Elaine M. Hayes is the author of the new biography Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan. She was editor of the magazine Earshot Jazz and has contributed to Seattle magazine, and has taught classes on jazz, classical, and world music. She lives in Seattle.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Sarah Vaughan, and how many "musical lives" did she have?
A: I didn’t discover Sarah Vaughan until college, and I was immediately drawn to her singing. I loved the way her voice sounded, the musical choices she made, and the sheer presence she exuded when she sang.
A couple of years later, I had an opportunity to study her in graduate school. This is when I learned more about the woman behind the music.
I was fascinated with how she, often the only woman in the band, immersed herself in the very masculine world of jazz. How she always stood up for herself and her musical choices. She insisted on singing the way she wanted, regardless of what others expected.
And I admired her lifelong mission to defy categorization, even when the world around her wanted to label and pigeonhole her. I found this all incredibly powerful and moving.
But after finishing my degree, I left Sarah behind. I went off and lived my life and pursed other projects. I always assumed that someone else would write the biography Sarah Vaughan deserved. (There were already two attempts, but both seemed incomplete.) This never happened, so a few years ago, I decided to do it myself.
Sarah Vaughan had many musical lives. She really could do it all. As a child, she sang spirituals in her church choir and played classical piano. In her teens, as a girl singer in the big bands, she was as at the forefront of bebop, the new avant-garde style that defined the direction of modern jazz.
She also sang exquisite romantic ballads and delightful showtunes. She recorded cheesy pop hits in the 1950s and later made forays into R&B, rockabilly, rock n’ roll, and disco, though she hated these. In the 1970s and 1980s, she became a master of Brazilian music and an operatic diva performing with the word’s finest symphony orchestras. She even did an album where she sang the poetry of a young Pope John Paul II.
She was always exploring, stretching, and trying new things. At her core, she was a singer and creative being.
Queen of Bebop is organized around three phases, or crossover moments, in Sarah’s career: her journey from church girl in Newark to big band girl singer; her transition from bebop innovator to pop star; and finally her transition from jazz icon to symphonic diva.
Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that especially surprised you in the course of your research?
A: I love immersing myself in the past and sifting through old newspapers, magazines, and recordings. It’s like a treasure hunt and you never know what gems you are going to find.
So I visited a lot of archives and took full advantage of all of the new databases of digitized periodicals that have popped up in the past 10 years. I looked at publications by both the black and white press—be it newspapers from the big cities and tiny towns where Vaughan toured; trade journals like Variety, Billboard, Metronome, and Down Beat; or lifestyle magazines like Life and Ebony.
I then supplemented this wtih my own interviews of her friends and co-workers, oral histories, tapes of old radio shows, press releases, re-discovered videos of her live performances, private tapes of her rehearsals and chats with friends, and, of course, the writings of other historians. In the end, a rich, very dynamic and vibrant portrait of Sarah Vaughan emerged.
There were many surprises. Some came in the form of wonderful anecdotes about Sarah rubbing shoulders with her fellow giants of the day. (I’m not going to spill the beans on these here!)
Others were disheartening. I uncovered new stories about the racism she faced and the true extent of the domestic abuse she experienced. The abuse, in particular, was very difficult for me to write about.
For me, however, the most pleasant surprise was re-discovering Sarah’s own voice. When I first began studying her almost 20 years ago, I couldn’t find that many interviews with her and biographies really didn’t include many of her own words. There seemed to be a void.
Sarah was a quiet, introverted woman, and the interviews that she did give were often curt, abrupt, and adversarial. So I assumed that she simply didn’t give that many interviews.
This was not the case. Thanks to these new, remarkable databases of digital newspapers, I discovered that Sarah, in fact, did many interviews. (She still didn’t enjoy them, but she gave them.)
And here I found more examples of her humor and wit, musings on society and the music industry, and her place in it. She was remarkably consistent in her worldviews. Whenever possible, I’ve re-inserted Sarah’s voice into her life story.
Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Vaughan?
A: One of the most enduring myths about Sarah is that she was the creation of her first husband-manager. He’s often described as a Pygmalion or Svengali-like figure who masterminded a dramatic, glamorizing makeover that jumpstarted her career.
Well, it’s more complicated than this. This myth was, in fact, the product of an elaborate publicity campaign devised by her husband to assert more control in their crumbling personal and professional partnership. Queen of Bebop delves deeper, separating fact from fiction while considering why this myth has endured.
Another aspect of Sarah’s legacy that has been overlooked is her involvement with the development of bebop, alongside luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, in the early 1940s. She was in the thick of it, keeping up with all of the boys, and she played an important role in popularizing the music of her fellow bebop instrumentalists.
Today Sarah is best known for her slow, romantic ballads, which don’t fit our preconceptions of bebop singing. But much of her musical style—her harmonic language and how she used her voice—and, most importantly, her worldviews were established during her early bebop days.
Q: What is her legacy today?
A: There is no doubt that Sarah Vaughan has influenced the generations of vocalists who followed in her wake. When I’m listening to jazz singers, I often hear a vocal inflection or turn of phrase that reminds me of Sarah.
But I think a more lasting part of her legacy is that she really changed the way that vocalists, especially women, thought about their voices, their approach to making music, and their role in an ensemble.
When I interviewed singers, they told me how much they learned from watching and listening to Sarah. They saw the unwavering respect that the guys in the band had for her, the intimate musical conversations that she had with musicians, how she owned her musical choices, and it reminded them that they were more than just a “chick singer.” They were serious musicians too.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m still in the land of Sarah Vaughan, which is fine by me. I love her! And now that the book is out, people are sharing their Sarah Vaughan stories with me. This has been wonderful. It gives me new ways to think about Sarah, her legacy, and how she moved her listeners. So don’t hesitate to reach out if you have a favorite Sassy memory!
I’ve also been spending more time with my son. He heads off to kindergarten [soon], and I want to treasure these last moments while he’s still my little boy.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Well, I’d like to encourage people to listen to more Sarah Vaughan! If you are already a fan, keep on listening. And if you are new to Sarah, here are a few of my favorites to get you started:
“Over the Rainbow” (television broadcast, Holland, 1958) Check out what she does at the 2:54 mark. Amazing!
“Don’t Blame Me” (from One Night Stand: The Town Hall Concert, live 1947)
“Shulie a Bop” (from Images, 1954, EmArcy)
“Whatever Lola Wants” (1955, Mercury)
“Send in the Clowns” (live, Playboy Jazz Festival, early 1980s)
--Interview with Deborah Kalb