Jazz Book Review: Queen of Bebop - The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan

Jul 5, 2017

"The Divine One."  "Sassy."  "The High Priestess of Jazz."  "The Girl with the Magic Voice."

Jazz critics, fans, producers and musicians all praised Sarah Vaughan's warm, supple, nearly four-octave range voice and her flawless technique.  Her life in music (and music was her life) is explored in the new book "Queen of BeBop-The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan" by Elaine M. Hayes.

Using a theme of "crossover," Hayes details the phases of Vaughan's career, from singing in church to the bebop big band of Billy Eckstine in the 1940s, through her appearances with symphony orchestras and her love affair with Brazilian music, up until her death in 1990.

Along the way, Vaughan became a pop star (to the dismay of jazz fans).  But she soon grew tired of producers giving her sub-standard material to record.  The recording industry was changing in the 1960s, and chasing the next big hit became the primary focus.   That was anathema to a creative artist like Sarah Vaughan.  

And Sarah Vaughan was every bit as much a creative musician as the bebop greats she worked with in Eckstine's band:  Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Art Blakey.  She experimented and expanded the use of her voice as her instrument, but resisted being categorized as only a jazz singer.

Vaughan also struggled with racism and sexism, and suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse, not only from male bandmates, but also from a series of husband/managers to whom she had entrusted her career and finances.

Elaine M. Hayes spent a total of about 4 years researching and writing the book.  "I felt there were so many rich stories we hadn't heard about Sarah, or different perspectives we hadn't seen that were kind of hidden in plain sight," she says.

The research was in-depth.  Hayes started with the treasure trove that is the Institute of Jazz Studies archives at Rutgers University, and then branched out.  "I really enjoyed going back through the old newspaper articles, the Billboard and Variety magazines," she says.  "Sarah talked to the press a lot.  She didn't like it, but she did it a lot, and that gave me the opportunity to induct her voice, her talking about music and what was important to her."

The resulting book is an engaging look into the multi-faceted life and career of the woman whose voice enchanted the world for almost 50 years.

Hayes says the research confirmed her personal view of the singer.  "You hear one thing when you listen to the music, and you get a sense of who you think this person is," she says.  "Looking more carefully at the details of her career and the things she would talk about, it showed that Sarah was extremely driven, very much invested in her own personal agency, and in having control over her musical life as much as possible.  I admired that, I was very impressed by it."

Author Elaine M. Hayes holds a doctorate in music history and is a recognized expert on Sarah Vaughan and women in jazz. She served as the editor of Earshot Jazz and is a contributing writer to Seattle magazine.

She'll read from "Queen of Bebop-The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan" and talk about it with Earshot Jazz Executive Director John Gilbreath at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle on Thursday, July 6 at 7pm.