Interview with Ann Hampton Callaway, vocalist performer for “A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan”
by Josy Jones
Nicknamed “Sassy” and “The Divine One,” Sarah Vaughan was a four-time Grammy winner and a legendary jazz artist. On March 17 at EJ Thomas Hall, Tuesday Musical will present one of the biggest concerts of their season: “A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan.” Audiences will hear the Chicago Jazz Orchestra perform classics such as “Send in the Clowns,” “Key Largo,” and “Misty” under the direction of Jeff Lindberg, and sung by amazing vocalists René Marie, Dee Alexander and Ann Hampton Callaway. Ann Hampton Callaway was kind enough to let us interview her about this amazing, must-see production.
Josy Jones: What has been your favorite part of working on this production?
Ann Hampton Callaway: It’s hard to pick one favorite thing. I think working with two stellar singers, and as somebody who has recorded a live cd tribute album to Sarah Vaughan, getting to hear the interpretations of Dee Alexander and René Marie of these iconic arrangements of Sarah Vaughan… Just to hang out and trade thoughts and inspirations about [Sarah] with these two vocalists is an absolute joy. So there’s that and then there’s the thrill of singing some of the most brilliant jazz arrangements of Sarah Vaughan’s recordings and performances that Jeffery has been so brilliant at transcribing. So it’s a double prong joy to get to do this work, celebrating one of America’s greatest singers.
JJ: What’s been the hardest song for you to learn for this performance?
AHC: One of the hardest to sing—ended up being the most rewarding song when we performed it in Chicago—was singing “Send in the Clowns.” It’s hard emotionally because I was at Sarah Vaughan’s last engagement in New York at the Blue Note [Jazz Club] and I heard her sing “Send in the Clowns.” It had so much anguish in her interpretation of the song. It just haunts me still. I later found out when I was researching to put my CD project together that she had just found out she had terminal lung cancer. So I mentioned this in the concert and, you know, trying to step into that moment in her arrangement and try to imagine how she felt. It’s such an emotional thing. When I did it that night in Chicago, it stopped the show. We had a standing ovation. People were so moved by it. And I sort of felt in a way I was channeling her. I was out of my body. It’s a scary thing when you feel that emotional about a moment in a show. But it’s also an incredibly beautiful thing. Most of the time when we follow our fear, the best things happen.
JJ: So, one of my questions was going to be if you’d ever gotten to see her perform. And you have! What was that experience like? Did you get to see her more than that once?
AHC: I saw her a few times. I saw her in larger venues but I saw her at the Blue Note at the very end of her life. I had incredible seats. I was right in the front. I noticed that she wasn’t wearing any shoes. And I thought, “That’s really unusual.” [laughs] I think it was a Saturday night at the Blue Note. Sold out. There wasn’t any room for anybody to walk to the bathroom. It was just such a packed house. And Sarah Vaughan, because of I guess where she was at, finding out she was about to die soon, the level of power. It was just as if she wanted us to learn everything she’d learned about life and know everything she’d experienced in life. It was sort of a farewell as I now realize. It was this haunting, powerful show. Not quite as funny as she’d been in previous shows. She had a great sense of humor. Just a tremendous beauty and spiritual power that was haunting… til this day.
Are you going to perform barefoot?
AHC: [laughs] Well you know, as a matter of fact, every now and then I wish I could. Because you know when we are really getting… you know, doing a two show night or a two act night, it would be funny if we all did a moment in honor of her to not wear our shoes. There’s something about being grounded and not being in high heels or glamorous shoes and actually having our feet touch the ground that is a very nice thing to experience. I know some of my favorite moments—I had a woman at an orchestra concert who was the concertmaster and I invited her to improvise a song, she was a beautiful young woman, and she said, “Well if I’m going to improvise the blues with you Ms. Callaway, I have to take my shoes off.” So she just threw her beautiful shoes off and the audience roared. They were so excited that she was getting down and dirty. So I have great affection for those types of moments.
