Assessing 'Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan'

Jul 3, 2017

After Sarah Vaughan moved back to her hometown of Newark, New Jersey in the mid-1960s, she could often be found, on a night off, at the Key Club. She loved to hang out with owner Jean Dawkins, catching up on gossip about mutual friends. There were no pretenses about her; she just wanted to be “one of the guys.”

Vaughan developed this persona while a member of the Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine bands during World War II. She really didn’t have any choice, since she was usually the only woman in the band. She was a competent piano player (and served as a second pianist in the Hines band), but of course her voice was what set her apart: it was an instrument of spectacular quality. Add to that a resilient, completely individual sense of rhythm, and you have an unbeatable combination. Among musicians, she was instantly accepted. Her talent was obvious. She was also something else — plain, with no hint of glamour about her.

All this is detailed in Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan, (Ecco/HarperCollins) a 400-page biography by the Seattle-based jazz historian Elaine M. Hayes. This is the first extensive biography since Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan by Leslie Gourse in 1999. Hayes has done extensive research on her subject, and the work is thorough — but there are also a few annoying mistakes, and some conclusions that are off base.

In 1946, Vaughan met two men who would influence her life and help develop her career. The first was Albert Marx, who heard her playing intermission piano and singing at a club on 52nd Street, and signed her to Musicraft records. Beginning in 1946, Marx produced more than 30 Sarah Vaughan titles. These would be the building blocks of her professional life, many of them in her book until the end. Yet Marx, who also produced the first Art Tatum records, is not even mentioned in the book.

The other man, George Treadwell, was a trumpet player with the J.C. Heard band when he worked with Sarah at Café Society. He began to involve himself in her career. Romance followed, and the couple was married in September 1946. Treadwell had been leading the band for some of her Musicraft dates, and shortly thereafter became her manager.

George Treadwell and Sarah Vaughan

Treadwell was the “Swami” (to borrow Dexter Gordon’s term) in Vaughan’s life. Very quickly, her teeth were fixed, she adopted more becoming hairstyles, and she began wearing more elegant gowns. She was plain no more. By early 1947, Treadwell had given up the trumpet to concentrate on her career. He had a role in her signing to Columbia Records in 1949.

This resulted in some fine recordings, and an equal number of forgettable sides. Hayes is very good on this period, and on the singer’s battles with her producer, Mitch Miller: “It was becoming clear that Mitch Miller didn’t know how to make a black artist into a pop star, how not to use race (or ethnicity) as a novelty device.” Yet she compares Vaughan’s work with that of Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day and Jo Stafford when her real competition was Ella, Billie and Dinah.

Much is made of Dave Garroway, then a Chicago DJ, and his enthusiasm for Sarah — but there is no mention of Symphony Sid, a more important radio voice who reached many more listeners on clear-channel WJZ. Sid was always in her corner.

Treadwell and Vaughan separated in the summer of 1952. Although the divorce wasn’t official for a few years, her Columbia career was over in 1953. The following year she resumed recording, this time for Mercury. Bob Shad created a contract which allowed for pop singles to be issued on Mercury and albums to be released on the jazz imprint, Emarcy. Hayes rightfully acknowledges the benefits of such a deal, but wrongfully suggests that it was unique to Sarah. Dinah Washington, and even Patti Page, had similar contracts.

This period was remarkably rich in quality on all levels. Among the Emarcy albums recorded during 1954-58 were the trio album Swingin’ Easy; her meeting with trumpeter Clifford Brown; live albums from Mister Kelly’s and The London House; the Ernie Wilkins-arranged Sarah Vaughan in the Land of Hi-Fi; and her first collaboration with the Count Basie band. In addition, there were double albums of Gershwin and Broadway material (Great Songs from Hit Shows) that outsold Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook albums but are not mentioned in the book.

Sarah was equally successful on the pop side: “Make Yourself Comfortable” and “Whatever Lola Wants” were Top 10 singles. After Bob Shad departed in 1958, Clyde Otis took over her pop productions, and she had the biggest hit of her career, “Broken Hearted Melody.” She hated the song, and ducked requests for it.

With the end of the Treadwell relationship, Vaughan’s management fell to husbands and boyfriends, none of whom had Treadwell’s knowledge or expertise. If I am reading Hayes accurately, Vaughan never really understood the record business. She complained about royalties but was embarrassed by the odd pop hit. (A note to future biographers: artists are not entitled to royalties; they must be earned.)

After a three-year stay with Roulette, Vaughan returned to Mercury at the behest of Quincy Jones. The relationship started well but ended badly. Hayes is very good here, and in general the book gets better as we get deeper into the ‘60s. There is a lengthy, rather one-sided discussion of her reunion with Bob Shad on Mainstream records in the early ‘70s.

It was for her final Mainstream album that Vaughan first recorded “Send in The Clowns.” The arrangement was commercial, almost disco in its approach. She hated the recording but was intrigued by the song. She had it re-arranged for her live performances, and it soon grew to be her signature song. It took seven years until the definitive version was recorded for Pablo with the Count Basie band.

In this section, in regard to Sarah’s development of a symphony concert program, and in reference to her love of Brazilian music, Hayes is excellent. One gets a real feeling for the day-to-day process of being Sarah Vaughan. That she was difficult to deal with is an understatement. She was very much the Diva — but everyone conceded, after a performance, that the end result was worth all the headache. She died in 1990 at the age of 66.

While Queen of Bebop is a highly readable account that could prove to be valuable as a resource, it should not be considered the definitive word on Sarah Vaughan. A talent that great will certainly invite additional consideration.

Bob Porter’s book SOUL JAZZ: Jazz in the Black Community, 1945-1975 was recently published by Xlibris.