By Brianne Ford
I used to walk past Sassy’s crib
a couple times a week, when young
And each time say, “That’s
Where Sarah Vaughn lives.”
That was when Symphony Sid
used to call her, “The Divine One,”
Late nights, from hip Bird Land
Oh man, what a feeling that was
Divine & so hip & so very
The house is gone now
Symphony Sid too
As for the town, now
Sassy told us
just before she split
I’m gone, now
-Amiri Baraka, “Lullaby of Avon Ave” (1996)
Cities, towns, spaces have a certain pulse, a vibrancy that even past their heyday cannot be dimmed. Places like Harlem, my hometown of New Orleans and current home of Newark still reverberate the sounds of times long past. If you listen closely, you can still hear the loud vibrato of trumpets and horns being played late into the night. Walking down Halsey Street, the faint echo of dance bands, swing music and the pulsating of bodies to beats to and fro. There is a lingering magic in these streets.
Many talents have come from Brick City, from disco legend Gloria Gaynor to rap legends like Redman, this music remains the anthem of generations both young and old. Newark is also the birthplace of jazz legends James Moody, Wayne Shorter, Larry Young, as well as Andy Bey and the Bey Singers.
As a jazz musician and lover of all things history, one enigmatic figure stands out to me, Sarah Vaughan, nicknamed “Sassy” or the “Divine One” by her early bandmates. While listening to “Lullaby of Birdland” featuring trumpeter Clifford Brown, many thoughts and questions came to mind. Who was Sarah Vaughn? What was her life like growing up in Newark? How did this city shape her into the star she became? After doing some research, I decided to retrace her steps.
Newark Penn Station
The Great Migration brought many southern Blacks to the Northeast in search of work and an overall better life, Sarah’s parents, among them. Many came through Newark Penn Station. Sarah’s father, Ashbury, was a carpenter and guitarist. Her mother, Ada, was a laundry woman who sang in the church choir.
Brunswick Street was my second stop. The Vaughans lived here throughout Sarah’s childhood. The area is now populated with row homes.
186 Thomas Street
My journey took me to the Vaughan family’s spiritual home, Mount Zion Baptist Church. Sarah played the piano and sung accompanied by the choir here. Established in 1879, the church moved to the North Ward at 208 Broadway. All that is left of the original location is an empty lot.
Sarah attended both Eastside and Newark Arts High School whose notable graduates include Melba Moore, Wayne Shorter and Woody Shaw; actors Michael B. Jordan, Tisha Campbell, and MJ Rodriguez; and dancer/choreographer Savion Glover.
Next, we head to the site of Alcazar Tavern (72 Waverly Street), where Sarah made her debut. Much of this journey required finding streets or avenues that no longer exist. After comparing the 1944 map of Newark to a current one, I was able to discover Waverly Street was renamed Muhammad Ali Avenue in 1978. Here’s a historic photo of the Alcazar Tavern juxtaposed to a current corner of what’s now named Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Barclay Street.
At one time, Newark was home to well over one hundred jazz clubs. One of the first important venues for Sarah was The Piccadilly (3 Peshine Avenue), not to be confused with the nearby Piccadilly Club. Also notable were Boston Plaza (on Boston Street) and the Hydeaway (Halsey Street). The site of the Boston Plaza is now an intersection leading to the Society Hill Condominiums. As a teenager, Sarah used all of these spaces to develop her sound on piano and as a vocalist.
21 Avon Avenue
Winning Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1942 led to a tour with Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine’s bands. After her successful launch as a solo artist, Sarah and her then husband/manager purchased a multifamily home at 21 Avon Avenue in 1949. Today, it is the site of the Boys and Girls Club of Newark.
By 1962, Sarah lived with lifelong friend and road manager John “Preacher” Wells, in The Weequahic Towers at 455 Elizabeth Avenue.
After her death of cancer at the age of 66 in 1990, Sarah returned home to be buried at Mount Zion Baptist Church.
In her memory, the Newark Symphony Hall is currently home of the Sarah Vaughn Concert Hall. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) hosts the International Sarah Vaughan Vocal Jazz Competition, and also renamed Park Place, Sarah Vaughan Way in her honor.
You, too, can follow in the Divine One’s footsteps with this Sarah Vaughan Spotify playlist serving as a soundtrack.
For Further Reading
Elaine M. Hayes, Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan (New York: Harper Collins, 2017). Barbara Kukla, Swing City: Newark Nightlife, 1925-50 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002). Leo Johnson, JJ’s Theme: Newark Jazz Clubs of the 1960s and 1970s (Master’s Thesis, Rutgers-Newark, 2005). Guy Sterling, The Famous, the Familiar and the Forgotten: 350 Notable Newarkers (Bloomington: Xlibris, 2014).
Brianne Ford is a New Orleans born, Newark-based jazz pianist, composer, educator, curriculum and grant writer, and curator. She also serves as board member to the music nonprofit Music Beyond Measure. Her debut project Invocation, featuring an all female jazz group, is a love letter to her hometown of New Orleans. Ford wrote this of Invocation: “Home…like love is a feeling not a place.” She extends this sentiment to her current home of Newark, NJ.
You can follow and contact Brianne via:
Instagram: briannefordjazz Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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