If you have children, there is no time like the early stages of life. I am speaking of children from the ages one to four years, who learn so much during that short period. Of course, they also do and say some of the most precious things and we all remember them fondly with detail. There is one story I would like to tell about a young toddler that should bring smiles to your faces. It involves a child just shy of his second birthday, full of life possessing a brain like a sponge. As with most children, this child also loved music and started to express favorites. One of them was “Broken Hearted Melody” by the “divine” Ms. Sarah Vaughan. The parents could not understand why their young toddler chose that song as a personal favorite. Well, I must confess at this point I am the child in the story. The reason I know the story details so well is that my parents told it to others many times over. One more thing: Sarah Vaughan remains one of my very favorite artists.
Of course, Sarah Vaughan was one of the most well known and appreciated singers of all time. I am not insinuating that I possessed some brilliant musical mind as a two-year old. Trust me, I had other musical favorites that were not very popular or the product of very accomplished musicians, but of all the music I liked Vaughan’s song was clearly the best. My parents wondered, “Why does the baby like this song? “ “Broken Hearted Melody“, written by Hal David and Sherman Edwards, was a song that despite the commercial success Vaughan herself always thought to be “corny“. The song gave Vaughan her first gold record. It also became part of her concert repertoire for many years afterwards. Nevertheless, was it just the “catchy “hit song that caught my infantile attention or maybe something about Sarah Vaughan’s voice appealed to my young ears?
Gary Giddins made the following comment regarding Vaughan’s voice, “Her voice had wings: luscious and tensile, disciplined and nuanced, it was as thick as cognac, yet soared off the beaten path like an instrumental solo…that her voice was a four-octave muscle of infinite flexibility made her disarming shtick all the more ironic.” I really appreciate his description as it tells how Vaughan could sing difficult patches seemingly without effort. Fellow jazz singer Mel Tormé said that Vaughan had “…the single best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field.” Her ability was envied by Frank Sinatra who said, “Sassy (another nickname given to Vaughan) is so good now that when I listen to her I want to cut my wrists with a dull razor.”
Sarah Vaughan appeared to have no musical limitations. Many believe that she could sing anything regardless of genre or difficulty…even opera. Jazz singer Betty Carter said that with training Vaughan could have “…gone as far as Leontyne Price.” Bob James, Vaughan’s musical director in the 1960s said “…the instrument was there. But the knowledge, the legitimacy of that whole world was not for her…But if the aria were in Sarah’s range she could bring something to it that a classically trained singer could not.”
In a 1982 interview with Downbeat magazine, Vaughan spoke about the classification of her musical style. “I don’t know why people call me a jazz singer, though I guess people associate me with jazz because I was raised in it, from way back. I am not putting jazz down, but I am not a jazz singer…I’ve recorded all kinds of music, but (to them) I’m either a jazz singer or a blues singer. I can’t sing a blues – just a right-out blues – but I can put the blues in whatever I sing. I might sing ‘Send In the Clowns’ and I might stick a little bluesy part in it, or any song. What I want to do, music-wise, is all kinds of music that I like, and I like all kinds of music.”
This discussion of Sarah Vaughan began after a conversation with a friend about modern day jazz festivals. There are several jazz festivals here in the state of Florida as there are around the US, but he questioned if they could truly use the title of jazz. Some include very popular artists of today, but perhaps just one or two true jazz artists. My friend thought that it might be better to render such simply “music festivals” instead of incorporating the musical description of jazz.
He does have a point, but I go back to something my father always mentioned about jazz music of his time; it was the popular music form. Think back to the words of Sarah Vaughan, who stated that she was not a jazz singer. It makes me wonder if she would be more like the popular artists of today, who incorporate different styles into their performances. Regardless of what style of music Sarah Vaughan chose to sing, her talent would still be undeniable.
The best thing for all of us today is that even though Vaughan died in 1990 at the age of sixty-six, her music still lives in the many-recorded performances she left behind. Sarah Vaughan has been gone close to twenty-five years, but I consider her forever divine.