Sarah Vaughan’s voice became one of the objects of my jazz obsession in college, where I was spending far more time than was probably good for me singing jazz in an a capella group called Redhot & Blue. (The arrangements were great. Don’t judge.) With the high musical standards of this group (no, really!), I learned how to scat, bend a phrase, sit on the back side of a beat and speak my heart on pitch — you know, SING. On occasion, I would lose my words in the middle of “Night in Tunisia” or some other song (English has always been the most difficult language for me to memorize!), so I would be faced with the choice of stumbling or trying to scat my way out of it. This rendition of “Thanks for the Memory” bears witness to the fact that even the greatest of the great can get blocked on the words. (Ironic, given the title of the song.) She restarts the song a few times, and then lets loose at the end in a brilliant and rare Sarah scat, where she mimics Ella and laughs at herself. I think any musician who has to grapple with memorization can sympathize with her struggle and admire her genius.
Repost from July 16, 2015
I sang very briefly with a jazz quartet in college, and while I love jazz and enjoy the challenge of improvisation, I’ve always been terrified of scat. When our group decided to jam on “All of Me,” I relied my opera singer skill of memorization to recall the amazing rendition by Sarah Vaughan. I’m embarrassed to say that this was the best jam we ever had, not because I was suddenly brilliant at improv, but because I had memorized and regurgitated Sarah Vaughan’s verbatim! Nonetheless, it’s still one of my all-time favorite songs—and boy can that woman scat!
Happy New Year Everyone. Just a few days ago I was visiting Gabriela Lena Frank at her farm in Booneville, California. Gabriela was the featured composer of a recent Nyfos Next concert at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, and we’ve become friendly over the past year. She has ambitious plans for her farm that include the creation of an Academy for composers. The Academy will have a unique profile and mission, and I think if anyone can pull it off, it will be her. Gabriela identifies as Latina, but her ethnicity includes Chinese, Peruvian, and Jewish Latvian. She told me how she is one of the very, very few female composers of color that have reached a respectable level of success. She has a nice backlog of commissions which will keep her busy for years, in a profession still dominated by white men, but as a de facto leader of the diversity movement, she is acutely aware of the status quo. Andrew Norman, a talented composer, recently spoke out on this issue when receiving a prestigious award for composers. He still accepted the award.
The glass ceiling of the temple we’ve built around Bach and Beethoven seems as difficult to crack as the one we’ve created for Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. But we’re getting close. Lots of folks are still tone deaf. In response to our Nyfos program of Latina composers (“Compositora”), The New York Times completely missed the spirit of the show which shined a beacon on successful, talented composers that are also female and latina. While admitting he didn’t know many of the composers before he heard them at our concert, and admitting to the quality of many of the works, the critic said that our organization “could perhaps use some fresh perspectives”. I can only wonder what the Times might consider fresher than our “Compoitora” program, but I am pretty sure it doesn’t include creative women of color.
Here’s one of my favorite jazz standards. Not too many songs found in the Fake Book are by women, but Ann Ronnell wrote this (music and lyrics) in the early 1930’s. She was a contemporary of Dorothy Fields and Kay Swift, and a friend of George Gershwin, working as his rehearsal pianist. Leonard Bernstein met his future wife Felicia Montealagre, at a party in Ann’s Manhattan apartment. Here’s a young Sarah Vaughan in a live performance. Listen to the end and you’ll hear a great example how to handle a screw up with grace and humor.
This week our SoTD curator is composer Susan Botti who will host and curate the second installment of NYFOS Next 2016 on Febuary 11th alongside fellow Manhattan School of Music faculty member, Richard Danielpour. Botti is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. Orchestral commissions include works for the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. In addition to performing her own vocal works, she specializes in the vocal performance of contemporary music by a diverse range of composers. Thank you, Susan!
Down to the wire… my last song…Oh no… what about…???
Stevie Wonder, Hugo Wolf, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Oumou Sangare, The Beatles, Tracy Chapman, Bacharach/David, Bolcom, Mancini, Sondheim, Weill, Caccini, Britten…???!!!
Well, Valentine’s Day is around the corner, so let’s make this a theme-based choice. How about 2 songs that savour the anticipation of a kiss…
Ellington’s sophisticated musically and lyrically, sinuous and chromatic…
Prelude to a Kiss (Duke Ellington/Irving Gordon/Irving Mills) –
with fabulous melodies and lyrics “a Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch”. Here, sung by the great Sarah Vaughan:
Purcell’s Pandora’s box of a kiss –temperature imagery in the words (cool, freeze, fire) and tempos(!) in the music tell the story…
Sweeter than Roses (Henry Purcell) (1695)
(here, sung by the virtuosic David Daniels)
And here’s a snowy Valentine to NYC – and the (first?!) blizzard of 2016… exquisite words by e.e. Cummings (from his play HIM) – thanks again, NYFOS!:
This week’s Song of the Day curator is Russian soprano and international star Dina Kuznetsova. You can hear Dina in NYFOS’s upcoming show From Russia to Riverside Drive on November 8 (Boston) and November 10 (New York), performing songs by Rachmaninoff, alongside some of the Jazz Age music that Rachmaninoff heard during his time living in New York.
From Dina Kuznetsova:
Some of my happiest musical hours were spent in college, listening to the jazz greats in the wee hours of the morning. They were giants, and I love them all: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, each one with her own unique vocal delivery and a genius for the interplay between words and rhythm, for making love to a melody anew every time, and for making listeners feel. There is so much any singer can learn by listening, particularly when it comes to absorbing that interplay between improvisation and precision.
And Oh, the voices, their expressive powers; I can sing the praises of them all.
But when I think of Sarah Vaughan, I think she could have been (had she wanted) one of the greatest operatic stars, with that mezzo-soprano of hers. The color, the range, the top, the bottom, the middle :))). The vocal technique! It is all magic.
Here is one of Sarah Vaughan’s early TV appearances, in 1951, singing “The Nearness of You” by Hoagy Carmichael, and “You’re Mine, You”, by Chet Baker. The magnificence of her voice is on full display:
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