Sarah-Lovers476

“TODAY a diva means anything,” said Beverly Sills in a 2006 interview. “It means somebody who can’t sing like a prima donna but can act like one. It no longer requires talent.”

Sarah Vaughan sang like a diva and oftentimes behaved like one; as for talent, she possessed a gift so extravagant that few popular songs could contain it. Asked on the Tonight Show to describe how her luxuriant three-octave contralto had changed after thirty-five years of singing, she smiled puckishly and said: “It’s gotten lower … and higher.” Her harmonic imagination was comparable to Charlie Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s. Add it all up, and you had a jazz singer who had earned her regal title, The Divine One.

But this prima donna was also a mischievous little girl. Even in the simplest song her head spun with possibilities; at times it sounded as though she were at loose in a toy store, throwing her arms around every doll at once. Lyrics, like chords, were one more plaything for Vaughan. Unlucky in love – she’d had three painful divorces – the singer wasn’t inclined to get too close to a love song; instead she turned tongue-in-cheek, and soared back up into the sky. Wrote
New York Times cultural critic Margo Jefferson in 1989, the year before Vaughan died: “Rarely has a less romantic, less confessional temperament been set loose on material (American popular song) so endlessly, obsessively, exquisitely, and absurdly devoted to romance.”

That certainly applied to Vaughan’s stay at Roulette (1960-1963). There she spread her spectacular plumage in an abundance of settings: from guitar-bass duos to string orchestras so lush they could have underscored the parting of the Red Sea. Her Roulette work helped lift from jazz venues into top-rank supper clubs; much of it also got her branded a sellout by jazz critics.

But the sides heard here have at least a toe in jazz, and sometimes both feet. If I Were A Bell and Teach Me Tonight find Vaughan in happy tandem with Joe Williams and the Count Basie orchestra. These sides were made in the summer of 1960, a month after all involved had performed them at a Madison Square Garden jazz gala. Anyone can hear, in these rollicking duets, how much Vaughan and Williams adored each other.

Ellington’s
I Didn’t Know About You is swathed in the boudoir strings of Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine soundtrack composer for films (Cool Hand Luke) and TV shows (Mission Impossible); he had also played piano for Dizzy Gillespie. Vaughan’s kitchy-koo coyness is the sound of a child-woman in love with Daddy. Star Eyes is conducted by Marty Manning, who won a Grammy for arranging Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Vaughan floats ethereally amid a sugar-spun orchestra: an angel perched on a cloud. Quincy Jones conducts Fly Me to the Moon and Don Costa (a favorite of Frank, Eydie, and Sammy) leads Stella By Starlight; Vaughan gives both songs the majesty of arias.

The eminent arranger and saxophonist Benny Carter had known Vaughan since the ‘40s; in 1963 they teamed on a superior orchestral album,
The Lonely Hours. With the no-nonsense Carter at the baton, and a great accompanist, Jimmy Rowles, on piano, Vaughan delivers a refreshingly unadorned version of The Man I Love. Carter wrote the cozy When Lights Are Low, one of three tracks drawn from Sarah + 2. With only guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Joe Comfort to lend her the gentlest support, Vaughan glides as lightly as a bird.

No, it doesn’t sound as though she’s singing into a sweetheart’s ear. But with a voice of such inordinate beauty and sensual abandon, what greater love object could Vaughan have had?

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2006

[James Gavin, author of
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is writing a biography of Lena Horne.]