This overwhelming tribute to Sarah Vaughan preceded a Vaughan concert at the Smithsonian Museum in 1980. Not surprisingly,Gunther Schuller — certainly the jazz authority most deeply rooted in classical music — places Vaughan in the entire context of twentieth-century singing.
Perhaps what is surprising is that he finds her superior to every great opera singer of this period, but he makes every effort to substantiate his claims, not merely assert them.
These remarks are drawn from Mr. Schuller's collection entitled Musings and they appear in Robert Gottlieb, editor, Readings in Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now [New York: Pantheon Books, 1996, pp. 986-991].
THE DIVINE SARAH: GUNTHER SCHULLER
“What I am about to do really can't be done at all, and that is to do justice to Sarah Vaughan in words. Her art is so remarkable, so unique that it, sui generis, is self-fulfilling and speaks best on its own musical artistic terms. It is—like the work of no other singer—self-justifying and needs neither my nor anyone else's defense or approval.
To say what I am about to say in her very presence seems to me even more preposterous, and I will certainly have to watch my superlatives, as it will be an enormous temptation to trot them all out tonight. And yet, despite these disclaimers, I nonetheless plunge ahead toward this awesome task, like a moth drawn to the flame, because I want to participate in this particular long overdue celebration of a great American singer and share with you, if my meager verbal abilities do not fail me, the admiration I have for this remarkable artist and the wonders and mysteries of her music.
No rational person will often find him or herself in a situation of being able to say that something or somebody is the best. One quickly learns in life that in a richly competitive world—particularly one as subject to subjective evaluation as the world of the arts—it is dangerous, even stupid, to say that something is without equal and, of course, having said it, one is almost always immediately challenged. Any evaluation — except perhaps in certain sciences where facts are truly incontrovertible — any evaluation is bound to be relative rather than absolute, is bound to be conditioned by taste, by social and educational backgrounds, by a host of formative and conditioning factors. And yet, although I know all that, I still am tempted to say and will now dare to say that Sarah Vaughan is quite simply the greatest vocal artist of our century.
Perhaps I should qualify that by saying the most creative vocal artist of our time. I think that will get us much closer to the heart of the matter, for Sarah Vaughan is above all that rare rarity: a jazz singer. And by that I mean to emphasize that she does not merely render a song beautifully, as it may have been composed and notated by someone else—essentially a re-creative act—but rather that Sarah Vaughan is a composing singer, a singing composer, if you will, an improvising singer, one who never—at least in the last twenty-five years or so—has sung a song the same way twice: as I said a creative singer, a jazz singer.
And by using the term jazz I don't wish to get us entrapped in some narrow definition of a certain kind of music and a term which many musicians, from Duke Ellington on down, have considered confining, and even denigrating. I use the word "jazz" as a handy and still widely used convenient descriptive label; but clearly Sarah Vaughan's singing and her mastery go way beyond the confines of jazz.
And if I emphasize the creativity, the composer aspect of her singing, it is to single out that rare ability, given, sadly, to so few singers, including, of course, all those in the field of classical music. It is my way of answering the shocked response among some of you a few moments ago when I called Sarah Vaughan the greatest singer of our time. For it is one thing to have a beautiful voice; it is another thing to be a great musician—often, alas, a truly remote thing amongst classical singers; it is still another thing, however, to be a great musician with a beautiful and technically perfect voice, who also can compose and create extemporaneously.
We say of a true jazz singer that they improvise. But let me assure you that Sarah Vaughan's improvisations are not mere embellishments or ornaments or tinkering with the tune; they are compositions in their own right or at least re-compositions of someone else's material—in the same manner and at the same level that Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker and other great jazz masters have been creative.
You can imagine that I do not say these things lightly, and that I do not make so bold as to make these claims without some prior thought and reason. For I am, as many of you know, someone who played for fifteen years in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, loved every minute of it, and during those years heard a goodly share of great singing—from Melchior to Bjorling and DiStefano, from Flagstad to Sayao to Albanese and Callas, from Pinza to Siepi and Warren. Before that, as a youngster, I thrilled to the recordings of Caruso, Rethberg, Ponselle, Muzio, Easton, and Lawrence. So I think I know a little about that side of the singing art. And yet with all my profound love for those artists and the great music they made, I have never found anyone with the kind of total command of all aspects of their craft and art that Sarah Vaughan has.
