Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn; Two Ladies of Jazz Analysis

Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan are two of the great jazz voices of the 20th century and though they both sang jazz standards and pop tunes of the time they both had their own distinct style. They have recorded much of the same songs but no one can be in doubt that they are listening to two very different singers. Anyone interested in jazz cannot ignore two such important ladies as Sarah Vaughn had a powerful and melodic voice that she used to add emotion to lyrics, while Ella Fitzgerald is most known for her uncanny ability to imitate instruments such as trumpets.

Ella Fitzgerald is considered to be one of the most influential jazz singers of the 20th century and is known as the first lady of jazz. She originated with big band music but is considered o be the best interpreter of the American songbook. Ella Fitzgerald is known for her three-octave voice, purity of tone, and horn-like improvisational ability, most notably when scatting.  She many styles of jazz including swing, ballads, vocal jazz and traditional pop. (Gourse) A particular favourite song sung by Ella Fitzgerald and very popular in its time is Mack the Knife by Kurt Weil. The recording is early and does not have a lot of the digital remastering we are used to today but it simply sounds like she is having so much fun. Her words are quite disjointed, as the phrasing is not as sustained or constant as in classical or operatic singing. But she sounds like she is having a great time and her personality comes through specifically when she forgets the lyrics.

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            Swing music became popular in the 1930s and is characterizes by a solid rhythm section that supports the leads, which are usually brass instruments like trumpets and trombones or woodwinds like the saxophone or clarinet. Swing music has a fast tempo with a swing time tempo, hence the name. This music was considered very danceable and featured a lot of improvisation by the lead performer. (Schuller) The Ballad is typically a poem set to music or a story told in the form of a song. During Ella Fitzgerald’s time the ballad was a popular song that had a romantic or sentimental air to it.  The traditional pop music from her time would be based on show tunes by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and George Gershwin to name but a few composers. In the 1950s popular music switched to rock and roll influences. Finally vocal jazz in which Ella excelled is a type of jazz in which the voice can be used to match the styles of different instruments through scat singing, which uses nonsensical words and sounds to imitate instruments.

            Sarah Vaughn is a female jazz singer that was slightly after Ella Fitzgerald as she was born just when Ella Fitzgerald’s career began in the early 1920s.  She has been described as one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century and carries the nickname the Divine one. Sarah Vaughn became a star in the 1950s and experienced a rebirth in the 1970s and she continued performing and receiving awards until her death in 1990. Vaughan herself did not call herself a jazz singer but her jazz material and pop material were very similar so much so that her music could be labelled as jazz infused.  She was a true female baritone and could then also reach high notes in the mezzo-soprano range very much like Ella Fitzgerald.  Her voice was considered operatic in the sense of tone, power and beauty. Unlike Fitzgerald who would scat frequently Vaughan used improvisation to add ornamentation, phrasing to change melodies. Her most signature move was a glissandi that went through her entire range.  She very much likes to use her voice to interpret lyrics through expression. (Ruuth)

            A particular moving performance is of Sarah Vaughan performing Summertime by George Gershwin. Her voice always makes me think of cigars, dark, sticky molasses, smoky jazz of blues clubs and lazy summer afternoons. She plays with the tempo of the lyrics as well as the colour of the vowels in different phrases. She sticks to the melodic structure. It is an incredibly relaxing song to listen too and she has a thrilling and moving voice.


Gourse, L (1998), The Ella Fitzgerald Companion. London: Omnibus Press

Ruuth, M, (1994), Sarah Vaughan (Black American Series), Holloway House Publishing Company,

Schuller, G, (1991), The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford Uninversity Press


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Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn; Two Ladies of Jazz Analysis. (2016, Oct 31). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/ella-fitzgerald-and-sarah-vaughn-two-ladies-of-jazz/