In my last post, I wrote about how Sarah Vaughan was an intensely private woman leading a public life, and how she kept her fans, members of the press, and even, sometimes, her own family at a distance.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about why that was and how it influences my work as her biographer. Part of my job is to tease out the details of her life, provide a glimpse into the woman behind the scenes, the private Vaughan. But what does a biographer do when her subject doesn’t cooperate? How much do I extrapolate from the information I do have? In other words, how do I read an absence? And how do I respect my subject and her desire for privacy while satisfying the desires of readers in search of an intimate portrait of a performer they admire?
I think Vaughan feared being misunderstood and hurt. She’d always been shy and reserved with the press, but after being burned one too many times she withdrew even more. As her career evolved, she evaded questions about her personal life, especially her romances. Perhaps, like many professional women, she resented the focus on her love life rather than her art. But she also shied away from discussing her creative process. Perhaps that, too, was too personal and intimate, and she felt vulnerable sharing the inner workings of her mind. Or perhaps, like many artists, she didn’t believe that listeners needed to know these details. They were simply not relevant for their enjoyment of her music. The music could, and should, stand on its own.
In the relatively few in-depth interviews that she did give, Vaughan focused on the nuts and bolts of her career: she grew up in Newark, was discovered after winning the Apollo Theater’s amateur night competition, worked with the beboppers in the bands of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, and then ventured out on her own as a solo act. Known to complain that interviewers always asked the same questions, she ticked off these accomplishments as if she were reciting a shopping list by rote, her boredom and impatience palpable. And she often repeated the same anecdotes over and over, crafting a consistent narrative that glossed over the surface of her career. Her interviews hit the high points and avoided the low points, all while alluding to, yet never quite revealing, her rich emotional and intellectual life within. In short, she remained impenetrable, her protective veneer intact.
Yet these interviews do reveal a larger aesthetic, a set of beliefs that shaped both her music and life: “I hate being labeled.” Throughout her career she reiterated this core ideology again and again. “I don’t think in terms of jazz this, or jazz that. Music has too many labels,” she explained. “I call it all just music.” Although she was proud of her jazz roots, Vaughan didn’t want to be known exclusively as a jazz singer, or a blues, gospel, pop, or even an opera singer, either. (She had the versatility and talent to fit into any of these niches.) Nor did she want to be known as an exceptional black singer. Rather, she wanted to be considered an extraordinary singer. That’s it.
For me, Vaughan’s aversion to labels and being labeled guided her musical life, but it also sheds light on the private, more personal Vaughan, too. Yes, her tight-lipped approach with the press is consistent with a shy, introverted, and overly self-conscious woman who feared being misunderstood. But they are also the actions of a woman who did not want her life to become a spectacle. She had seen her friend and colleague Charlie Parker become a social outcast as he sank further into the drug addiction that killed him. And she had witnessed Billie Holiday’s humiliation as she endured the public’s censure of her unconventional lifestyle: her tumultuous relationships with men, her imprisonment for drug use, and the heroin addiction that lead to her untimely death. Parker and Holiday became tragic figures in the public’s imagination. Both were reduced to a stereotype, something less than completely human, and it is likely that Vaughan didn’t want this to happen to her.
By insisting upon her privacy, she protected herself, at least to a certain degree, from public scrutiny. She gave herself the space she needed to live the life she wanted. In much the same way that she disliked musical labels and categories, she didn’t want to be pigeonholed or contained as a person. She didn’t want to become a stereotype, limited because she was an African American or a woman. She wanted the freedom to be herself.