I do not wish to engage in polemical discussion here. Nor am I Sarah Vaughan's press agent. I would claim, however — along with Barbara Tuchman — that though my judgment may be subjective, the condition I describe is not. What is that condition? Quite simply a perfect instrument attached to a musician of superb musical instincts, capable of communicating profoundly human expressions and expressing them in wholly original terms.
First the voice. When we say in classical music that someone has a ‘perfect voice’ we usually mean that they have been perfectly trained and that they use their voice seemingly effortlessly, that they sing in tune, produce not merely a pure and pleasing quality, but are able to realize through the proper use of their vocal organs the essence and totality of their natural voice. All that can easily be said of Sarah Vaughan, leaving aside for the moment whether she considers herself to have a trained voice or not. As far as I know, she did study piano and organ, but not voice, at least not in the formal sense. And that may have been a good thing. We have a saying in classical music—alas, painfully true—that given the fact that there are tens of thousands of bad voice teachers, the definition of a great singer is one who managed not to be ruined by his or her training. It is better, of course, to be spared the taking of those risks.
There is something that Sarah Vaughan does with her voice which is quite rare and virtually unheard of in classical singing. She can color and change her voice at will to produce timbres and sonorities that go beyond anything known in traditional singing and traditional vocal pedagogy. (I will play, in a while, a recorded excerpt that will show these and other qualities and give you the aural experience rather than my—as I said earlier—inadequate verbal description.)
Sarah Vaughan also has an extraordinary range, not I hasten to add used as a gimmick to astound the public (as is the case with so many of those singers you are likely to hear on the Tonight Show], but totally at the service of her imagination and creativity. Sarah's voice cannot only by virtue of its range cover four types of voices—baritone, alto, mezzo soprano, and soprano, but she can color the timbre of her voice to emphasize these qualities. She has in addition a complete command of the effect we call falsetto, and indeed can on a single note turn her voice from full quality to falsetto (or, as it's also called, head tone) with a degree of control that I only heard one classical singer ever exhibit, and that was the tenor Giuseppe DiStefano—but in his case only during a few of his short-lived prime years.
Another thing almost no classical singers can do and something at which Sarah Vaughan excels is the controlled use of vibrato. The best classical singers develop a vibrato, of a certain speed and character, which is nurtured as an essential part of their voice, indeed their trademark with the public, and which they apply to all music whether it's a Mozart or Verdi opera or a Schubert song. Sarah Vaughan, on the other hand, has a complete range, a veritable arsenal of vibratos, ranging from none to a rich throbbing, almost at times excessive one, all varying as to speed and vibrato and size and intensity—at will. (Again, my recorded example will demonstrate some truly startling instances of this.)
Mind you, what Sarah Vaughan does with the controlled use of vibrato and timbre was once—a long time ago—the sine qua non of the vocal art. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries vibrato, for example, was not something automatically used, imposed, as it were, on your voice. On the contrary, it was a special effect, a kind of embellishment—an important one—which you used in varying degrees or did not use, solely for various expressive purposes and to heighten the drama of your vocal expressivity. It is an art, a technique which disappeared in the nineteenth century and is all but a lost art today, certainly amongst classical singers, who look at you in shocked amazement if you dare to suggest that they might vary their vibrato or timbre. They truly believe they have one voice, when potentially—they don't realize it—they could (should) have several or many.
Here again, I think Sarah learned her lessons not from a voice teacher, but from the great jazz musicians that preceded her. For among great jazz instrumentalists the vibrato is not something sort of slapped onto the tone to make it sing, but rather a compositional, a structural, an expressive element elevated to a very high place in the hierarchy of musical tools which they employ.
Another remarkable thing about Sarah Vaughan's voice is that it seems ageless; it is to this day perfectly preserved. That, my friends, is a sign—the only sure sign—that she uses her voice absolutely correctly, and will be able to sing for many years more—a characteristic we can find, by the way, among many popular or jazz singers who were not formally voice-trained. Think of Helen Humes, Alberta Hunter,* [ *Alberta Hunter sang remarkably well until her death in 1984], Helen Forrest, Chippie Wallace, Tony Bennett, and Joe Williams.
