Born March 27, 1924, American jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan got her start as a child singing in her church choir. In 1942, she was thrust into the spotlight after a winning performance at Amateur Night at the famed Apollo Theatre, and by the mid-1940s she was appearing on television. Soon given the moniker, "Sassy," Vaughan showed off her impressive three octave range, and quickly became regarded as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. She was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1990, the same year she died.
The jazz "track" of her recording career also proceeded apace, backed either by her working trio or various combinations of stellar jazz players. One of her own favorite albums was a 1954 sextet date that included Clifford Brown.
In the latter half of the 1950s, she followed a schedule of almost non-stop touring with many famous jazz musicians. She was featured at the first Newport Jazz Festival in the summer of 1954 and starred in subsequent editions of that festival at Newport and in New York City for the remainder of her life. In the fall of 1954, she performed at Carnegie Hall with the Count Basie Orchestra on a bill that also included Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet. That fall, she again toured Europe successfully before embarking on a "Big Show" U.S. tour, a grueling succession of start-studded one-nighters that included Count Basie, George Shearing, Erroll Garner and Jimmy Rushing. At the 1955 New York Jazz Festival on Randalls Island, Vaughan shared the bill with the Dave Brubeck quartet, Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, and the Johnny Richards Orchestra.
Vaughan began recording for Roulette Records in April 1960, making a string of strong large ensemble albums arranged and/or conducted by Billy May, Jimmy Jones, Joe Reisman, Quincy Jones, Benny Carter, Lalo Schifrin, and Gerald Wilson. Surprisingly, she also had some pop chart success in 1960 with "Serenata" on Roulette and a couple of residual tracks from her Mercury contract, "Eternally" and "You're My Baby". She also made a pair of intimate vocal/guitar/double bass albums of jazz standards: After Hours (1961) with guitarist Mundell Lowe and double bassist George Duvivier and Sarah + 2 (1962) with guitarist Barney Kessell and double bassist Joe Comfort. When her contract with Roulette ended in 1963, Vaughan returned to the more familiar confines of Mercury Records. In the summer of 1963, Vaughan went to Denmark with producer Quincy Jones to record four days of live performances with her trio, Sassy Swings the Tivoli, an excellent example of her live shows from this period. The following year, she made her first appearance at the White House, for President Johnson.
The seventies also heralded a rebirth in Vaughan's recording activity. In 1971, Bob Shad, who had worked with her as producer at Mercury Records, asked her to record for his new record label, Mainstream Records. Basie veteran Ernie Wilkins arranged and conducted her first Mainstream album, A Time in My Life in November 1971. In April 1972, Vaughan recorded a collection of ballads written, arranged and conducted by Michel Legrand. Arrangers Legrand, Peter Matz, Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson teamed up for Vaughan's third Mainstream album, Feelin' Good. Vaughan also recorded Live in Japan, in Tokyo with her trio in September 1973.
During her sessions with Legrand, Bob Shad presented "Send in the Clowns", a Stephen Sondheim song from the Broadway musical A Little Night Music, to Vaughan for consideration. The song would become her signature, replacing the chestnut "Tenderly" that had been with her from the beginning of her solo career.
Vaughan remained quite active as a performer during the 1980s and began receiving awards recognizing her contribution to American music and status as an important elder stateswoman of jazz. In the summer of 1980, Vaughan received a plaque on 52nd Street outside the CBS Building (Black Rock) commemorating the jazz clubs she had once frequented on "Swing Street" and which had long since been demolished and replaced with office buildings.
A performance of her symphonic Gershwin program with the New Jersey Symphony in 1980 was broadcast on PBS and won her an Emmy Award in 1981 for "Individual Achievement – Special Class". She was reunited with Michael Tilson Thomas for a Gershwin program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the CBS Records recording, Gershwin Live, won Vaughan the Grammy award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female. In 1985, Vaughan received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1988, Vaughan was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame.
Vaughan's final complete album was Brazilian Romance, produced and composed by Sérgio Mendes and recorded primarily in the early part of 1987 in New York and Detroit. In 1988, she contributed vocals to an album of Christmas carols recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the Utah Symphony Orchestra and sold in Hallmark Cards stores. In 1989, Quincy Jones' album Back on the Block featured Vaughan in a brief scatting duet with Ella Fitzgerald. This was Vaughan's final studio recording and, fittingly, it was Vaughan's only formal studio recording with Fitzgerald in a career that had begun 46 years earlier opening for Fitzgerald at the Apollo. Recordings by Sarah Vaughan were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."
Although Vaughan is usually considered a "Jazz Singer", she avoided classifying herself as such. Indeed, her approach to her "Jazz" work and her commercial "Pop" material was not radically different. Vaughan stuck throughout her career to the jazz-infused style of music that she came of age with, only rarely dabbling in rock-era styles that usually did not suit her unique vocal talents. Vaughan discussed this label in an 1982 interview for Down Beat Magazine:
"I don't know why people call me a jazz singer, though I guess they associate me with jazz because I was raised in it, from way back. I'm not putting jazz down, but I'm not a jazz singer. Betty Bebop (Carter) is a jazz singer, because that's all she does. I've even been called a blues singer. I've recorded all kinds of music, but (to them) I'm either a jazz singer or a blues singer. I can't sing a blues – just a right-out blues – but I can put the blues in whatever I sing. I might sing 'Send In the Clowns' and I might stick a little bluesy part in it, or any song. What I want to do, music-wise, is all kinds of music that I like, and I like all kinds of music."
When asked for her favorite songs and singers, Vaughan simply replied: "I dig Doris Day". And like Doris Day, Vaughan approached her voice more as a melodic instrument than a vehicle for dramatic interpretation of lyrics, although the expressive qualities of her style did accentuate lyrical meaning, and she would often find unique and memorable ways of articulating and coloring individual key words in a lyric. Both singers developed a style which characterized singing to one special person...the listener. And what's more, because of the individuality of their styles, these singers have rarely been imitated. Honored by many; imitated by few.