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She was born Sarah Lois Vaughan in Newark, New Jersey, on March 27, 1924. Sarah made music from a very early age, first singing in her church choir, then studying piano, then playing organ in church, then singing around town with Jabbo Smith, a great trumpeter and singer. At eighteen, she won the weekly amateur contest at Harlem’s fabled Apollo, an event that was attended by her future mentor and partner, Billy Eckstine, who was then the star vocalist with piano master Earl "Fatha" Hines. Eckstine recommended her to his boss, and Hines not only hired her as female singer for his big band, he also made her his second pianist. When Eckstine put together his own legendary big band in the mid-Forties, which featured Dizzy Gillespie as musical director and Charlie Parker in the saxophone section, Vaughan came along.
Thus she was in an ideal place musically at the point when she graduated from the big bands to being a star singer in her own right: She was already immersed in all manner of jazz techniques, but now she was in on the ground floor of the modern jazz movement. Indeed, Vaughan sang on the very first recording of the bebop milestone "A Night in Tunisia," as part of a Gillespie–Parker group.
Meanwhile, her new manager and first husband, George Treadwell, was pushing her in other directions. Treadwell liked to boast that he remade Vaughan’s entire image, glamorized her and made her marketable to major record labels, radio, and later television. She achieved her amazing capacity for jazz on her own, but now the door was open for her to enjoy similar success in the pop market.
Vaughan’s first long-term record contract as a solo act was with the independent Musicraft label. From there, she moved up the ladder to such majors as Columbia and then, for the longest (and some would say most rewarding) part of her career, Mercury Records. For most of her career, the same duality persisted: From time to time she would make purely jazz projects, like the 1954 LP that co-starred her with Clifford Brown, the brightest trumpet star of his generation. But most of the time she was recording pop music, which, simply because she was Sarah Vaughan, had a distinct jazz tinge. She recorded albums of show tunes and a double-length Gershwin songbook. She covered the latest pop hits and even wound up having hits of her own on the singles charts. Thankfully, the two halves of her career never canceled each other out, and she enjoyed two distinct identities.
As Vaughan grew older, her voice deepened, and she became ever more steeped in her own mannerisms — to the annoyance of some pundits but the delight of most of her fans. In the Seventies and Eighties she explored new ways to grow as an artist that accommodated both sides of her nature. The Divine side found new outlets in a series of performances with full-blown symphony orchestras and even a project involving the poetry of Pope John Paul II. The Sassy side was indulged by new meetings with great jazz musicians and by new musical challenges such as Brazilian music.
The most amazing thing about Vaughan’s almost fifty-year career, which ended with her death from cancer in 1990, was that she was all these things at once: jazz and pop, divine and sassy. There was no limit to the things she could do or the ways she found to do them. After ten years, no one has taken her place in American music, and no one ever will.
Excerpted from Ken Burns’ Jazz: The Definitive Sarah Vaughan