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Jazz singer Sarah Lois Vaughan was affectionately known as both “Sassy” and “The Divine One," and it was her voice that could inspire these contrary, yet truthful, nicknames. Her voice carried a wide variety of expression, encompassing both the human and the angelic. Vaughan’s inimitable vocal abilities included an incredibly wide range (four octaves!), an extremely diverse tone and character, and amazing versatility and virtuosity. At the core of Sarah Vaughan’s music was her heartfelt passion to express herself.

Throughout her extraordinary career, Vaughan’s voice inspired awe and wonder. Conductor and composer Gunther Schuller describes her incredible singing range, which covered baritone on the low end all the way through soprano on the high end. Vaughan could not only produce any notes within that range, but could vary the timbre and color of each note any way she wanted, even in the same breath.

Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey on March 27, 1924. Sarah’s mother played both the piano and the organ, so young Sarah also studied these instruments. By the time she was 12, Sarah was playing in church. Sarah’s childhood ambition, however, was to sing. At 18, she and a friend went to Apollo Theater on amateur night. Vaughan was impressive enough to win a ten dollar prize and a week’s engagement at the theater. Billy Eckstine, the famous vocalist of the Earl Hines band, saw her perform on that first night. Impressed, he made his way backstage to meet the talented teen.

Within weeks, Vaughan was singing with Eckstine and Hines in a band that included alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, two infamous pioneers of an avant-garde musical style later called bebop. It was pianist John Malachi that gave her the first nickname mentioned above, because he thought the new girl’s singing style was “sassy.”

After a year with Eckstine, Vaughan began performing on her own. Road manager Johnny Garry reminisces on first hearing her sing at Café Society in Greenwich Village, “it was like God had sent some angel down…the band just stopped playing {and everyone thought,} ‘Wow! What have we got here?’”

Chicago DJ Dave Garroway was the one who coined Vaughan’s nickname, “The Divine One,” as he repeatedly played Vaughan’s records on the air. In 1947, Vaughan was Down Beat magazine’s most popular female singer. Success seduced Sarah, as she received offers to record pop music. In the late 1940s, she had hits with “It’s Magic” and “Tenderly,” and in the 1950s, she scored even bigger hits with “Make Yourself Comfortable” and her 1958 million-seller “Broken-Hearted Melody.”

While recording pop hits was lucrative, Sarah Vaughan’s musical soul was not satisfied. Fortunately, Sarah’s record deals also allowed her to choose the songs she wanted to record, giving her room for her creativity to flourish.

Vaughan’s style was not static and thus she was able to keep ahead of her times. When she immersed herself in Brazilian music, she didn’t simply add a trendy bossa nova beat under a conventional number. She visited Brazil and worked with great songwriters like Antonia Carlos Jobim. Vaughan held orchestral concerts that enabled her to explore yet another realm in her singing repertoire.

Sarah Vaughan lived her life to sing and loved performing for an audience. In October 1989, while performing at New York City’s Blue Note, Sarah learned that she had lung cancer. She died six months later on the 46th anniversary of the day she joined the Earl Hines band. Her last recorded performance, “Ave Maria,” was played at her funeral in April of 1990. As always, her inspired musicianship enhances, but does not obscure, her deeply human feeling. Behind Vaughan’s voice you hear a heart and soul that continue to move people all over the world. Sarah Vaughan was the quintessential musician.


Many, many thanks to http://npr.org/programs/jazzprofiles/svaughan.html for providing much of the information.

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