Jazz at 100 Hour 49: Jazz Singers in the 1950s – Sarah Vaughan, Helen Merrill, Dinah Washington and Abbey Lincoln (1954 – 1962)

Sarah Vaughan

Many jazz singers of the 1950s continued the tradition of recording with major instrumentalists who were given the space to improvise, feeding off the collaboration. In 1954, EmArCy records matched three of their singers, representing the wide range of their offerings – Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Helen Merrill – with jazz ensembles featuring their rising star, trumpeter Clifford Brown. Brown’s quintet partner, Max Roach anchored several outings that featured his wife, Abbey Lincoln with the all-star ensembles including trumpeter Booker Little, trombonist Julian Priester, pianist Mal Waldron, and reed heroes Coleman Hawkins and Eric Dolphy.

Sarah Vaughan.
“One of the very great jazz voices, and one who managed to combine emotion and musicality in a balance denied to other of the great divas. Vaughan studied piano as a child, then joined the Earl Hines band in 1943 as vocalist. She left with Billy Eckstine to sing in his new band and went solo in the late ’40s. Had many crossover hits during that decade but was always seen as a jazz vocalist, one of the most gifted, with a big range and variety of tone, a bopper’s way with scat – though she rarely used it – and the stage presence of a forbidding diva.“ – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

“She was a full partner in the germination of modern jazz. But no matter how closely we dissect the particulars of her talent, marveling at her range and energy and intelligence, transcribing and analyzing her performances, tracing her development over time, we must inevitably end up contemplating in silent awe the most phenomenal of her attributes, the one she was handed at birth: a voice that happens once in a lifetime, perhaps once in several lifetimes.” – Gary Giddins

“On Sarah Vaughan’s eponymous LP with Clifford Brown in 1954, one of [arranger Ernie] Wilkin’s loveliest ideas was to have Vaughan harmonize wordlessly with some of the opening leads [such as ‘Lullaby of Birdland’]; the timbral blend of voice with Herbie Mann’s flute creates an eerie effect of voice and instrument in cosmic agreement that’s seldom been duplicated in jazz.” – Ben Ratliff

Lullaby Of Birdland. Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown Sextet
(Clifford Brown-tp, Herbie Mann-fl, Paul Quinchette-ts, Jimmy Jones-p, Joe Benjamin-b, Roy Haynes-d, Sarah Vaughan-voc). From Sarah Vaughan. 12/16/1954. (The Jazz Singers)

“The lyrics [of ‘Prelude to a Kiss’] do not say much, but never mind. Sarah… creates musical meaning by soloing tenderly within the lush, romantic melody. Note the subtle play of lights and colors added by the piano, drums, and bass, and the relaxed ease with which Sarah makes her way through the highs and lows of this challenging song.” Robert O’Meally from the notes to The Jazz Singers

Prelude To A Kiss. Sarah Vaughan Quartet
(John Malachi-p, Joe Benjamin-b, Roy Haynes-d, Sarah Vaughan-voc). From Swingin’ Easy. 4/2/1954. (The Jazz Singers)

Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home? Sarah Vaughan Trio
(Barney Kessel-g, Joe Comfort-b, Sarah Vaughan-voc). From Sarah + 2. 8/7/1962. (The Norton Recordings)
“At a time when she usually recorded with studio orchestras, [‘Sarah + 2’] was one of two albums Vaughan made with just guitar … and bass… The spare elegant accompaniment gives the singer no place to hide; her every note adds prominently to the harmonic and rhythmic contours of the performance… Each chorus is treated with a different rhythmic approach: cool medium tempo, followed by a funky backbeat treatment, followed by double time swing… Although she is singing an old pop song in a way that would have been accessible to everyone, she leaves no the slightest doubt that she is a true jazz vocalist.” – Gary Giddins & Scott DeVeaux

Helen Merrill.
A week after the set with Sarah Vaughan in December 1954, Clifford Brown was back in the studio for a date with singer Helen Merrill. This time the band was assembled by Quincy Jones and strongly carries the sound of bassist Oscar Pettiford.

“She sings at a consistently slow pace, unfolding melodies as if imparting a particularly difficult confidence, and she understands the harmonies of the songs as completely as she trusts her way with time. Consider what she does here on ‘Falling In Love With Love’. The song comes out on the side of an agenda quite different from the usual, while ‘Don’t Explain’ has an edge that falls between sardonic and weary. It is her unfailing sense of time, though, that gives these lingering performances a sensuality which is less of a come-hither come-on than the similarly inclined work of a singer such as Julie London. Merrill thinks about the words, but she improvises on the music too. Her treatment of ‘Don’t Explain’ is cooler yet no less troubling than Billie Holiday’s exaggerated pathos… Brown’s accompaniments on seven tracks make an absorbing contrast to his work with Sarah Vaughan…” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Falling In Love With Love. Helen Merrill with Quincy Jones’ Orchestra
(Clifford Brown-tp, Danny Bank-fl/bs, Jimmy Jones-p, Barry Galbraith-g, Oscar Pettiford-cel, Bobby Donaldson-d, Helen Merrill-voc). From Helen Merrill. 12/24/1954

Don’t Explain. Helen Merrill with Quincy Jones’ Orchestra
(Clifford Brown-tp, Danny Bank-fl/bs, Jimmy Jones-p, Barry Galbraith-g, Oscar Pettiford-cel, Bobby Donaldson-d, Helen Merrill-voc). From Helen Merrill. 12/22/1954

