Happy Birthday Sassy!

Today Sarah Vaughan, who was born on March 27, 1924, would have been 90 years old. Of course, Sarah didn’t make it to 90 and passed away far too soon, almost 24 years ago at the age of 66. But it feels as if this vibrant artist is still very much alive and well. That her voice, legacy, and, in many respects, her soul live on.

I hear the Divine One’s voice all of the timein the obvious spots, like on the radio, but also in the grocery store as I shop, wafting out of a restaurants as I stroll by, and in the occasional snippet on television. I hear her influence in today’s singersestablished stars like Dianne Reeves and Diana Krall and newcomers like Cécile McLorin Salvant and recent Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition winner, Jazzmeia Horn. And thanks to youtube, I can see Vaughan whenever I want.

Recently, while browsing through the wealth of Vaughan videos on youtube, I ran across this gem:

This number was a regular part of her act, usually the finale, during the early 1980s. (Similar videos can be found here, here, and here.) Today, more than thirty years later, this bit is still funny. It reminds us that Vaughan had wonderful comic timing, a feel for the dramatic, and a rapport with her audience. Her choice of classical pieces was savvy: Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Debussy. They are recognizable snippets, especially for those in the know. The material resonates and becomes, in effect, an insider’s joke, a wink and a nod with her fans. And, yes, this video also reminds us that Vaughan could play the piano, quite well, in fact.

Sarah Vaughan was a masterful performer, so much so, that it is hard to believe that this wasn’t always the case. I’ve been sifting through concert reviews from the late 1940s, and time and again, I find critics describing Vaughan’s stage presence as awkward, stiff, and stilted. She seemed uncomfortable, and critics lamented what they perceived as her over reliance on a coy, little-girl stage persona. Instead, they believed that she should rely more upon her solid musicianship. That would be enough. They predicted that if Vaughan could craft a stage demeanor that matched the ease, confidence, and sheer beauty of her voice, her career would really take off.

Stage personas evolve and mature, and this video shows us what Sarah Vaughan’s became. There are still hints of the flirt, but this number is solidly grounded in Vaughan’s impressive musicianship. After all, she had just spent an entire set wowing fans with her voice. Now in the finale, it’s as if she’s saying: “Oh yeah, I could have been a pianist, if I had wanted to. But I chose to sing.”