Four newly remastered DVD's in the Masters of American Music series originally televised in the 1980s and 1990s are now available from Naxos. They include hour length documentaries on Count Basie, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, and the Blues, and follow a prior set of DVD's on Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Thelonius Monk.
Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One opens with a 1978 concert performance of "A Foggy Day in London Town" and some general commentary on the nature of her artistry by fellow musicians. Then it moves back in time to fill in some of the details of the singer's early life focusing on her beginnings singing in Newark's Mount Zion Baptist Church as described by her mother.
At age fifteen, Sarah entered a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and was an artistic and popular success, although she only managed to win ten dollars in prize money after three days of performing. Nevertheless, this contest where she came to the attention of popular jazz song stylist, Billy Eckstine, was the springboard that launched her career. She joined with the Earl 'Fatha' Hines band and later moved to Eckstine's newly formed band: a band that included such giants of Bebop as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey.
Using concert footage, photographs and interviews, the DVD gives a comprehensive portrait of the singer's career as well as some valuable critical evaluation of her vocal art. It is somewhat more reticent about her personal life, although there are one or two revelatory anecdotes. Singer, Joe Williams tells about how she once took the wheel of the tour bus they were riding on. Pianist, George Gaffney talks about how she had no problems eating large meals before a performance, unlike many singers. There is some discussion of her passion for foul language, and even a sequence from and interview she did with Dick Cavett, in which he asks for a sample. On the other hand, her daughter Paris, emphasizes her mother's preference for keeping her personal life private, and continues to honor that preference in her interviews.
Interviews with fellow musicians tend to be much more illuminating. Drummer, Roy Haynes tries model a sample of the way Vaughan manages to "bend" notes. Joe Williams talks about how she and her trio worked without music, able to follow each other's improvisations as if by telepathy. They were tuned into each other musically; a judgment Haynes seconds. But it is not only about the music they are illuminating, the true feelings they had for the woman as a person come out clearly, as when an emotionally wrought Billy Eckstine describes why he was unable to go see her during the last year when she was dying of cancer.
Still the glory of this DVD is in the performances. Too often musical documentaries settle for little snippets of an artist's work. NPR's Jazz Profiles, for example, while always informative biographically, tended to skimp on the music. This is not the case with the Masters of American Music series. There is a broad selection of complete and almost complete performances illustrating the range and variety of her talent. There is the soulful balladeer singing "Once in Awhile" and "The Shadow of Your Smile." There is a swinging version of "Day In, Day Out." She sings with a trio. She sings with a big band. She sweats through song after song in the heat at Wolf Trap with a symphony orchestra. She plays the piano and sings with a lone bass. She revels in an intensely dramatic rendition of "Send in the Clowns." For the performances alone, this is a DVD worth the price.
Sarah Vaughan is one of the great singers, not only of her generation, but of all generations. Here is an opportunity, not only to hear her, but to see her as well. It is an opportunity not to be missed.