Leave it to Whitney Balliett to clarify a longstanding issue for me:
In 1980, the composer, conductor, and critic Gunther Schuller introduced [Sarah] Vaughan at a recital she gave at the Smithsonian, and he said that she was “the greatest vocal artist of our century,” a hosanna that he immediately complicated by adding that she was “the most creative vocal artist of our time.” This was true. She was a wonderful embellisher and improviser, who never sang a song the same way twice. She remade her materials—generally, the songs of Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Kern, Porter, and Arlen—in her own image. The cost to the songs was sometimes high. She altered melodic lines and harmonies, mislaid lyrics, and used so much melisma that the words became unintelligible. At her most unfettered, she became a horn singer. Yet her melodic lines were of such complexity and daring that no horn player could have played them. Ultimately, she became a kind of abstract singer, whose materials were inadequate for what she did but were all she had. She could, of course, also sing a song relatively straight. But the richness of her voice was always there, and, no matter how few melodic and harmonic alterations she made, this richness tended to overshadow the song, to lean over it, like a voluptuous woman reading a book.
For my first five years in jazz, my tastes veered to the purely instrumental. Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra, Cassandra Wilson, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Diana Krall—no matter whose voice I tried to listen to, I found that I liked the human sound better when in a horn, a piano, a clattering drum kit. I didn’t like singing in my jazz, thank you.
Saran Vaughan changed that for me. More specifically, it was Sarah Vaughan, her classic 1954 collaboration with Clifford Brown (trumpet) and Paul Quinichette (tenor sax). That album swung more thoroughly and gracefully than any I had heard before then. Vaughan’s voice swooped from high to low, unexpectedly, without fudging a note, without slipping out of control.
At the same time, though I liked Sarah Vaughan, I sometimes felt guilty for liking it in spite of, well, Vaughan. The musicianship underneath her was so smooth and fluid that her voice, constantly stepping on their notes, constantly overpowering in its presence, began to grate. It still does. Her range is so impressive—why does she have to remind us of it whenever possible, even if it doesn’t fit the song? (I feel the same way about Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston, and Jennifer Hudson. I want them all to have a bit less natural gift, and a bit more honed talent.) I bought Live at Mr. Kelly’s a year later, and found it unlistenable—because of her showstopping tendencies—that I sold it a year after that.
Still, in every song on Sarah Vaughan, Vaughan creates a flourish or a precise, precious moment that charms me, in spite of my better judgment. She taught me what the jazz vocal can do, that it can be equal to any other instrument in the mix, even when it isn’t saying anything in particular. I’m grateful to Ms. Vaughan for teaching me that, though I’m also grateful to Mr. Balliett for teaching me that it was okay to actually, you know, like Peggy Lee’s singing better.