Sarah Vaughan Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan is an NEA Jazz Master

In the 1940s, when most women singers adorned big bands as stage attractions rather than legitimate members of jazz ensembles, Sarah Vaughan, along with her predecessor Ella Fitzgerald, helped elevate the vocalist's role as equal to that of the jazz instrumentalist. A woman known for her many vicissitudes, Vaughan's outspoken personality and artistic eloquence brought her the names “Sassy” and “The Divine One.” A talented pianist, she joined the ranks of the 1940s bebop movement and became, as a member of the Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine bands, one of its most celebrated vocalists. Her dynamic vocal range, sophisticated harmonic sense, and horn-like phrasing brought Vaughan million-selling numbers and a stage and recording career that spanned half a decade.

Sarah Lois Vaughan was born the daughter of Asbury and Ada Vaughan on March 27, 1924, in Newark, New Jersey. As a youth Vaughan took piano lessons and attended the Mount Zion Baptist Church, where she served as a church keyboardist. At home Vaughan played the family's upright piano and listened to the recordings of jazz artists Count Basie and Erskine Hawkins. After discovering Newark's numerous theaters and movie houses, she skipped school and left home at night to watch dances and stage shows. By age 15, she performed at local clubs, playing piano and singing.

Not long after, Vaughan took the train across the river to Harlem to frequent the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theatre. One evening, in 1943, she sat in at the Apollo amateur show, a fiercely competitive contest that often exposed lesser talents to the harsh criticism of the theater's audience. Vaughan's moving performance of “Body and Soul” not only brought a fever of applause from the crowd, it also caught the attention of singer Billy Eckstine. Eckstine informed his bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines about the young singer. Hines then allowed Vaughan to attend the band's uptown band rehearsal. At the rehearsal, Vaughan's singing won immediate praise from Hines and his musicians. One of the premiere modern big bands of the era, Hines's ensemble included such talents as trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro, saxophonist Charlie Parker, and trombonist J. J. Johnson. As the only female bandmember, Vaughan shared the vocal spotlight with Eckstine and played piano, often in duet settings with Hines. Vaughan debuted at the Apollo with Hines's band on April 23, 1943.

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