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Sarah Vaughan

Bop's greatest diva, Sarah Vaughan was among jazz and popular music's supreme vocalists. She treated her voice as an instrument, improvising melodic and rhythmic embellishments, using her contralto range to make leaps and jumps, changing a song's mood or direction by enunication and delivery, and altering her timbre. She turned sappy novelty tunes and light pop into definitive, jazz-based treatments. She had a distinctive swinging quality and intensity in her style, and was also a great scat singer. Vaughan was a dominant performer from the late '40s until the '80s, when illness forced her to cut back her appearances. Vaughan's recorded legacy stands with anyone in modern jazz history. She sang in the Mt. Zion Baptist Church choir as a child and became its organist at 12. Vaughan won the famous Amateur Night At The Apollo talent contest in 1942, and by April of the next year had joined Earl Hines' band as a second pianist and vocalist. When Billy Eckstine left Hines and formed his own band in 1944, Vaughan soon joined and made her recording debut with his orchestra at the end of December. She went solo a year later, and remained that way the rest of her career, except for a brief stint with John Kirby in 1945 and 1946. She became a star by performing pop ballads and show tunes, though she made numerous jazz anthems. Eckstine was a frequent duet partner, and the two collaborated on a fine Irving Berlin repertory record in the mid-'50s. Vaughan showed her jazz capabilities early in her solo career, recording a remarkable version of "Lover Man" with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in 1945. But from 1949 to 1954, when she was with Columbia, she made hit albums with studio orchestras and cut only one jazz date with Miles Davis and Budd Johnson. When Vaughan switched labels to Mercury in 1954 she won the right to make light pop and straight jazz recordings. She did jazz material for EmArcy, recording with Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley and Count Basie's sidemen, while cutting pop tracks for Mercury. These included the 1958 smash "Broken-hearted Melody." Vaughan maintained similiar relationships with Roulette, Mercury and Columbia from 1960 to 1967. After a five year break, she returned to recording in 1971, this time with Norman Granz's Pablo label. Granz made many sessions with Vaughan through the '70s, some excellent, others not so good. She made a Duke Ellington Songbook, worked with Count Basie and Oscar Peterson and even did an album of Afro-Latin and Brazilian material. There was a marvelous two-record live set recorded in Japan. Her health worsened in the '80s, but she recorded an album of Gershwin songs with The Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982 and an interesting concept/vocal album The Planet is Alive..Let It Live! in 1985 on Gene Lees Jazzletter label. This was an album of poems by Pope John Paul II adapted by Lees with music by Tito Fontana and Sante Palumbo. It featured Vaughan's vocals backed by an orchestra that included such jazz veterans as Art Farmer, Benny Bailey and Sahib Shihab. When Vaughan died in 1990, there were tributes and worldwide outpourings of grief. Her albums are being steadily reissued, from the formative '40s dates to the '70s sets. Mercury has issued the mammoth Complete Sarah Vaughan On Mercury collection, which breaks down her career at the label into eras with multi-disc packages for each period. The songbooks have been reissued, and Columbia has a two-disc package of material from the late '40s and early '50s. Single album reissues are also available from the '50s,'60s, and '70s.
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