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Sarah Vaughan

Pages from the Arts: September 2017

In this month's review of performing arts books, we look at a Sarah Vaughan biography, a romp through theatrical history, and the script of Martyna Majok's Ironbound.  



published Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Editor's note: In Pages from the Arts, we review books that relate to what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, Acquisitions Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. Ritchie also reviews books for the websites of the Dallas Public Library, Theatre Library Association, and the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, plus other publications.

Pages from the Arts will also include reviews from other TheaterJones contributors, and we encourage our readers to suggest and submit reviews, too. If you're reading a newish (let's say less than a year old) book that falls into a performing arts category, email editor Mark Lowry at marklowry@theaterjones.com and let him know you'd be interested in reviewing it. If you have written or contributed to a book that fits the mission, let him know that too, especially if there is a North Texas connection.

If the book is currently available at the Dallas Public Library, we'll offer that information.

In this edition of Pages from the Arts, Ritchie reviews a biography of vocal great Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound, which will open Kitchen Dog Theater's 2017-18 season in October, in a production directed by Tina Parker and featuring Karen Parrish, Max Hartman, Seth Magill and Doak Rapp.

 

 

Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan

By Elaine M. Hayes

Ecco Publishing, 2017

ISBN 9780062364685

419 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE

 

As per her dual nicknames, she was both “Sassy” and “Divine,” and so much in between.

By general consensus, Sarah Vaughan possessed one of the greatest voices in musical history—a three-octave range, from falsetto to contralto. As Marian Anderson was Vaughan’s own personal singing idol, some critics even theorized that she could have attempted opera, had she been so inclined. But fortunately for nightclub audiences, television viewers, and record buyers throughout the land, Vaughan instead cast her lot with non-classical song, thus permanently enriching America’s musical landscape. Elaine M. Hayes offers us a long-overdue, full-throated look at the woman and the legend.

Sarah Vaughan was Newark-born in 1924 and would always take pride in her hometown.  The city boasted a lively musical scene, and underage Sarah managed to sneak into local clubs both to play piano and to sing. She eventually dropped out of school to concentrate on music, taking New York City trips with friends to hear “big bands” at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater.

In 1942, at age 18, Vaughan won an Apollo “Amateur Night” contest with her rendition of the classic “Body and Soul,” leading to her own engagement there, opening for Ella Fitzgerald. She was soon further discovered by both bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines and his group’s popular singer Billy Eckstine, and eventually became Hines’s spotlighted “girl” vocalist, touring the country as the only female in an all-male preserve. When Eckstine, who became a close friend, left Hines in 1943 to form his own band, Vaughan joined him, eventually becoming a solo performer in 1944.

The years to come saw Vaughan’s reputation rise exponentially, along with her career in the recording studio. Hayes does readers a significant service in conveying how important record producers were to a would-be singer’s future and how poor judgment on their part could waylay a performer’s best efforts, no matter the level of ability on display. Vaughan would face several challenges in this regard, primarily from idiosyncratic producers who didn’t know in what category her talents naturally fell. Hence, the eternal question: was Sarah Vaughan a jazz or “pop” singer? The answer is: yes.

In other words, Vaughan was both, though she herself eschewed facile classification. As she put it, “Music has too many labels…I call it all just music.” While, as per the book’s title, Vaughan did arguably reach her career glory days during the flourishing of the idiosyncratic jazz style known as “bebop,” she never consciously pigeonholed her talents or personal musical inclinations.

Vaughan also frequently asserted herself regarding what she would sing. Says Elaine Hayes: “She possessed a keen awareness of her responsibilities as an artist and black woman. She understood the impact of her voice and balked when asked to sing material she found racially demeaning or artistically beneath her. She held firm to her musical vision and integrity.”

By the late 1950s, Sarah Vaughan was a star, thanks to club appearances and successful recordings (though she later claimed to hate some of her most popular releases, such as “Broken-Hearted Melody” and “Make Yourself Comfortable”). When musical tastes began to change, she did her best to continue as a soloist in the jazz and classic pop modes, with or without recording company support, and began a second career of sorts as a “guest soloist” with symphony orchestras across America, in programs mixing contemporary work with classics. Many lifetime achievement honors were bestowed upon her in what turned out to be her final years. Sarah Vaughan died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 66.

