Ann Hampton Callaway Gets Sassy

by John Amodeo

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 15, 2014

"It is sad that some people don't know who Sarah Vaughan is," laments jazz and cabaret singer Ann Hampton Callaway, of her new tribute to Sarah Vaughan. "I think it's time, so we can keep her voice out there." Indeed, with Vaughan having died in 1990 of lung cancer at the age of 66, while her voice and concert career were still at their apex, there is a whole generation that has missed out on hearing Ms. Vaughan live.

Vaughan, whose career spanned nearly 50 years, was a pop music sensation in the early '40s, singing with the big bands of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine before launching a solo career that included recording contracts with Columbia and Mercury among others. Her supple 3-octave (some say 4-octave) range, combined with her wit and sensuality, won her legions of fans. Of her generation, only Ella Fitzgerald enjoyed equal stature in the jazz vocal world.

Callaway, an acclaimed jazz and cabaret singer, songwriter, recording and concert artist, pays homage to this jazz legend with her newest recording "From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project," which will be officially released this week. And notably, Callaway will kick off her CD release tour at Scullers Jazz Club this Friday, September 19, before taking the show later this Fall to Ronnie Scott's in London and then coming full circle to Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, in Manhattan, where she recorded her live performance for this CD, as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Series.

Filling a void

Of the many tributes paid to Ms. Vaughan, two of the most well known are those by Carmen McRae in 1991 and Dianne Reeves in 2001. Callaway knows she is following in big shoes. "Carmen was a close friend of Sarah's, so her tribute made sense," Callaway explains. "And Dianne Reeves' tribute was quite a while ago." Sensing a void, Callaway felt this was an ideal time to honor one of her strongest influences.

On one of Callaway's earliest recordings, To Ella, With Love," she honored Ms. Fitzgerald, another strong influence. "I realize that part of my passion is putting a legacy series together of people who have inspired me: Ella, Barbra, Peggy Lee, and others," observes Callaway. "I've done two television pilots [of her show "Singer's Spotlight with Ann Hampton Callaway"] that featured guest artists Liza Minnelli and Christine Ebersole. They were talk shows that explore the singing voice. People don't understand what makes a great singer, and what makes them their best. I want to explore what made them flower and bloom. It is another way my father's journalistic influence on me comes out. In the meantime, all these people are helping me become a better singer, by doing tribute albums to them."

Callaway was referring to her father, John Callaway, who was a renowned political and entertainment journalist on radio and television, with his own show based in Chicago. Callaway inherited his insatiable curiosity. ("Curiosity will save the world," says Callaway, "It makes life so much more exciting."). Callaway's mother is a singer and vocal coach in NYC, still in high demand while well into her 80s.

With this pedigree, it is no wonder Callaway became the performer she is, moving from her native Chicago to NYC over three decades ago, carving out a career in small Greenwich Village cabaret clubs. She has nearly a dozen solo recordings, two duet recordings with her sister Broadway star Liz Callaway, has numerous MACC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Awards for her recordings and performances, and was Tony-nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in the Broadway show "Swing," which she also co-created. Fans of '90s television will recognize her most famous bit of songwriting, the theme song for "The Nanny," which starred Fran Drescher. Her songwriting even caught the attention of Barbra Streisand, who has recorded several of Callaway's songs, and commissioned Callaway to write a song for her wedding to James Brolin.

Capturing Vaughan

Callaway's voice has been described as having a 3-to-4-octave range, with rich low notes and soaring high notes of equal vibrancy, making her a natural to honor Sarah Vaughan. Stephen Holden, the New York Times cabaret critic agrees, having said this about Callaway's new show, "The show was a meticulously constructed, deliberately paced moments, you could hear Vaughan coming through her."

Speaking with EDGE while she was in Jupiter, FL last week, performing her Sarah Vaughan show there, Callaway discussed Vaughan's influence on her career, and how she takes a distinct approach toward the material. "I do so many types of music: American Songbook standards, cabaret, singing pop and musical theater songs with my sister Liz, and recently doing my 'Barbra Streisand Songbook' show. I miss Jazz," declares Callaway, who has previously dwelled comfortably in the jazz and blues repertoire. Indeed, Callaway's voice is an instrument unto itself, with a highly trained jazz musicality that enables her to scat like nobody's business and imitate trumpet, trombone and saxophone riffs with eerie accuracy.

