With a career that lasted over fifty years, Sarah Vaughan attained a position of renown and influence that only a few other female jazz vocalists have ascended to. Although Sarah Vaughan has not achieved the degree of posthumous fame of a few of her most famous contemporaries, such as Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald, Vaughan continues to be recognized as one of the great jazz vocalists for her innovative techniques, diverse range, and far-reaching influence. This paper will present a biographical account of her life, concluded with an overreaching assessment of Vaughan’s musical legacy.
Sarah Lois Vaughan was born on March 27, 1924, in Newark, New Jersey. She was born into an average, working-class family, although both of her parents had musical talents of their own. Vaughan’s father, a carpenter by day, played the guitar and the piano, and her mother, who worked in a laundry, sang with the church choir. At the age of seven, Vaughan entered into formal music study, as she began taking piano lessons. Over the years, her musical skill gradually increased, until as a young teenager, she played the organ and was a vocal soloist for her church choir. She also attended an arts high school, although she left school early in order to enter amateur musical contests.
At the age of 18, she entered the world-famous amateur contest at the Apollo Theater at the prodding of her friends. With a powerful rendition of “Body and Soul,” Vaughan won the contest, and within six months, she was on the road, playing second piano with such jazz luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. After leaving one band to play piano and sing with a new outfit put together by fellow vocalist Billy Eckstine, Vaughan decided to try her hand at a solo career. She succeeded marvelously, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Vaughan was topping the charts with both jazz and pop hits.
Despite her popular success, Vaughan had the vocal skill to be a true innovator, and she was just that in her collaborations with Parker, Gillespie, drummer Art Blakely, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt. Together, these musicians pioneered the sound that came to be known as be-bop, and Vaughan is recognized today as the first jazz vocalist to incorporate the phrasing and nuances associated with jazz instrumentation into her vocal style.