The divine Sarah Vaughan could have offered even more

It was almost as though she had emerged from the womb fully formed. In her 20s she was already feted, adored and even worshipped. Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were freakish enough, needing only a couple of years to rise from showing promise to embodying supreme artistry. Sarah Vaughan skipped the “shows promise” phase. At 18 she dashed straight from winning a talent quest to joining the day’s leading big bands, and on to striking out on her own.

Pianist John Malachi christened her Sassy, and soon enough she would become the Divine One: the first jazz artist to bring an almost celestial quality to bear, as arguably the most beautiful sound in the music’s history poured from her mouth.

Being born with a once-in-a-century voice was one thing; having the musical instincts to use its three-octave range to make vocal jazz like no one had heard before was another, and she did it with ease. She was singing jazz with a finesse and tonal purity worthy of an opera singer, yet she’d had no classical training. Suddenly an operatic soprano was intertwined with an earthy contralto in the same song, and often in the same line. Meanwhile she juxtaposed a little-girl innocence of expression with a knowingness that was implicit in the sophisticated musicality.

Sassy improvised with the fluency of not just one great saxophonist, but rather a tenor, alto and soprano combined. As a 19-year-old she found herself in band with bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and swiftly established that she could meet them on their high-stakes patch of improvising over complex chord changes. In 1954 she teamed up with one of the key trumpeters of that decade: Clifford Brown. Together they made an album just called Sarah Vaughan, the title suggesting this was a batch of performances in which she truly believed.

Photos: Eric Koch.

During the preceding years misguided Columbia executives had tried to turn her into a hit-making cash cow. In ’54, when she signed to Mercury, they split her recording career: pop with the main label and jazz with the EmArcy subsidiary. Brown assembled a somewhat eccentric sextet to cushion her voice and create little curlicues of soloing every now and then. Paul Quinichette (tenor), Jimmy Jones (piano), Joe Benjamin (bass) and especially the great Roy Haynes (drums) were all entirely reasonable choices, but Herbie Mann (flute) sounded like he’d strolled into the wrong recording studio much of the time (notably You’re Not the Kind).

Kurt Weill’s September Song is worth the price of admission all by itself. Vaughan’s contralto range is sumptuous, and while her stately glides from those depths to the blue skies of her head voice can be dramatic, they’re never overwrought. She stops your breath with the bees-wing diaphanousness of her softest notes, on Lullaby of Birdland she generates a warmth of tone worthy of saxophonist Ben Webster, and when she scats her invention outshines even Brown.

For all her versatility, the ballad was Sassy’s most natural habitat, affording her the time and space to toy with the interplay between word-meaning and note-length; to intuitively vary attack, decay, timbre and dynamics, so that the sketch of a song became opulently coloured. Here the ballads include I’m Glad There Is You, April in Paris and Jim: renditions that are much more satisfying than many of the over-orchestrated offerings of her later career. Embraceable You has her at her most sensuous, the little girl persona entirely eliminated in the expression physical desire, which emerges as a low, warm, husky yearning, with sudden ecstatic updrafts to improbably high notes.

As freely as she sang, her melodic inventions never mangled the meaning. Yet ultimately, given the control she exerted over her exquisite art, right through to her late-period renderings of Send in the Clowns, many more great albums should have materialised, had she not been shoehorned into square holes by squarer record company executives itching to milk her pop potential. Illness whisked her away from us when she was just 66.

Sarah Vaughan streams via Apple Music and Spotify.