March 27 marks the birthday of the legendary jazz vocalist, Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990), who would have been 90 this year. As one of the most celebrated jazz singers of the 20th Century, Vaughan was “the most important singer to emerge from the bop era,” according to jazz critic Leonard Feather. The influential singer whose career spanned almost a half century was known as “Sarah,” “Sassy,” “the Divine One,” “the Velvet Fox” and most appropriately “the incomparable Sarah Vaughan.”
Born in Newark, NJ, the renowned singer sang in the choir of the Mount Zion Baptist Church where she became organist at the age of 12. The popular jazz artist won the amateur talent contest at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem in 1942 when she wowed the crowd with “Body and Soul.” Following that introduction, she traveled with Earl “Fatha” Hines and his band in 1943 and 1944. When Billy Eckstine formed his band with a be-bop sound in 1944, she joined him, making her first recording with his orchestra later that year. Her solo career began in 1945 with a string of popular favorites that included “Black Coffee” (1949), “Make Yourself Comfortable” (1954), and “Broken Hearted Melody” (1959).
Pbs.org reports that over the course of her illustrious recording career, Vaughan received numerous awards, notably during the 1980s when she won” the 1983 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance – Female for “Gershwin Live!” She was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1985 and the American Jazz Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts designated her a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on a jazz artist, and she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Without question, Vaughan was one of the most influential singers of the 20th Century. Music critic, Gary Giddins, spoke of “the Divine One,” a singer's singer, in this way:
"No matter how closely we dissect the particulars of her talent...we must inevitably end up contemplating in silent awe the most phenomenal of her attributes, the one she was handed at birth, the voice that happens once in a lifetime, perhaps once in several lifetimes."
Recognizing the birthday of Sarah Vaughan on March 27 is a prelude to the celebration of National Jazz Month which takes place during April.
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