On Sarah Vaughan

Charlie Bourgeois once said of Sarah Vaughan that she made the rest of the singers sound like they were in rehearsal. We ought not to take this pronouncement of Charlie’s as his final or even his fixed judgment; he would never, upon reflection, have thus dismissed every singer but one, since he was too sensible not to be grateful for them all.

He was merely speaking for the nights when Sarah Vaughan blew all reason out of the head to leave nothing in its place save awe, and when she did indeed seem to have swept the board. Now suddenly she is dead, and the mystery of her secular epiphanies remains to tease us.

Three peaks sit most vividly below the Everest of Bessie Smith in our memory. They are Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. Comparisons between heights are a waste of time; none of them was better than the other two, but only different.

Billie Holiday’s was a genius of the autobiographical sort. We feel her most directly in the lyrics she herself wrote in the flush of an experience both immediate and intimate. She is less memorable with someone else’s songs than she is in “God Bless the Child” or “Don’t Explain.” Ella Fitzgerald’s case is different; she is at home with the lyrics of Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin as Billie Holiday never quite was.

But Sarah Vaughan could be no less at home with them than Ella Fitzgerald is; what separated her was the insistence upon escaping their walls which went on striking the willful and mischievous note of the little girl about to run away, even when she was well along in her sixties.

She and Ella Fitzgerald had, after all, gone to different schools. Ella Fitzgerald started with Chick Webb’s orchestra in the Thirties, when swing was young and a training ground for the disciplines of the splendid gospel that sufficient unto the song is the melody thereof.

But Sarah Vaughan’s initiation was with the Billy Eckstine band and Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, for whom swing was old. They were her elder brothers messing around with the chords and breaking the mold and, for the rest of her life, she would be the restlessly unguarded little sister of the avant-garde.

We could, I think, measure the size of her achievement best if we think of her as one of those artists it is a mistake to understand too quickly. There is the matter of a voice in itself extraordinary enough to make it for once plausible to think that a singer of popular songs could have been a grand diva if she had chanced onto a higher road. The voice was a great blessing and a small curse, because it ran changes so far outside the range of her appointed score that I remember a critic far better than myself saying that he’d given up on her because she was an opera singer …

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