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Sassy First Soars: Sarah Vaughan in the 1940s

Sarah Vaughan 1946

Sarah Vaughan in 1946. (Photo by William P. Gottlieb)

In the 1940s a young jazz singer with a four-octave range and bebop chops burst onto the big-band scene with Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine before going on to establish herself as a solo star with a career that would ultimately extend into the 1980s.  In the next hour we’ll hear her with Eckstine’s band and with musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, and Miles Davis. It’s “Sassy First Soars: Sarah Vaughan in the 1940s”… coming up on this edition of Night Lights.


Jazz and popular-song expert Will Friedwald once wrote that “The first time you hear Sarah Vaughan, you’re immediately blown away by the unending lushness of the voice, the deep, rich beauty of the tone, the vocal agility and range that allowed her to hit a note from all directions, to swoop up to it or swoop down to it, that perfect intonation that assured that no matter where she came at it from, she always hit it square on like a champion archer.” Friedwald was far from alone in his appreciation of Vaughan’s vocal prowess, which made her one of the 20th century’s most beloved jazz singers.

Sarah Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey on March 27, 1924, and grew up playing piano and singing in her church, like many other eventual Black jazz artists of that era.  As a teenager she began to sneak out of her house at night to first attend and then sing in local clubs, eventually venturing into New York City and uptown to Harlem.  In 1942 she played piano for a friend who performed at the Apollo Theater on its open-mic talent night, and not long after Vaughan decided to brave the Apollo stage herself as a singer, winning over the notoriously demanding Apollo crowd. 

Billy Eckstine, who was rising to prominence as a vocalist in pianist Earl Hines’ big band, heard Vaughan at the Apollo the night the 18-year-old won the Amateur Night talent contest, and he was quick to hip his leader to Vaughan’s potential.  By early 1943 Vaughan was singing with Eckstine in Hines’ orchestra. Because of a labor dispute between the record companies and the musicians’ union, this Hines band made no commercial recordings, and Vaughan wasn’t heard on record until 1945, by which time she had joined Eckstine’s breakaway big band, which included some of the young bebop musicians who’d been in Hines’ orchestra. Some live performances survive which feature Vaughan with Eckstine’s band as well—here she is in 1945 doing “Don’t Blame Me”, on Night Lights:

Billy Eckstine’s band was a primary incubator for the emerging modern sound of bebop, with pioneers such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie serving significant stints in the orchestra.  Vaughan fit right in with these musicians, both socially and artistically.  In his autobiography Gillespie said her nickname was “Sailor,” because she could swear like one; other eventual nicknames included “Sassy” and “The Divine One,” representing twin aspects of her vocal spirit and personality. In 1945 she proved that she could keep musical time with her Eckstine-band running mates on several sides that paired her with Gillespie, Parker, and other young bop compatriots, including this historical moment--Sarah Vaughan with the first-ever recording of Dizzy Gillespie’s soon-to-be-a-standard bebop tune “A Night in Tunisia,” here titled “Interlude,” on Night Lights:



Sarah Vaughan singing “Mean To Me” with Charlie Parker on alto sax, Flip Phillips on tenor sax, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Nat Jaffe on piano, Curly Russell on bass, and Max Roach on drums, recorded in May of 1945. Vaughan the same month doing “Lover Man” before that, with Gillespie and Parker and Russell again present, Al Haig on piano, and Big Sid Catlett on drums…and the set starting off with the first-ever recording of what would become a bebop anthem, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” here titled “Interlude,” with Gillespie leading a small ensemble of Georgie Auld on tenor sax, Aaron Sachs on clarinet, Leonard Feather on piano, Chuck Wayne on guitar, Jack Lesberg on bass, and Morey Feld on drums… recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1944.