Inspired by live albums

So it would make sense that she would turn to the work of Sarah Vaughan. "Since I was a baby, I was strongly influenced by her," Callaway notes. "Every song she sang had a beautiful, passionate, sensual quality and always gave me a lot to be inspired by. My dad, who died 5 years ago, commented after I did my 'To Ella, With Love' CD, 'why I'm not doing a Sarah Vaughn tribute?'"

Finally taking her father up on his suggestion, Callaway feels that hers will stand on its own among the other Vaughan tributes because of her singular approach to the material. "I think that I'm a different singer. I come to songs from more of an acting approach than a lot of jazz singers do. I marry a lot of different traditions together. And with me the lyrics come first, and with other jazz singers, typically the music comes first," Callaway carefully analyzes. "And being the daughter of a journalist, I want to tell a story about her life, her songs, her music, so when I approached "Send in the Clowns," I researched her and discovered I was privileged to see the final performance of her career. And the way she sang that night was so powerful and so full of urgency; it was one of the most haunting experiences of my life. Such a heart-wrenching discovery. So I decided to put myself in her shoes, and developed a sort of moonlight sonata arrangement of the song."

Callaway was also inspired by the raw creativity and spontaneity she felt from Vaughan's live albums, like "Sassy Sings the Tivoli," "Live in Japan," and "Gershwin, Live!" "We decided to do a live album because so many of my favorite jazz albums use the energy of the audience and the audience inspires me and gives me energy," notes Callaway.

Another way Vaughan inspired Callaway was her integrity as an artist. "I love that she did a pop album (because her handlers said she needed to) and then insisted that she also do a jazz album (because she wanted to) the same year," marvels Callaway. "She was always able to find a way to be true to herself." Callaway ponders the notion of remaining true to oneself, goes silent for a minute, then confesses, "I've never told anyone else this before, but I remember the fact that I sent a demo to Clive Davis, and he responded, but I never returned the call, mostly because I didn't know if I wanted to be the next Whitney Houston. I sometimes wonder if I'd made a mistake, but then I think, no. I'm happy with where I am. As I like to say, I'm clawing my way to the middle."

While researching the show, she hand picked a baker's dozen songs from Vaughan's seemingly limitless repertoire that Callaway felt expressed the broad spectrum of Vaughan's career, from her signature romantic ballad "Misty," to the sultry "Whatever Lola Wants," with jazz numbers like "Chelsea Bridge," and the Brazilian sounds of Antonio Carlos Jobim's Wave added to the mix. In Boston, Callaway will be joined by her musical director and pianist Ted Rosenthal, who appears on the recording. Rosenthal rounds out the combo for the Scullers gig with local musicians: drummer Yoron Israel and bass player Dave Zinno. "There might be a surprise guest or two. [Saxophonist] Grace Kelly, if she's in town, may sit in," Callaway adds. "I love to do improv, so there might be a song that wasn't on the CD, depending on how my mood is."

Will show translate?

London will be the first time she brings the show outside the country, and we discuss whether it will translate well to other cultures. Callaway thinks yes. "Usually when I am in London and other European countries, they love jazz and understand it, sometimes better than in the US," Callaway explains, adding, "...especially in countries that experienced communism; they understand and feel the hunger for freedom that comes out in jazz." Callaway might even add a sassy tune to her set when sings in the South African Jazz Festival, to which she heads right after the Scullers show.

Those who have seen Callaway perform know that her keen musical ear enables her to create uncanny vocal impersonations, one of which has always been the very recognizable timbre of Sarah Vaughan's voice. It never fails to elicit gasps from the audience. Well there was one exception. "One time, when I met her, I imitated her, but I don't think she was very amused," quips Callaway. While you won't hear a Sarah Vaughan impersonation on her recording, she occasionally throws one into one of her shows. "At the Vail Jazz Festival last week, I snuck one in," she divulges. "I might in Boston," she slyly adds. "If I'm feeling sassy!

Ann Hampton Callaway performs "From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project" on Friday, September 19, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. at Scullers Jazz Club at the Doubletree Suites Hotel, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston, MA. Tickets: $40. For reservations call 617.562.4111 or visit

For more information about the "From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project" CD, visit her website.

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.