“While the voice has lost nothing, Sarah Vaughan the improvising musician has grown in stature. She always had an exceptional ear, and this enabled her to become the first (and perhaps the only) singer who could utilize the harmonic subtleties introduced to the jazz language by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—not so coincidentally among her first fans and boosters. In terms of rhythm, she was able to keep up with the innovations in jazz as well. But in her earlier days, her playfulness sometimes interfered with the sense and intention of the songs. No such dangers now—she has become a great interpreter of great songs as well as a great singer, and she has accomplished this without giving up her sense of humor, which remains as delightful and unpredictable (and girlish) as ever.”— Dan Morgenstern, Living with Jazz: A Reader, edited by Sheldon Meyer (2004)
The quote above comes from a 1981 Morgenstern review. By this time, the voice and style of Sarah Vaughan—born in Newark, NJ, 90 years ago today—had changed, partly because of her smoking (which would result in her death by lung cancer in 1990) and partly because of song interpretations that had grown more baroque with age.
If you want to experience how the voice of this divine jazz singer could change over time, just compare her treatment of two standards: Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s “Dancing in the Dark,” a 1956 song of hers from Mercury Records, and Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” a staple of her concerts in the 1980s. “Dancing in the Dark” is lighter, airier, practically ready to take wing; three decades later, with “Send in the Clowns,” her tones felt darker, heavier, lingering over phrases, stretching syllables.
One might also compare Vaughan with Joni Mitchell, another singer whose voice became altered by smoking. Mitchell’s had coarsened in a way that Vaughan’s did not, even well into her 60s. The interpretations of both women, however, became supercharged with experience. (See, for instance, what Mitchell did with “Both Sides Now” in her 1969 version from the Clouds LP, then in 2000 from her CD also named Both Sides Now.)
One aspect of Vaughan, however, as noted by Morgenstern, did not alter with time: the irrepressible sense of humor that led to her nickname, happily alliterative and light: “Sassy.”
(The image accompanying this post is an August 1946 photograph of Sarah Vaughan at Café Society in New York, from the William P. Gottlieb Collection of the Library of Congress.)