By the time of these sessions Vaughan had left Billy Eckstine’s orchestra in pursuit of a solo career.  She performed regularly at various New York City nightclubs and in 1946 signed with the start-up Musicraft label, which also lured big names such as Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw onto its roster.  That summer Vaughan and some of her fellow Black musicians suffered a violent, racially-motivated attack one night after leaving the Café Society nightclub where she was regularly featured. One of the musicians with her was trumpeter George Treadwell, who would eventually marry Vaughan and become her manager. For the next two years she recorded frequently for Musicraft, waxing her first hits and memorable moments on record, such as this one--Sarah Vaughan and “If You Could See Me Now,” on Night Lights:

Sarah Vaughan performing “It’s Magic,” recorded for the Musicraft label in December of 1947, and subsequently becoming a breakout hit for Vaughan that demonstrated her crossover appeal to a wider commercial audience.  Before that we heard Vaughan singing Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now,” featuring the influential but short-lived trumpeter Freddie Webster… also recorded for Musicraft in May of 1946.

Though Vaughan’s recordings on the Musicraft label in the late 1940s often reflected a more commercial turn, there’s a marvelous document of her in an unadulterated jazz setting at New York City’s Town Hall in November 1947. As Vaughan biographer Elaine M. Hayes notes in her book Queen Of Bebop, Town Hall was a renowned performance venue that had hosted Black opera singer Marian Anderson’s debut in 1924 and earned a reputation for its forward-thinking jazz presentations, including a concert by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in 1945. Vaughan went over big with the audience that night.  Hayes writes that “As her set progressed, the audience’s applause became more enthusiastic, louder and louder, with more whistles, hoots, and hollers. Vaughan was double-billed that night with the great saxophonist Lester Young, and at the close of the concert, the two joined forces on the song “I Cried For You.”  We’ll hear that collaborative moment, preceded by Vaughan’s rendition of what at the time was one of her signature tunes—“I Cover The Waterfront,” on Night Lights:


Sarah Vaughan at New York City’s Town Hall in November 1947, performing “I Cried For You”, with jazz great Lester Young on tenor saxophone.  Vaughan before that at the same concert, singing “I Cover The Waterfront.”

Vaughan was still signed to the Musicraft label at the time of that concert, but a recording ban brought about by a musicians’ union strike put a pause on her studio career in 1948, apart from a couple of acapella sides made with a choir.  Vaughan was dissatisfied with Musicraft anyway; the small label struggled to keep up with the demand for popular recordings by her such as “It’s Magic” and failed to pay her much in royalties.  By the beginning of 1949 and the end of the strike, Vaughan was trying to get out of her Musicraft contract and beginning to secretly record for the much bigger Columbia Records.

After some legal wrangling and a disadvantageous settlement with Musicraft, Vaughan was able to officially sign with Columbia in March of 1949. Her new label mates included stars such as Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, and Doris Day. Columbia’s resources and recording techniques served Vaughan well. As Elaine M. Hayes writes, “Unlike the small, boxed-in, old-fashioned sound of her Musicraft releases, on Columbia Vaughan sounded modern. Her voice was fuller, richer, and more dynamic. The bell tones of her upper register were clearer, and the full-bodied tones of her contralto more luxurious and free-ranging.  Listeners could hear every detail as she sculpted individual notes and subtly used vibrato to punctuate her phrasing.”  Here’s Sarah Vaughan on one of her first Columbia recordings singing “Black Coffee,” on Night Lights:


Sarah Vaughan singing “The Nearness of You” and “Black Coffee” before that, both songs recorded for the Columbia label in 1949, a year when nearly all of Vaughan’s Columbia releases managed to make the weekly sales charts.

In the 1950s Sarah Vaughan’s star would continue to rise. Columbia tried to steer her in a more commercial direction with the label’s choice of material for her to record, and in 1954 she left for Mercury Records, which gave her the opportunity to split her recording activities between pop-oriented *and* jazz sessions for the label and one of its subsidiaries, resulting in a classic 1954 jazz album made with the young star trumpeter Clifford Brown. In May of 1950 Vaughan had recorded a couple of sessions for Columbia with another young rising trumpet star, Miles Davis, and I’ll close with several selections from those dates. Sarah Vaughan and “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” on Night Lights:



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