I’ve always been intrigued by the paths people take en route to their life’s work; how one passion leads to another and then another until you have found what truly inspires and motivates you. For me, my interest in vocalists and women in jazz all began with Sarah Vaughan. I guess you could say that she was my crossover moment. I come from a family with a strong German heritage and deep love for classical music, not to mention all of the highbrow baggage that comes along with that tradition. I was a classical pianist and violist, then an aspiring music historian. I never listened to jazz (or much popular music, either) until I discovered Sarah, thanks to a college roommate. We listened to her often as we chatted, played cribbage, cooked, and cleaned our apartment. She became the soundtrack for our newfound domesticity, and while I don’t remember the rules of cribbage, I do remember Vaughan’s voice. It was beautiful, gorgeous really. Her tone exquisite. Clear as a bell, full, and rich like velvet and flowing like maple syrup, yet agile and supple, almost light as air. Her pitch and time were impeccable as she tossed off one virtuosic passage after another. And she was a true contralto, able to jump, glide, and swoop between notes at the top and bottom of her four-octave range, all with a stunning precision and ease.
But she was more than an amazing voice. Like so many before me, I was captivated by her musicianship, too. How she took a song apart then put it back together again, incorporating unusual harmonies, dissonances, and embellishments, always flirting with the spontaneous and unexpected. Listening to Vaughan was invigorating. She knew how to grab my attention and take me on an exhilarating, daring ride.
So I continued to listen, adding Sarah’s jazz sisters – Ella, Billie, and Anita – to my playlist. I loved not only their voices and musicality, but also the boldness, daring, and conviction with which they sang. They were strong and independent professional women – true revolutionaries of their time, and I was fascinated.
My jazz education began here. A graduate seminar on women in jazz followed; then conference papers, a dissertation on Vaughan, and ultimately a book in progress. I love thinking about these wonderful ladies; visiting libraries and archives, tracking down the details about their lives in music; then putting all of the pieces back together again. And when I reflect on my journey with Vaughan and her voice – on what has become my life’s work – I’m reminded that a single voice truly can change your life.