay Book Co.
“Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan”
by Elaine M. Hayes
Ecco/Harper Collins, 419 pp., $34.99
The music of Sarah Vaughan has not worn as well as the work of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday or Carmen McRae — the three other modern jazz vocal giants. So it’s unsurprising that Elaine M. Hayes’ well-researched biography of the Newark, N.J.-bred vocalist is only the second one about an artist who died 27 years ago. (The first was by Leslie Gourse, about which more, below.)
Born in 1924, Vaughan was not only the colleague and vocal counterpart of bebop innovators Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the 1940s — and, as such, is the first modern jazz singer — she helped, as Hayes perceptively points out, to bring awareness of bebop to the public. But for all her historical influence, Vaughan’s trilling vibrato and fulsome, romantic ballad style often sound old-fashioned to listeners today.
Possessed of perfect intonation, an ear for modern harmony, virtuosic improvising skills and a startlingly pure voice that careened through several octaves, Vaughan recorded two of the finest vocal jazz albums of all time, “Sarah Vaughan” and “Swingin’ Easy.” Yet she also became a hugely successful pop star with records such as the million-selling “Broken Hearted Melody” and in later years made the music of Brazil and of George Gershwin her own (the latter earned her a Grammy) and adopted a dramatic edition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” as a signature set closer.
Elaine M. Hayes
The author of “Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan” appears with Earshot Jazz executive director John Gilbreath at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 6, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Throughout her 48-year career, Vaughan often baffled the public — and annoyed critics — by bouncing between jazz and pop and presenting herself with a dignity and gravitas one traditionally associates with classical music. (Her lifetime inspiration was African-American opera singer Marian Anderson, but poverty and the color line ruled out a classical career.) Hayes argues that Vaughan’s refusal to let herself be pigeonholed as a happy-go-lucky swinger, blues-drenched victim or romantic pop crooner, but instead embraced all sides of her artistic personality, allowed Vaughan to transcend stereotypical expectations of race and gender and thereby changed “how white Americans heard, understood, and interacted with the black female voice.”
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Though Hayes offers no evidence to back up this rather grand assertion, her strategy of viewing Vaughan through the lenses of race and gender leads to some profitable insights. Her unpacking of Chicago DJ Dave Garroway’s promotion of the singer (and producer John Hammond’s dismissal of her) are trenchant, and her skewering of the way slick magazines in the ’50s presented female artists as “happy homemakers” and how male critics casually conflated women’s appearance with their artistry are spot on. The accounts of racial discrimination (and even attacks) are sadly all too familiar.
But Hayes, a classical pianist who came late to jazz (she briefly edited Seattle’s Earshot Jazz magazine and lives in the area), displays a disappointing level of fluency in jazz history, its African-American milieu and the fickle machinations of the popular music business. She mistakenly dates Benny Goodman’s popularization of swing, (1935, not 1939) calls Cannonball Adderley a tenor saxophonist (he played alto) and claims beboppers had no use for the blues (Charlie Parker?).
Hayes also does not seem to recognize that Vaughan’s succession of bad marriages to men who “managed” her (read: exploited and abused), was not unusual. Holiday and others had the same problem with hustlers on the jazz scene. And while Hayes doesn’t shy away from personal revelations about Vaughan as diva (her nickname was “Sassy”) — she could be stubborn, willful and bratty, not to mention a perennial party girl who was clueless about money — somehow a coherent, three-dimensional portrait of the singer never really emerges.
By contrast, Gourse’s chatty, much less fastidiously researched but more felicitously written volume accomplishes this. So while “Queen of Bebop” sheds welcome new light on Vaughan, jazz fans will still have to wait for a definitive biography of this important figure.