So much for the voice itself. Her musicianship is on a par with her voice and, as I suggested earlier, inseparable from it. That is, of course, the ideal condition for an improvising singer—indeed a prerequisite. For you cannot improvise, compose extemporaneously, if you don't have your instrument under full control; and by the same token, regardless of the beauty of your voice, you have to have creative imagination to be a great jazz or improvising singer. Sarah's creative imagination is exuberant. I have worked with Sarah Vaughan, I have accompanied her, and can vouch for the fact that she never repeats herself or sings a song the same way twice. Whether she is using what we call a paraphrase improvisation—an enhancement of the melody where the melody is still recognizable—or whether she uses the harmonic changes as the basis of the song to improvise totally new melodies or gestures, Sarah Vaughan is always totally inventive. It is a restless compulsion to create, to reshape, to search. For her a song—even a mediocre one—is merely a point of departure from which she proceeds to invent, a skeleton which she proceeds to flesh out.
There are other singers—not many—who also improvise and invent, but I dare say none with the degree of originality that Sarah commands. She will come up with the damndest musical ideas, unexpected and unpredictable leaps, twisting words and melodies into new and startling shapes, finding the unusual pitch or nuance or color to make a phrase uniquely her own. When one accompanies her one has to be solid as a rock, because she is so free in her flights of invention that she could throw you if you don't watch out. She'll shift a beat around on you, teasing and toying with a rhythm like a cat with a mouse, and if you're not secure and wary, she'll pull you right under. She is at her best and her freest when her accompaniment is firmly anchored.
Perhaps Sarah Vaughan's originality of inventiveness is her greatest attribute, certainly the most startling and unpredictable. But unlike certain kinds of unpredictability—which may be merely bizarre—Sarah's seems immediately, even on first hearing, inevitable. No matter how unusual and how far she may stretch the melody and harmony from its original base, in retrospect one senses what she has just done as having a sense of inevitability—"Of course, it had to go that way, why didn't I think of that?" I go further: in respect to her originality of musical invention I would say it is not only superior to that of any other singer, but I cannot think of any active jazz instrumentalist—today—who can match her.
If it is true, as has often been stated through the centuries, that one way of defining high art is by the characteristic of combining the expected with the unexpected, of finding the unpredictable within the predictable, then Sarah Vaughan's singing consistently embodies that ideal.
Lastly, I must speak of the quality of Sarah's expressiveness, the humanism, if you will, of her art. Sarah has a couple of nicknames, as some of you know. The earliest one was Sassy. Next, around the early 1950s, she came to be called "the Divine Sarah," and more recently simply "the Divine One." Now that's a lovely thing to say about anyone, and I would not argue about Sarah's musical divinity, except in one somewhat semantic respect. What I love so in her singing is its humanness, its realness of expression, its integrity. It is nice to call her singing divine, but it's more accurate to call it human. Under all the brilliance of technique and invention, there is a human spirit, a touching soul, and a gutsy integrity that moves us as listeners.
How does one measure an artist's success? By how much audience they attract? By how much money they make? By how many records they sell? Or by how deeply they move a sophisticated or cultured audience? Or by how enduringly their art will survive? Sarah has been called the musicians' singer—both a wonderful compliment and a delimiting stigmatization. What seems to be true for the moment is that her art, like Duke Ellington's, is too subtle, too sophisticated to make it in the big—really big—mass pop market. God knows, Sarah—or her managers—have tried to break into that field. But she never can make it or will make it, like some mediocre punk rock star might, because she's too good. She can't resist being inventive; she can't compromise her art; she must search for the new, the untried; she must take the risks.
And she will be—and is already—remembered for that for a long time. To some like me—I've been listening to her since she was the very young, new girl singer with the Billy Eckstine Band in the mid-1950s—she is already a legend. I invite you now to listen to the promised excerpt—only one example of her art—a stunning example indeed, taken from a 1973 concert in Tokyo, during which Sarah Vaughan sang and recomposed "My Funny Valentine." Listen!!
It is now my privilege to exit gracefully and to invite you to listen to the one and only Sarah Lois Vaughan!”
I choose I different for the audio track to the following video tribute to Sarah as I have always been particularly fond of her interpretation of You’ve Changed.
But while the tune may be distinct, I’m certain that after listening to Sassy on this track, you will agree that all of what Gunther says about her in his introduction still applies.