For five decades, legendary jazz singer Sarah Vaughan was one of the few artists who managed to appeal both to jazz aficionados and to those who might not have liked jazz before or since. This mercurial innovator and influence deserves a major biography. Unfortunately, Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan, by freelance writer and University of Pennsylvania alumna Elaine M. Hayes, a first-time author, is not definitive.
The blame game
That’s a shame, as the Vaughan story, musical and otherwise, is ultimately a tale of art over commerce, innovation in the face of struggle, and a singular jazz life. This life, taken on its own and at face value, should have been more than sufficient for compelling and essential reading.
Indeed, there is little doubt Vaughan and her contemporaries — including Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Lena Horne — were trailblazers for racial equality by way of enduring, surviving, and ultimately triumphing over the struggles and indignities of Jim Crow while touring with big bands in the 1940s and 1950s. Vaughan also came up in a music business notorious for bad record deals, crooked promoters, unscrupulous managers, and rotten club owners.
But one of the book’s major failings is that the author seems to have a bone to pick with almost every white person who worked in the business though the years, including writers and critics such as John Hammond and Leonard Feather, promoters, disc jockeys (save Dave Garroway, who helped put Vaughan on the map), record-company executives, and fellow singers, particularly blonde and blue-eyed vocalists (the author takes pains to identify their hair and eye color) such as Doris Day and Peggy Lee. Hayes, perhaps conveniently, does not point out that much of Vaughan’s latter-day (and deserved) success was due in part to the efforts of white management.
"Vaughan was victorious"
Even the book title, Queen of Bebop, which the author tries to explain away in the first few pages, is a misnomer. Vaughan worked side by side with bop groundbreakers such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the early days, with the bands of Earl “Fatha” Hines and Billy Eckstine. But stylistically, Vaughan was not a true bopper like her main “competitor,” Ella Fitzgerald, who could scat like a horn player. Vaughan’s considerable talents were different, in that her incredible range, beautiful tone, and advanced harmonic sense, as applied to jazz, set her apart from those who skedaddled through choruses of “How High the Moon.”
Then there are the book’s errors: Vaughan did not play the Fairmont Hotel in Philadelphia in the early 1950s, as there was no Fairmont here until 1979, when the Bellevue-Stratford briefly became a part of the Fairmont chain. Another claim, that Vaughan was told to sleep in the Fairmont basement’s kitchen quarters in lieu of a hotel room during her 1980 appearance, was, I stongly suspect, fabricated. Then, as now, I was an entertainment journalist and working musician who was very close to those who booked entertainment and set policy at the Fairmont in 1980. And one of the biggest musical errors is the author’s view that be-boppers rejected playing the blues, which is just plain wrong.
The book does offer several positives, mainly in the form of interviews conducted with the singer’s various accompanists through the decades. It also presents a comprehensive but disturbing overview of her turbulent personal and business life (though her drug use is only suggested), and some insights as to just why Vaughan may have been as difficult as she often was.
Thankfully, in the end, Vaughan was victorious. Her worldwide collaborations with symphony orchestras, recordings, and her cutting-edge embrace of Brazilian music all received much acclaim and, at long last, she finally got more than decent money.
Sarah Vaughan was a powerful black woman who won her tireless struggle in a business fraught with dishonesty and prejudice — some, but not all, of it racially motivated. It’s great that she won. It’s just that this book doesn’t really tell us how.