Susie Butler Salutes Sarah Vaughan
Today I was feeling a bit under the weather, I didn't realize how much until I got ready to try to go home and had to sit in the car for a moment to collect myself and gather my energy.
I was disappointed that I couldn't go celebrate two of my friends at the Blues Hall of Fame Awards today, John Handy whose award destroyed in a recent home fire was replaced and Herbert Mims was honored.
Ms. Butler came on after a wonderful documentary film, "The Divine One," about the late singer, Sarah Lois Vaughan whose birthday was yesterday March 27, 1924, her passing just a week later, April 3, 1990. The film and program were so wonderful, the intimate Jazz Heritage Center screening room cozy enough for the artist, Sassy Susie to interact with the audience.
It took a lot of nerve to follow the story like that, but Ms. Butler pulled it off and then some. The film featured interviews with Vaughan's band members and friends like vocalist Billy Eckstine, whom one might say, discovered her. He said her voice was one he'd never heard before --she said she sang horn lines, whatever it was, she was the only one doing it. Roy Haynes spoke about their gigs, as did colleague Joe Williams. Her pianist for ten years, an arranger and others who recognized her musicianship also were interviewed.
She was truly wedded to improvisation, allowing her band a certain freedom all couldn't handle. She was also funny and beautiful when black women who were dark complexioned were not looked upon as beautiful. Interviews also included her adopted daughter, her mother, members of the church she attended in New Jersey.
The footage from interviews and concerts along with photos was also notable. I certainly recommend this film for serious students of jazz vocalists and for people who want to learn about the life of one of our treasures. I remember when my brother took a date to see Ms. Vaughan and his report that he knew she was great but didn't know exactly how to listen to her to get the most out of the experience. He said he should have taken me. I wish he had (smile).
Known for her ability to handle herself with the boys, Ms. Vaughan was said to have the mouth of a sailor and called "Sassy" for her salty linguistic choices. She was also known for her poor choice in men; she was married four times. Later on when she grew more confident and able to manage her career, the menfolk couldn't handle her independence.
Initially a pianist and accompanist in church, Vaughan wanted to sing and a contest at the Apollo is where Eckstine met her and her professional career was launched first with her friend, Eckstine, in Earl Fatha Hinds' band and later in Eckstine's which seemed like a training school or finishing school for artists of that time, somewhat like Art Blakey's band trained many of today's top stars. After she left Eckstine for a solo career she continued climbing to the top.
Many of the musicians spoke of her octave range as operatic reaching both the high highs and so low her pianist said you could feel her voice in the floorboards. I was just so happy to celebrate her life this weekend and I hope we can continue to do so each year leading up to 2024, her 100th birth date. As it is, April 3, marks the 20th year since she made her transition.
Wearing a "Vaughan" gown, tangerine with matching earrings and smile, Susie "Sassy" Butler was the image of Vaughan. I had to pinch myself when the lights came up and Miss Divine was still in the room. The show included birthday cake for Vaughn and the chocolate cake went quickly as the table was being set for the closing show at 5 PM.
Photos are of Susie Butler in performance, Susie Butler and Raja Rahim and me, also Peter Fitzsimmons, Jazz Heritage Center Director, Susie Butler, artist, and Abbie Rhone, director.
Photo credit: Wanda Sabir (of course)