Dinah Washington.
“Whether or not she counts as a ‘jazz singer’, Washington frequently appeared in the company of the finest jazz musicians and, while she was no improviser and stood slightly apart from such contemporaries as Fitzgerald or Vaughan, she could drill through blues and ballads with a huge, sometimes slightly terrifying delivery. Washington’s major ‘jazz’ record is fine, but not as fine as the closely contemporary Sarah Vaughan record with a similar backing group, and therein lies a tale about Washington’s abilities. She claimed she could sing anything – which was probably true – but her big, bluesy voice is no more comfortable in this stratum of Tin Pan Alley than was Joe Turner’s. Still, the long and luxuriant jams on ‘You Go To My Head’ and ‘Lover Come Back To Me’ are rather wonderful in their way, and there is always Clifford Brown to listen to.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

You Go To My Head. Dinah Washington with Clifford Brown – Max Roach Tentet
(Clifford Brown-tp, Maynard Ferguson-tp, Clark Terry-tp, Herb Geller-as, Harold Land-ts, Junior Mance-p, Keter Betts-b, Max Roach-d, Dinah Washington-voc). From Dinah Jams. 8/14/1954

Abbey Lincoln.
“Lincoln’s own emancipation proclamation turned her from a conventional club singer into one of the most dramatic and distinctive voices of the day, whose work touches on matters of gender and female self-determination as much as it does on matters of ethnicity and colour. As she concedes, she owes her creative emancipation to one-time husband Max Roach, with whom she worked on We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, but she had recorded under her own name before that… Never a conventional standards singer, Lincoln indicated her individuality and occasionally her disaffection in subtle ironies, subliminal variations and occasional hot blasts of fury. She was both respectful of her material and inclined to manipulate it without mercy or apology. ‘Afro Blue’, [from Abbey is Blue] with the Max Roach Sextet, is one of her strongest performances at any period– Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Afro Blue. Abbey Lincoln Septet
(Tommy Turrentine-tp, Julian Priester-tb, Stanley Turrentine-ts, Cedar Walton-p, Bob Boswell-b, Max Roach-d, Abbey Lincoln-voc). From Abbey is Blue. 1959

“Some works of art are inseparable from the social and cultural conditions which spawned them, and We Insist! is certainly one of these, a record that seems rooted in its moment. Within a few short years, the civil rights movement in the USA was to acquire a more obdurate countenance. On the threshold of the Kennedy years, though, this was as ferocious as it got. The opening ‘Driva’ Man’ (one of Oscar Brown Jr’s finest moments as a lyricist) is wry and sarcastic, enunciated over Roach’s deliberately mechanical work rhythms and Coleman Hawkins’s blearily proud solo, just the kind of thing you might expect from a working stiff at the end of the longest shift in history.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Driva’man. Max Roach Sextet
(Booker Little-tp, Julian Priester-tb, Walter Benton-ts, Coleman Hawkins-ts, James Schenck-b, Max Roach-d, Abbey Lincoln-voc). From We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite. 8/31/1960

Blue Monk. Abbey Lincoln
(Booker Little-tp, Julian Priester-tb, Eric Dolphy-as/bcl/fl/picc, Walter Benton-ts, Coleman Hawkins-ts, Mal Waldron-p, Art Davis-b, Max Roach-d, Roger Sanders-cga, Robert White-cga, Abbey Lincoln-voc). From Straight Ahead. 2/22/1961
“In recording We Insist!… with Roach in 1960, Lincoln made her first step towards establishing herself as a jazz singer who had something substantial to offer… Nearly the same crew as on We Insist’ was assembled by … producer Nat Hentoff, with arrangements by Booker Little and Mal Waldron; Coleman Hawkins, the great elder of jazz, came in with ebb-tide, bluer-than-blue solos on several tracks [such as ‘Blue Monk’]. Lincoln’s new mood was honesty.” – Ben Ratliff

Arising out of bebop vocals, a number of singers in the 1950s began to replicate famous instrumental solos with the human voice. The practice, initiated by Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Annie Ross was known as vocalese and reached its peak in the extraordinary recordings of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Vocalese – in the next hour of Jazz at 100.

The Norton Jazz Recordings – 4 Compact Discs for use with JAZZ by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins. W.W. Norton 933796.
The Jazz Singers – A Smithsonian Collection. Sony Music RD 113.
Sarah Vaughan. Sarah Vaughan. EmArcy MG 36004
Sarah Vaughan. Swingin’ Easy. EmArcy MG 36109
Sarah Vaughan. Sarah + 2. Roulette SR 52118
Helen Merrill. Helen Merrill. EmArcy MG 36006
Dinah Washington. Dinah Jams. EmArcy MG 36000
Abbey Lincoln. Abbey is Blue. Riverside RLP 12-308
Abbey Lincoln. Straight Ahead. Candid CJM 8015
Max Roach. We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. Candid CJM 8002

Friedwald, Will. 1990. Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond. New York, NY. Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Giddins, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 16. Fusion 1: R&B, Singers and Latin Jazz
Giddins, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 32. Sarah Vaughan (Devine)
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books
Sarah Vaughan. Sarah Vaughan
Helen Merrill. Helen Merrill
Dinah Washington. Dinah Jams
Abbey Lincoln. Abbey is Blue
Max Roach. We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 33. Sarah Vaughan: Sarah Vaughan (1954)
Chapter 60. Abbey Lincoln: Straight Ahead (1961)

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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