A biography of the great jazz singer whose commercial success seldom equaled her enormous gifts.
Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) was generally acknowledged to possess the most magnificent voice in jazz, and her instrument-playing colleagues paid her the ultimate tribute of considering her a fellow musician, not just another “girl singer.” Her one-of-the-boys attitude earned her the nickname Sassy, and she was a lone female in the macho world of bebop, present at the creation as a teenager with Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker in Earl Hines’ band in 1943. Going solo in 1945, Vaughan made more mainstream records with Musicraft and by 1947 had broken through to an audience beyond the jazz cognoscenti in Chicago, thanks partly to the enthusiastic championing of local DJ Dave Garroway, who dubbed her “the Divine One.” Hayes’ labored explanation of how Garroway “broke the rules” by describing Vaughan’s voice in terms usually reserved for white women is regrettably typical of her tendency to shoehorn academic analysis of race and gender issues into a text supposedly aimed at general readers. Her points are perfectly valid, but the way she makes them is dreary. However, Hayes does a capable job of outlining Vaughan’s career, hampered both artistically and financially by her unfortunate predilection for letting the men in her life manage her. If Vaughan had received the kind of sustained support that Ella Fitzgerald got from Norman Granz, Hayes convincingly argues, her legacy on disc would not be so spotty. Instead, she did her best work in performance, and the magic of her concerts is nicely captured in well-chosen quotes from her sidemen. They also capture the prickly personality of a musical perfectionist who could be a harsh taskmaster but also a warm mother figure to her band members. Vaughan continued singing after her diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, giving her final performance less than six months before her death.
Informative and well-intentioned but sometimes pedestrian and lacking the elegant effervescence of Vaughan’s singing.