Lynn René Bayley
, September 2010
The “Divine Sarah,” without question one of the eight or 10 greatest vocalists who ever sang jazz—she could well have had an operatic career—was around so long (51 years) that some people are shocked to learn she was only 66 when she died in 1990. This documentary, just a little under an hour, explores her career, life, frustrations, facts, and legend in surprisingly complete fashion. We are treated to interviews with her mother, Ada Vaughan; her daughter, Paris Vaughan; Billy Eckstine (who discovered her); drummer Roy Haynes; fellow jazz singer Joe Williams; bandleader-arranger Marty Paich; and longstanding accompanist George Gaffney.
For those unfamiliar with Vaughan’s voice, she had a range of roughly three octaves though, as Haynes pointed out, most musicians didn’t bother to measure it—all they knew was that Sarah could do anything she wanted with that voice, and it was always at her command. Gaffney reveals an astonishing fact, that unlike most other singers of his knowledge, jazz or classical, Vaughan never warmed up before a performance; neither did she skip food before going on. “She could eat a 12-course meal, then still go out there and sing,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.” Marty Paich, a brilliant jazz arranger who wrote very complex scores, attests that Sarah would kill time at his house watching baseball games, eating pizza and drinking beer, “but as soon as she hit the studio, she’d pick up on my arrangements in about 10 minutes.” Until her last two years, when encroaching cancer began to affect her pitch, she was vocally flawless. Being a natural virtuoso, however, she occasionally had a tendency to show off, flaunting her extraordinary range to the detriment of the music. Such moments were not the norm, but they exist. This documentary, like most of her post-mortem CD releases, avoids her more vulgar performances.
Much of the footage comes from what seems like the hottest summer in history at Wolf Trap, where she perspired profusely. A lesser singer would have called it quits after one set. Vaughan just kept on singing (and perspiring). Eckstine, Haynes, and Gaffney all picture Sarah as a workhorse who drank, smoked, stayed out late with friends, yet could still deliver year after year and concert after concert. Eckstine even recalls a time when she drove the band bus! “Sarah was just one of the guys” is a line you’ll hear over and over again in this documentary.
Vaughan, like Mildred Bailey, was a jazz singer who craved crossover pop success and the big money that accompanied it, yet was unwilling to sink too low in her selection of the very pop material that would have brought it to her. She was on the right road when Columbia Records signed her in 1951, and could have (if she wished to) followed Chicago-based jazz singer Frankie Laine down the golden road of best-sellers and big money. Laine acquiesced and gave up his jazz style. Vaughan bucked the songs, and the system. She jumped in 1954 to Mercury Records, where she could swing her pop material on its main label and make purely jazz albums on its subsidiary, EmArcy. Oddly, the documentary fails to mention her biggest hit record, Broken Hearted Melody, from the late 1950s. Typical of Sarah, she loved the money and attention it brought her, but after two years was sick and tired of singing it!
Yet even to the end she tried to break into the pop market. In the 1980s she approached MTV with the idea of doing videos, but was basically told, “You must be kidding.” She was too heavy and her style was far too complex for the average teenybopper. I can’t imagine Sarah Vaughan singing Whip It (or something similar), but for some reason she thought she could...One of the most astonishing performances in the set is Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns,” which Sarah turns into a jazz tour de force. It’s the first and only time I’ve ever enjoyed listening to that song, and Vaughan makes more of it than Fleming, or anyone else for that matter, ever could. That’s why she never stayed on the charts, and that’s why she is still revered by jazz fans worldwide.