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July 26, 2017

Book Notes - Elaine M. Hayes "Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan"

Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Elaine M. Hayes' book Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan is a well-researched biography that vividly explores the singer's life and musical legacy.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Hayes' interviews with musicians, meticulous jazz history, incisive coverage of the ridiculous publicity campaigns the performer endured, and frank coverage of Vaughan's emotionally and financially disastrous marriages and her repeated rising from the ashes cohere in a deeply illuminating and unforgettable biography of a true American master."

In her own words, here is Elaine M. Hayes' Book Notes music playlist for her book Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan:

I'm a music historian, and, by definition, music is the driving force behind everything I do. It's both a source of inspiration and the foundation for the stories that I tell and how I tell them. So, here's a list of six songs that shaped my work on Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan. It's not a best-of list, an essential listening guide, or even a list of Sarah's songs that I love best (that list is ever changing and would be much longer). Rather, it is a list of songs that sparked my imagination and fueled my decades-long journey toward Sarah Vaughan. These are songs that helped me fall in love with her voice, and then the woman behind the voice. I hope you enjoy.

"How High the Moon" from Sarah Vaughan At Mr. Kelly's (Mercury, 1958)
At Mr. Kelly's was the first Sarah Vaughan album that I heard, and it blew me away. Her voice was magnificent, her musicianship superb, and her command of the room impressive. When faced with the clinking of glasses, a knocked over speaker, and forgotten lyrics, she kept on singing. Nowhere was this more clear than on "How High the Moon." Seconds after she began singing, she announced "I don't know the words to this song but I'm going to sing it anyway." Then she scatted her way through a brilliant tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. I later learned that this was how she always sang "How High the Moon" in the late 1950s. But in that moment, I thought, "Wow, that's cool."

"My Favorite Things" from After Hours (Roulette, 1961)
When I was a kid, The Sound of Music was one of my favorite movies, and I loved the enthusiasm, joy, and sheer exuberance that Julie Andrews brought to the music. So when I heard Sarah sing "My Favorite Things," I was struck by the contrasts. Sarah sang slowly. She was backed by the pared-down duo of Mundell Lowe on guitar and George Duvivier on bass, and there was no place for her to hide. Her voice was exposed, almost vulnerable, as she transformed the show tune into a soulful, very intimate lullaby. A month before recording the song, Sarah adopted her daughter and became a mother. And while I have absolutely no evidence to support this, I've often imagined Sarah singing "My Favorite Things" to her baby girl.

"Don't Blame Me" from One Night Stand: The Town Hall Concert (Blue Note, 1997)
I love this song, and everything else from One Night Stand: The Town Hall Concert, recorded in November 1947, five years after Sarah's break through appearance at the Apollo Theater but just before she emerged onto the national stage. We don't have that many live recordings from early in Sarah's career, so this album provides fascinating insights into this musical moment. We can hear how Sarah stretched out and explored in her live performances, more so than in her studio recordings; how she interacted with her band; and most importantly, how the audience responded to her. They clapped, whistled, and shouted out their approval. They were captivated by her voice. Today, seventy years later, it's easy to forget how new, exciting, and truly innovative Sarah Vaughan's singing was when she started out. This album reminded me and became the inspiration for the opening scene in Queen of Bebop.

"Please Mr. Brown" (Mercury, 1957)
This is not a pop masterpiece. (For that, I recommend her still hip and very seductive "Whatever Lola Wants" from 1955.) Her record label, Mercury, didn't even release this take of "Please Mr. Brown." It's an outtake, probably her first read through, and Sarah really hams it up. She portrays an embattled dance instructor whose students (and wannabe suitors) think that "as long as music is playing, anything goes." She adopts a campy accent, giggles, bursts into a hearty laugh, ad libs new dialogue, and finally concedes, "We should re-record this." It's laugh-out-loud funny and a wonderful example of Sarah's humor, wit, and the ease with which she could wing it, even while sight reading.

"I'm Glad There Is You" from Sarah Vaughan (EmArcy, 1954)
While songs like "Please Mr. Brown" show us the light-hearted, fun or "Sassy" side of Sarah Vaughan, the now-classic album Sarah Vaughan, epitomizes her more serious, jazz side. She uses her voice as an instrument, often humming and scatting along, and she completely immerses herself in the sonic landscape of each tune. She seems at one with her band, made up of her regular trio of Jimmy Jones on piano, Joe Benjamin on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums, plus Clifford Brown on trumpet, Herbie Mann on flute, and Paul Quinichette on saxophone. Each time I listen to Sarah Vaughan, I have a new favorite track. Right now it's "I'm Glad There Is You." Her voice sounds phenomenal. The interplay between her and the musicians is so subtle, her harmonic choices are exquisite, and there is a wonderful intimacy between her and the musicians and, I feel, also between her and the listener. Then in the final tag, the entire ensemble comes together and seamlessly blends on the final chord. So great!

"Send in the Clowns" from Sarah Vaughan: In the City of Lights, live in Paris 1985 (Justin Time, 1999)
No Sarah Vaughan playlist would be complete without "Send in the Clowns" from Stephen Sondheim's 1973 musical A Little Night Music. But I have to confess, it took me awhile to embrace this tune. I'd played it on the piano as a kid. Meh. And what's the deal with all of those clowns? Then I started to listen more closely, and I started to understand how this tune fit into the trajectory of Sarah's career. She first recorded it in 1973 for Mainstream and simply hated the disco-infused arrangement. The experience was yet another example of her conflicts with record executives and her ongoing battle for artistic agency. But she thought "Send in the Clowns" had potential and began incorporating it into her live acts. Here she sang "Send in the Clowns" her own way. She transformed the three-minute show tune into a seven-minute operatic tour de force that illustrated everything she could with her voice. It became her jazz aria. Not all critics approved of her virtuosic, sometimes over-the-top interpretation, but audiences loved it, and it soon became her most requested song, the reason they came to her shows. For me, "Send in the Clowns" symbolized Sarah's strength, resilience, and empowerment, her determination to sing how she wanted, regardless of what anybody said.

Elaine M. Hayes and Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan links:

the author's website

New York Journal of Books review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

KUOW interview with the author
WBUR interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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