While she may have been successful in musical terms, personal happiness appeared to elude Vaughan for most of her life.  She entered into three legal marriages and one long-term unwed relationship, all ending prematurely and badly. Oftentimes, her partner at any given moment was also her manager, which usually proved a lethal combination, though she was fortunate enough to experience motherhood along the way, adopting a daughter in 1961. Hayes skillfully interweaves Vaughan’s emotional struggles with an engrossing chronicle of the singer’s professional challenges.

Hayes also puts Sarah Vaughan’s story into historical context—for example, detailing the prejudice faced by this African-American woman singer during the early era of Jim Crow America, and describing other events and movements taking place in the country during her lifetime. I found these seeming digressions an illuminating and valuable part of this excellent book.

As Elaine M. Hayes summarizes: “Sarah Vaughan can be heard on the radio, in television commercials, and in the grocery store as we shop. Here is a voice that has become a part of our sonic landscape, a part of our daily lives. It is a voice for the ages that forever changed the way we hear and appreciate the human voice in song.”

In the matter of Sarah Vaughan, that says it all.

 

 

NO CAPTION

Shakespeare’s Ear: Dark, Strange and Fascinating Tales From the World of Theater

By Tim Rayborn

Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2017

ISBN  9781510719576

249 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE

 

Via his entertaining journey through the quirky shadows of strutting and fretting upon the stage, Tim Rayborn proves that “theatre history” need not be a numbing slog through names, dates, and terminology. Instead, he gives us a look at this art’s fascinatingly ripe underbelly—his findings are sometimes amusing, sometimes twisted, but always enlightening. And he largely accomplishes this by focusing on the lives and careers of various familiar and lesser-known theatrical movers and shakers through the ages, offering much substance for the biography junkies among us (including yours truly).

Rayborn largely covers the waterfront of stage history while dividing his text into two “Acts” and offering readers a very helpful Table of Contents. Act 1 consists of odd happenings from early theatre lore, beginning with the “ancient world,” and on into succeeding centuries, finally coming to rest in the “Modern Age.” In these chapters, he highlights particular practitioners who reportedly experienced the bizarre and inexplicable in their sometimes-cut-short careers—from Ben Jonson and Moll Cutpurse, to Moliere and Anne Bracegirdle, from Alexander Pushkin to Tennessee Williams and Albert Camus.

After an “Intermission,” followed by a chapter devoted solely to Shakespeare and his quirks, including a gold earring (per the book’s title), Rayborn moves on to Act 2: particular schools of theatre and their own catastrophes and superstitions. This includes informative sections on the commedia dell’arte, Grand Guignol, and even some allegedly “haunted theaters” still among us.

All that said, however, a few caveats: this book might best be appreciated in small portions, with the fine Table of Contents as a “hunt and peck” guide of sorts, as I found my own “start to finish” reading approach a bit overwhelming-verging-on-numbing at times. And periodically, the author’s running commentary can seem a tad cutesy and excessive. But however this unique book is swallowed and digested, it offers much enjoyment for both history mavens and theatre aficionados alike.

 

 

Photo: Courtesy
Martyna Majok

Ironbound

By Martyna Majok

Dramatists Play Service, Inc. 2016

ISBN 9780822235217

62 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE

 

Darja is a 40-ish Polish immigrant in a New Jersey town that’s seen better days. We first meet her in 2014, standing at a bus stop underneath a freeway. This bus stop becomes the play’s only setting as audiences are carried back and forth over a 20-year span, while they learn about the men in Darja’s life, her struggling relationships, and her equally fraught need for money as a means out of the chronic poverty in which she has continually found herself. Ironbound offers a virtuoso turn for the actress portraying Darja, as she is onstage for the play’s entire 80-minute running time, and is called upon to deliver the character’s shifting histories and personalities with barely a pause.

Majok’s script was first developed by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2014 and received its first New York Off-Broadway production in 2016; it was directed by Daniella Topol and starred Marin Ireland as Darja. Dallas’s Kitchen Dog Theater will offer Ironbound from Oct. 26 through Nov. In today’s political climate with immigrant-related issues front and center, it should share with audiences both fine character development and food for thought.

 

» Pages from the Arts appears on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones. 

 

 

 PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS 

  • February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
  • March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
  • April 2017: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
  • May 2017: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
  • June 2017: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
  • July 2017: Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
  • August 2017Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord. 
 Thanks For Reading




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Pages from the Arts: September 2017
In this month's review of performing arts books, we look at a Sarah Vaughan biography, a romp through theatrical history, and the script of Martyna Majok's Ironbound.  
by Cathy Ritchie

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