Scat virtuoso, be-bop muse, jazz legend - Sarah Vaughan elevated the role of vocalist to an art form, placing her among the most respected musicians of her time. After performing with the big bands of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, she launched her solo career in the mid-1940s. A dozen years later, the artist reached superstar status. Vaughan's rich contralto, harmonic sensibility and horn-like phrasing allowed her to slip into whichever musical genre she fancied. Nicknamed "The Divine One," she is considered today as one of the three great jazz vocalists, along with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
Sarah Vaughan was born on March 27, 1924, in Newark, New Jersey, entering into a family environment that was very conducive to her artistic development. Her mother sang in the Mount Zion Church choir (and secretly held hopes of her daughter becoming a concert pianist), and her father, a carpenter, was an amateur musician who played guitar and recorded several albums.
Very young, Vaughan began singing in the church choir and undertook intensive piano studies from the age of six. At 16, her parents and friends suggested that she audition for an amateur contest held by the Apollo Theatre.
At that time, the star of the show was none other than Ella Fitzgerald, the very woman who had won the high-profile competition eight years prior. However, it was Vaughan's turn to shine that evening, and shine she did, winning top prize for her triumphant rendition of Body and Soul. Shortly after, she was hired to open for Fitzgerald at the Apollo.
Lure of the big band
Billy Eckstine, intrigued by the young woman said to possess rare vocal purity, headed to Harlem to attend the show. Won over by Vaughan's virtuoso performance, he immediately recommended her to Earl Hines, who headed a large orchestra at the time. She joined his big band shortly after, staying for just over a year.
In November 1943, Vaughan left the group and, six months later, reunited with Eckstine and his big band, which featured the talented Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Vaughan made her recording debut with the group's I'll Wait and Pray before setting out on her own.
In 1946, she started to direct her own trio and signed an engagement with the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, New York City. Vaughan signed a contract with Columbia in 1949 and recorded the hit single Black Coffee, which reached number 13 on the Billboard charts. She was now in the national spotlight, gaining widespread recognition and silencing sceptics with a voice that moved effortlessly between pop ballads and jazz standards. Thereafter, the masterful singer was nicknamed "The Divine One."
During the 1950s, Vaughan's recordings with Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Cannonball Adderley and Ernie Wilkins served to consolidate her status as an international star on the rise. A string of tours further increased her popularity at home and abroad.
Over the next decade, Vaughan worked most notably with Count Basie, Quincy Jones and Benny Carter. Between 1967 and 1971, she took a break from recording and, upon her return, joined the recently launched Mainstream label. In 1977, she signed a new contract with Pablo records and released I Love Brazil two years later. The album earned the singer a Grammy nomination. She finally received her statuette in 1982 for the recording Gershwin Live! Another followed in 1989, this time for a Lifetime Achievement award.
In 1983, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal welcomed the star for her one and only performance at the event - the same year that the great Ella Fitzgerald made an appearance. During a memorable pre-opening Festival concert, Vaughan enthralled the crowd at Théâtre St-Denis, lending her deep and sensuous voice to some of the most popular standards in her repertoire. The singer received, as was only fitting, a standing ovation.
The 1980s saw Vaughan increase her collaborations (with Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie, to name a few) and perform around the world. Only sickness could silence such a powerful voice: The singer succumbed to lung cancer on April 4, 1990 at the age of 66.