Sarah Vaughan - vocals; Mike Wofford - piano, musical director; Andy Simpkins - bass; Harold Jones - drums
With a perfectly controlled vibrato and wide expressive abilities, along with an incredible command of her instrument, Sarah Vaughan cast her spell on audiences for five decades. She possessed a magnificent voice and ranked with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday in the very top echelon of female jazz singers of the past century. A veteran of the bebop era who had come up in the Billy Eckstine big band of the mid 1940s, Vaughan was by 1980 in the autumn of her years (a month shy of her 56th birthday). And while the soaring soprano of her youth had dropped in register to a sultry contralto range, she carried herself with regal bearing to match her nickname, "The Divine One." And audiences openly adored her.
For her second set of this February 29 concert at the Great American Music Hall, Sarah comes out scatting in a loose, playful manner on "46th & 8th," a mid tempo walking blues written by former Count Basie trumpeter Waymon Reed, who became Vaughan's third husband and musical director in 1978 (he's missing from this performance due to his recovery from an operation around that time). Pianist Mike Wofford then sets the tone for a unique take on the Antonio Carlos Jobim number "Wave," done as a slow, luxurious ballad. Vaughan's vocal filigrees and astonishing swoops in register here elicit spontaneous bursts of applause and shouts from the audience, which is clearly taken aback by her nonchalant virtuosity. They swing through Ellington's "In A Mellow Tone" in jaunty fashion, with the audience again shouting out its approval. There's a brief, humorous interlude of "Happy Birthday" for someone in the audience named Jill before she into a poignant reading of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that draws audible sighs from the adoring GAMH audience. Their burning rendition of "I'll Remember April," the Gene de Paul tune introduced in the unlikely place of a 1942 Abbott & Costello film, is an exhilarating showcase of Vaughan's peerless, bop-inspired scatting prowess. "Oh, that song tires me out, I'll tell you," she says to the cheering crowd after putting an exclamation point on that jazz standard recorded by everyone from Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Sonny Rollins to Nat "King" Cole, Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra.
Vaughan's sublime interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim's romantic ballad "Dindi," which would appear later that year on her Pablo album Copacabana, is delivered with requisite drama and just a touch of her signature freewheeling scat chops, this time in a far more subdued setting. Another Vaughan favorite, "I've Got the World on a String," is underscored by Andy Simpkins' hip, syncopated walking bass lines and Harold Jones' infectious shuffle-swing beat. Sarah's scat verse here is carefree and typically virtuosic. From lighthearted to melancholy, she next turns in a near-operatic performance on "My Funny Valentine," the 1937 Rodgers and Hart tune that later became part of standard jazz repertoire. Switching back to straight ahead jazz mode, she and the trio sail jauntily through a swinging rendition of "On Clear Day (You Can See Forever)," title number for the '60s Broadway musical by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner. Sarah next glides into one of her most requested ballads, "Easy Living," the Ralph Rainger-Leo Robin ballad which she recorded on her superb 1978 Pablo album, How Long Has This Been Going On? The full range of Vaughan's remarkable voice - from deep contralto tones to swoops up into the high register - are on full display here. She then tackles "Cherokee" at a blazing tempo. Pianist Wofford also turns in a spectacular solo on this 1938 Ray Noble number which later became associated with the bebop movement as a favorite jamming vehicle.
There's another chorus of "Happy Birthday" (this time a mock operatic rendition, for Regina) before she follows with another dramatic gem, Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" from the musical A Little Night Music (it was the title track of her 1974 album for the Mainstream label). And The Divine One closes her GAMH set with a rousing scat display on a swinging blues riff. Everyone in the band gets a solo taste on this energetic vehicle, which culminates with some playful call-and-response with the audience whereby Vaughan sings "Bye-bye" and the crowd shouts back "No-no."
Born on March 27, 1924, in Newark, New Jersey, she sang in the church choir as a child and began piano lessons at age seven. After winning a talent show at the Apollo Theater in 1942 (she wowed the judges with a remarkably mature reading of "Body and Soul"), she was hired as a singer for the Earl Hines big band in April, 1943. When Billy Eckstine left the Hines band to form his own bebop big band (with such stellar players as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Leo Parker and Art Blakey), Vaughan joined him, later making her recording debut with Eckstine's outfit in 1945. After recording with John Kirby in 1946, Vaughan set out on a solo career, recording a string of tunes on the Musicraft label from 1946 to 1948 (including such hits as "Tenderly," "If You Could See Me Now," "Nature Boy" and "It's Magic").
During the 1950s, Vaughan recorded several volumes of Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart and Irving Berlin songbooks for Mercury along with jazz dates for the label's subsidiary, EmArcy (including a memorable 1954 recording with Clifford Brown entitled Sarah Vaughan). She later recorded for Roulette (1960-64), Mercury (1963-67) and Mainstream (1971-74) before hooking up Norman Granz's Pablo label (1977-82). She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1988 was inducted into American Jazz Hall of Fame. Vaughan was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1989 and passed away on April 4, 1990, at her home in Los Angeles. (Bill Milkowski)