N 77031

Jazzline N 77031 (CD) / N 78031 (LP)


Live in Berlin 1969

The connotation of jazz and alcohol is as old as the music itself. However, it does not always have to be the almost unavoidable stigma. Maybe it is just a lack of words - but sometimes spirits make surprisingly suitable paraphrases for tone colours. While alto saxophonist Paul Desmond compared his own sound to a dry martini, it was said about baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan that he sounded like beer and schnapps. And a biographer of Sarah Vaughan diagnosed that her voice has changed from that of an elegant wine to a velvety cognac.

Dianne Reeves, whose album Celebrating Sarah Vaughan – Calling is an homage to her hero, confirms this impression: "Your voice changes, not only with age but also with the experience and knowledge gained. When you are innocent and young you have a high and humming voice. As soon as you know more about life, it influences your voice. What I love about Sarah Vaughan is, that she retained her pitch, despite her voice having changed from that of a good wine to a classy cognac. This is very rare – usually singers lose their pitch range and control over their voice." (2001, Interview by the author)

This level of control, combined with a rare versatility and sophistication earned her a nickname at an early stage in her career, which surpassed even the usual ennoblement of jazz musicians and moved her to higher spheres, as if humble worldly comparisons would fall short to describe her: "The Divine One", - an exaltation which was until then reserved for actresses like Sarah Bernhardt and Greta Garbo. She was even regularly compared to opera singers. For example, Betty Carter collated her vocal potential to that of Leontyne Price, the first "black Diva" of the opera, who was also admired by Vaughan herself.

When Mel Tormé called the jazz singer "The Diva" (which sounds slightly less supernatural than "The Devine", despite meaning the same thing) it was only because of her exceptional talent and certainly not because of any diva-like airs and graces, which were not part of Vaughan's repertoire – contrary to a Sarah Bernhardt or some opera prima donnas. Another nickname, distinctly more private, revealed more about Sarah's character: "Sassy" – as only her closest friends, co-musicians and die-hard fans called her – was an allusion to her straightforward and sometimes cheeky sense of humour.

Humour did not distinguish the audience of the Berliner Jazztage during the late-60s and most of the 70s. On the contrary, the sentiment was decidedly humourless and even arrogant at times – which provoked the ambiguous reputation of being "the world's most feared jazz-audience".

Duke Ellington could tell a thing or two about it, or more accurately: he could sing a blues about it. Just as the Modern Jazz Quartet and Stan Kenton, Carla Bley, Sonny Rollins, George Duke and Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and even Sarah Vaughan – all of them were whistled and booed. At times even bottles, eggs or vegetables were thrown on stage. The newspaper Die Welt remarked on this "reversed" offending the audience: "Those who came on stage in Berlin in elegant evening gowns and only sang beautiful songs, as Sarah Vaughan did during her performance in the days of the Vietnam War, were booed and pelted with rolls of toilet paper because of their lack of awareness of the world's problems." (Josef Engels, Die Welt, 31.10.2014)

During her previous visit to Berlin (at the time with the pianist Bob James) Vaughan had been spared by the audience. The year of 1967 had been shaped by the peace-loving Hippies and the Berliner Jazztage took place only a few months after the history-charged "Summer of Love". Only the artistic director Joachim Ernst Berendt felt provoked when three leading German music journalists marched through the foyer of the Philharmonic with a tape recorder playing "Sgt. Pepper's" and sporting broad flower-print ties. They even threw something on stage during Sara Vaughan's performance. However, in this case the missiles were white lilies …

There was no talk of such niceties in 1969. "It was the period of the Vietnam War. It was also the time of a reduced need for catching up with American jazz and the start of an intensive politicisation of jazz – or rather more precisely – of the perception of jazz." (Christian Broecking, Berliner Zeitung, 3.11.2004)
In 1969 free jazz musicians in Berlin established FMP (Free Music Production), driven by the desire to gain more influence and control over the conditions of production. Electric jazz and rock-jazz gained in popularity, while mainstream jazz from the US not only fell into decline but lost its vibe and appeal and for many represented sophisticated entertainment for the establishment only.

Apart from this rather vague negative sentiment, there was also more concrete criticism. On the one hand, Vaughan ignored the prescribed time limit (something probably approved of in performances of a solo artist but certainly not at a festival). On the other hand, she performed a predominantly balladic and sentimental repertoire, way too tasteful and fitting the ambience of a bar, which amounted to artificial kitsch in the ears of jazz purists. Berendt responded to the criticism in the Jazz Podium magazine and referred to Vaughan's state of mind: "This time Sassy was ‘blue and sad and lonesome' in Berlin. She cried in the afternoon as well as in the evening just before her performance. The quality of a jazz musician - especially of a female singer – is the ability to turn feelings immediately into music. She was entitled to select slow songs if these songs represented her sentiments, especially when performed with such bravura as she did once again."

Especially the noble and non-committal jazz aristocrats from overseas didn't go down particularly well in politically sensitive and often hyper-sensitive Berlin in these turbulent times. Furthermore, the title of a "Diva" was perceived as smug and did not evoke respect among the boo-fraction (who were not the majority and who are not to be heard on this CD).

Foreign observers of the festival were flabbergasted by the ostentatious rejection. The British journalist Richard Williams, since 2015 himself artistic director of the Jazzfest Berlin, noted in the Melody Maker in an article headlined ‘Infamy‘: "Sassy, the peerless singer who can do anything, was BOOED…and one can only say that the perpetrators of this infamy must be cloth-eared berks of the first water. She looked gorgeous and sang superbly, and I don‘t wish to make any further comment on that cretinous audience which refused to hear greatness when it was put before them." (Melody Maker, 15.11.1969)

However, Sarah Vaughan did not seem to care much – a least on the surface. The recording of her performance proves that she did not just reel off her repertoire. The restraint exercised by the accompanying trio, Johnny Veith, Gus Mancuso and Ed Pucci, put her singing even more centre-stage. Vaughan pulled out all the stops and made it clear, that compared to the other Grandes Dames of vocal jazz, she was something quite special: She, who always refused to consider herself a "jazz-singer", is more accurately described as a "song stylist".
Karsten Mützelfeldt