Part One: An Artist Is Born – 1924-1947
On November 8, 1947, Sarah Vaughan waited in the wings of New York’s historic Town Hall as saxophonist Lester Young, the “President of Jazz” or simply “the Prez,” tore it up onstage. He played his unique brand of high-energy swing that made him famous in the 1930s. Vaughan hummed along, occasionally shouting out encouragement to the band, as she clapped her hands, throwing in a jitterbug step here and there. The place was hopping with heady anticipation. Electricity filled the theater. It must have been thrilling for the young singer, but nerve-racking too. She was up next.
Since its inaugural concert in 1921, Town Hall had gained a reputation as one of the premier venues in New York City. Vaughan’s idol Marian Anderson, the African American opera singer turned civil rights activist, debuted there in 1924, then performed again in 1935 when she returned to the United States after years of touring abroad. Built by suffragists, Town Hall was known for its progressive programming and hosted a series of innovative jazz concerts, including a breakthrough performance by the then-unknown beboppers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in 1945. Tonight was Vaughan’s opportunity to shine. She had begun her life in music as a choir girl in Newark; paid her dues as a girl singer in the big bands of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, where she learned to become “one of the guys”; and then ventured out on her own as a solo act. Although she had sung in New York’s small clubs and cafes for several years, her Town Hall debut was a milestone. The concert was sold out, and according to the Pittsburgh Courier, a thousand fans had been turned away at the box office. After almost five years in the business, most of it in relative obscurity, Vaughan was immersed in the first cross-over phase of her career, and her star was finally on the rise.
To the casual observer, Vaughan could have been mistaken for just another kid hanging around backstage—a fan rather than the evening’s final performer. She looked younger than her twenty-three years. She wore a long, slim-fitting white gown with big puffy shoulders and a plunging neckline. It was a stylish dress that epitomized postwar fashion, and it was appropriate for the grandeur of the venue. But it fit poorly and overwhelmed Vaughan. The young vocalist seemed a little out of her element. Town Hall was a regal theater with high ceilings, a billowing red curtain, brass fixtures, and crystal chandeliers. Boasting one of the finest organs in the world and marvelous acoustics, it was on par with Carnegie Hall.
As the Prez launched into the final number of his set that Saturday night in 1947, Vaughan prepared for her Town Hall debut. Applause ushered Prez and his band offstage. Vaughan waited for her cue, then walked to center stage. A bare-bones rhythm section, with piano, guitar, bass, and drums, was clustered behind her. Only the microphone, teetering on its thin stand, stood between her and the fifteen hundred people in the audience. There was no place to hide. The glow of the spotlights illuminated the crowd’s expectant faces. Gowns and overcoats rustled as listeners shifted in their seats, leaning forward in anticipation as if to pose the question: Can this slip of a girl fill this cavernous hall?
From the piano came five simple chords, the introduction to “Don’t Blame Me.” The audience waited until Vaughan, at last, began to sing. But she didn’t sing the tune’s opening like other vocalists or as it was written— three brisk notes, one for each word in the title. Instead, she drew out these three syllables, expanding them to create an exquisite melisma—a cascade of sound that first went up, then down while punctuating each word with a new twist and turn. Within seconds the audience gasped, whistled, and cooed its approval. Momentum grew as Vaughan exploited every note of this slow ballad, effortlessly bending her voice to change keys and explore unexpected harmonies, all while displaying the impressive highs and lows of her four-octave contralto. Vaughan’s voice possessed a maturity, poise, and depth that belied her youthful appearance. It was full, rich, and sumptuous, yet crisp and clear as a bell. By the time she reached the final phrase of “Don’t Blame Me,” a delightful series of embellished arpeggios, the audience could barely contain itself and burst into applause.
That night, number after number, Vaughan transformed the popular songs of the day with her fresh, innovative approach to singing. Listeners sighed with satisfaction when she launched into “The Man I Love” and “I Cover the Waterfront,” her signature tune at the time, then cheered with excitement when she began the up-tempo “Mean to Me.” As her set progressed, the audience’s applause became more enthusiastic, louder and louder, with more whistles, hoots, and hollers. Vaughan struggled to be heard as she shouted her thanks and appreciation to the crowd between songs. In a surprising contrast to her singing voice, Vaughan’s speaking voice was high-pitched, almost squeaky, and unmistakably girlish. For a moment, glimpses of a much younger woman reappeared. But then she turned and shouted directions to the band with firmness and resolve, calling out, “One chorus,” then more emphatically, “One!” as the band began “Time After Time.” And when the pianist launched into “I Cover the Waterfront,” she instructed, “Slow, slower, slower,” insisting that the band reduce the tempo to a crawl. Vaughan commanded respect, and even though she was the only woman onstage, the band listened.
The evening came to a close when Prez and his sideman, the trumpeter Shorty McConnell, joined Vaughan onstage for the grand finale: “I Cried for You.” Vaughan called the tune and dove right into the first verse, and as Young took his extended solo, she enthusiastically clapped along and shouted her encouragement: “Come on, Lester!” then “Go on, go on, go on!” When Vaughan finally returned to sing the reprise, she let loose a flourish of seemingly impossible vocal turns and trills bolstered by brilliant harmonic changes. Her singing was a revelation. The elasticity of her voice rivaled that of the finest horn players. She was the perfect complement to Young’s relaxed, deliciously lyrical tenor playing. Both had rich, deep, and exquisitely resonant tones; both added nuanced scoops and inflections to their crisp, clean phrasing; and both colored their sustained notes with just a touch of vibrato. Vaughan sang like an instrumentalist, and like the best horn players she played her voice with ease.
The jazz press proclaimed the Town Hall concert a grand success—for Vaughan, but not for Young. According to Michael Levin, a critic for Down Beat, “A great vocalist made a great saxophonist sound sick.” In contrast to Young’s old-fashioned, almost pedestrian performance, “Miss Vaughan only drew raves, some of her astonishingly inventive ideas bringing gasps of amazement from a couple of girl vocalists sitting next to this reviewer. Her tone was impeccable, her taste immaculate, and her stage manner and dress much improved. This girl’s singing, after three years of musical if not popular prominence is still a breath of fresh air and a source of jazz inspiration to all who listen to her.”
For Levin, his fellow critics, and many musicians, especially vocalists, Vaughan ushered in a changing of the guard. While Young represented the swing era, the soundtrack of the war years, the past, Vaughan embodied everything that was new and modern. Her cutting-edge singing epitomized the very essence of bebop, the avant-garde foundation for modern jazz that would transport the genre from a popular dance music into the realm of abstract, high art. And as Vaughan helped initiate this new chapter in jazz history, she reimagined the way this music would forever be sung. Disc jockeys dubbed her “the new sound,” a testament to both the beauty of her voice and her innovations, and in the coming years she would become “the most talked about voice in America.”