Sarah Vaughan - vocals; Mike Wofford - piano, musical director; Andy Simpkins - bass; Harold Jones - drums
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. 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. 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 this February 29th concert at the Great American Music Hall, Sarah comes out scatting in a loose manner on the midtempo walking swing-blues "46th & 8th," 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). Sarah next glides into one of her most requested ballads, "Easy Living," a jazz standard which appeared on her superb 1978 Pablo album, How Long Has This Been Going On? Her near-operatic treatment of this poignant Ralph Rainger-Leo Robin ballad is a dramatic highpoint of her set.
They swing through Ellington's "In A Mellow Tone" in jaunty fashion, with the audience shouting out its approval, before shifting to an intimate reading of another bit of classic Ellingtonia, "I Got It Bad But That Ain't Good," which elicits audible sighs from the GAMH crowd. Vaughan's effortless swoops from the high register to the lowest end of her contralto range, along with her signature vibrato and dynamic phrasing, make this a virtual clinic in vocal control. She takes a frisky approach on a swinging rendition of the "I'll Remember April," a Gene de Paul tune introduced in 1942 (in the unlikely place of an Abbott & Costello film) and subsequently covered by everyone from Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Sonny Rollins to Nat "King" Cole, Dinah Washington, and Frank Sinatra. Sarah's unbridled scatting on this uptempo romp is as daring as it is flawless. Her sublime interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim's romantic ballad "Dindi," which would appear later that year on her Pablo album Copacabana, is marred by a recurring line that she can't seem to remember. But she makes the best of it, improvising some lyrics and injecting a bit of humor into the proceedings without dropping a beat.
Vaughan handles "East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)" as a playful voice-bass duet with Andy Simpkins, who also turns in a stellar solo on this walking blues interpretation of the oft-recorded jazz standard. The full trio returns for stellar treatments of the ballad "You're Blasé" (also from How Long Has This Been Going On?) and the blazing "Cherokee," a 1938 Ray Noble number that later became a jamming vehicle during the heyday of bebop. Pianist Mike Wofford stretches out with an invigorating solo on this uptempo romp. Sarah follows with another of her dramatic gems, "Send in the Clowns," the Stephen Sondheim tune from the musical A Little Night Music, which was also the title track of her 1974 album for the Mainstream label. Next up is the title track from Vaughan's aforementioned How Long Has This Been Going On? She opens this George and Ira Gershwin tune (originally written for the 1928 musical Funny Face) as a dramatic rubato duet with piano before the full band comes in for a buoyant samba interpretation.
There follows a bit of fantastic scatting by the Divine One on a swinging blues riff. Everyone in the band gets a solo taste on this freewheeling vehicle, which culminates with some playful call-and-response with the audience whereby Vaughan sings "Bye-bye" and the crowd shouts back, "No-no." They successfully coax her back for an encore of "Misty," which elicits a big whoop of delight from these adoring fans at the GAMH. Her soaring glissandi on sustained notes on this famous Erroll Garner tune (which she first recorded in 1958) thrills the crowd. She injects a bit of humor into the proceedings with an impression of a male vocalist, delivering the romantic lyrics in the depths of her signature husky-toned low register. As the trio plays her off stage, the crowd shows their appreciation for one of the most beloved performers to ever grace the GAMH stage.
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. (Milkowski)