JJ: How has Sarah Vaughan influenced you as a singer? For your performance in tribute to her, have you tried to incorporate things about her live performance into the show, or have you tried to stay true to your personality? Or is it a hybrid of those things?
AHC: I think that when you are a sensitive listener, as I have been my whole life, what happens when you’re discovering great singers, as a young aspiring singer, is that you learn your vocabulary from these singers. You learn choices and possibilities and language. Sarah Vaughan was one of the first singers I heard as a baby. So how she interpreted a song… her ability to scat sing. I was scat singing at 3 years old. And it’s because my father loved scat, and he scatted around the house, and he played Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, that I was exposed to this language that many jazz singers today don’t do. So that is a part of my singing and almost all of my shows that I owe Sarah Vaughan from hearing her and inspiring me to try it. It’s part of who I am.
I think the thing about Sarah Vaughan that influenced me the most is her sensuality. She… made choice with her beautiful, luscious voice and her three-octave range (I have a three octave range as well), to express the sensual elements of love and passion and desire in these songs using melodic variations that plummet to the depths of her voice and also transcend into the higher realms of her voice. But there are moments when going from a very low note, to a very high note or going from a high note down to a very rich, low note that can be so expressive… so that kind of technique she had to express herself in music was something that I naturally discovered and explored.
And also the way she sang words… where she was able to make love to a word. It wasn’t just one word. It was an entire experience. One word became profound. “And too much in love” and she’d use her syllables and vowels in a way that you felt what love was just by the way she pronounced a word. So those three elements of Sarah Vaughan influenced me, but I would never want to imitate Sarah Vaughan… To me, it’s the job for me and Dee, and Renéto be ourselves and celebrate her. And they’ll hear ways that we grew from her and her language and her vocabulary. But if we don’t tell her story and the story of these songs our way, we aren’t doing our job.
JJ: You said that you were lucky enough to grow up listening to Sarah Vaughan and get to see her live. A lot of people who may come to this show, may not even know who she is, and may not have gotten to experience her in the way you experienced her. What is your message for those people? Do you think they can still be moved by this production?
AHC: Oh, absolutely! Are you kidding? These songs are so gorgeous and sexy and colorful and moving that any human being with any emotion and a heart will be moved by the great songs, the extraordinary arrangements, the powerful performances… and also learning about our heritage. Our country sometimes discards its heritage and the lack of curiosity can be a deprivation of what is an amazing part of our identify as a country, as people.
Sarah Vaughan was a pioneer! She was this poor girl from Newark, New Jersey… She was poor and not confident in some ways. And yet she had an extraordinary talent and she had the luck to start her career off with the pioneers of bebop. The most brilliant geniuses of the 20th century in jazz… jazz being the language of our country. America had brought this music, the music of freedom, the music of spontaneity. And because it is such a part, a beautiful part, of our heritage, to get to experience a fresh interpretation of a great artiststhat we can be proud of and be inspired by and learn about. It’s not only great music, it’s also a reminder to the person in the audience that anyone from any background can start off their life with any number of challenges and end up being… doing something that changes life and makes life better. That story in itself anybody can relate to and be inspired by.
And also women… who are still, to this day, in a world where men are being paid more, being paid more attention to, women who have accomplished so much with so many odds, to learn about them and to hear the catchiness of their spirit is such a tonic for the soul. So it doesn’t even matter if you’re a singer or a jazz lover, just to hear about a woman who made so much of her life, took so many chances, defied segregation and was confident enough and brave enough to stand next to some of the most accomplished men of her time and learn everything she could about music from them. What a great role model to have.
JJ: Is there anything you’d like to add? Anything you want the Akron audience to know?
AHC: No, just tell ‘em I can’t wait to see them.
“A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan” with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra
Jeff Lindberg, conductor
Ann Hampton Callaway, Dee Alexander, RenéMarie, vocals