“Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan”
by Elaine Hayes
415 pages, $27.99
It’s an irony of jazz in the 21st century that its singing tradition is once again its commercial sustenance, the way it often was in the eras of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and, a little later, Sarah Vaughan. Anyone who ever witnessed Vaughan in her lifetime was quickly brought up short by the moment when one’s jaw dropped involuntarily, one’s eyes opened wide and one’s head started wagging in disbelief.
At the beginning of this book, is the author – who describes herself at the beginning of her career as a “classical pianist and violist, then aspiring music historian” – expatiating with precision and accuracy on the enchantment of Sarah Vaughan’s voice beyond its”sheer beauty.” “Her tones were exquisite, full of velvet and oozing honey, yet agile and supple, almost light as air. The classical musician in me appreciated her impeccable pitch and time as she tossed off one virtuoso passage after another. And she was a true contralto, able to jump, glide and swoop between notes at the top and bottom of her four-octave range, with stunning precision and ease.”
It was axiomatic for three decades that the Big Four of Female Jazz Singers in America were Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. For a woman of such influence, Vaughan has been frustratingly underrepresented in the world of jazz biography, something which this solid and likable, if limited, book alters a good deal.
The author wasn’t strong or imaginative enough to find a better title for it but she justifies it by saying that “the divine one’s” foundation in bebop was the basis of everything else. Back then, she was a creator of the music along with Parker and Gillespie. We learn here that her initial relationship with former Buffalo Philharmonic conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, was frosty. But once they got used to each other, one of the greatest of all jazz vocal improvisers was bedazzled when the phenomenal young conductor player her the harmonically complicated finale of the Berg violin concerto.
This is an important book – one that does a long overdue – and overlooked thing – well.