Queen of Bebop
The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan
By Elaine M. Hayes
Ecco. 419 pp. $27.99
Reviewed by Farah Jasmine Griffin
Along with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan is one of a triumvirate of classic jazz vocalists. She has not inspired the same attention as the others, which makes Queen of Bebop all the more necessary and exciting.
As a title, "Queen of Bebop" misleads about the scope of Vaughan's music and the book's actual exploration of her career. Yes, she did establish herself as an innovative bebop vocalist, yet she spent much of her life trying to break free of the limitations of that category. Elaine M. Hayes documents her struggles and triumphs as a "symphonic diva, singing jazz in venues previously reserved for classical music and opera."
As a Newark, N.J., choirgirl, Vaughan won the Apollo's famed Amateur Night and toured with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Billy Eckstine. After she appeared at New York's Town Hall in 1947, critics hailed her as something new, a vocalist who, like her instrumentalist bandmates, released jazz from the dominance of swing into the realm of complex, abstract high art. "I wish I could play piano like I think, but I can't," she said. "My fingers. My mind. I sing faster. I can think what I'm thinking and sing it, but I can't play it."
Born in 1924, Vaughan was a child of the Great Migration and Jim Crow America. Her parents went north from Virginia in search of greater economic opportunity and political freedom. But in Newark, they encountered racial segregation and oppression, which shaped Vaughan's experiences as a young artist. On tour, she and her bandmates encountered one indignity after another.
Vaughan also faced gender-based violence. Her colleagues beat her. It was a high price to pay for admission into the boys' club of jazz instrumentalists. But she made the most of her opportunities to hone her natural abilities and experiment within a community that appreciated invention. Black audiences and white jazz fans and DJs made sure broader audiences heard her.
Hayes does not gloss over Vaughan's longstanding taste for cocaine and marijuana or her unfortunate pattern of making her often-abusive husbands her managers. But none of this detracts from Vaughan's brilliance or musical contribution. Queen of Bebop models a way of understanding the artistry of jazz musicians - as important central figures in creating the best America has offered the world.
Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor of English, comparative literature, and African American studies at Columbia University. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.