Chicago native Ann Hampton Callaway’s new album, “From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project: Live at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola,” was released earlier this month. The Tony-nominated veteran cabaret and jazz star is excited she finally has been able to achieve something that was also a dream of her late father, acclaimed broadcaster and journalist John Callaway.
Q: Before we talk about the album, tell me what else is going on with you?
A: I’m off to South Africa to do the “Joy of Jazz Festival” and am also going on a safari down there beforehand. Then I’m off to London to perform at Ronnie Scott’s Oct. 7, which has always been a dream of mine to sing there. Plus I’m very happy about the reviews of this new CD.
Q: What are most excited about?
A: First of all, it’s my first solo CD in five years, and it’s my first live, solo CD. I really feel most of my favorite jazz albums are live performance albums. For me, there’s something that happens to a person performing, because jazz is a very spontaneous type of music. Audiences give you so much more energy to play off of. It adds so much to the performance — to telling the musical story to the people who are listening to you. You see their faces, you feel the energy, so I think it heightened the performance levels of everybody making this CD.
Q: I’m sure your father would love this album.
A: You know, my dad was at my session when I recorded “To Ella With Love,” and he said to me, “I’m surprised you didn’t do a Sarah Vaughan tribute, I feel she is more of a kindred spirit vocally for you.”
He was a huge Sarah Vaughn fan, and his words have haunted me ever since. I did a lot of research to try to paint a portrait. Now, I don’t want to be a woman who simply does tribute albums forever, but I do love celebrating interesting people that have lived extraordinary lives. Plus, I like trying to tell a story.
The only thing missing on this CD is I wish I could have had the information there about why I chose the songs and why I arranged them as I did.
Like “Send in the Clowns,” for example — I turned the song from major [key] to minor, and it sounds like “Moonlight Sonata.” I made it that dark, because the last time I saw Sarah Vaughan was her last performance, which I discovered in researching her.
I then realized that’s why she sang the song that way. There was such a sense of gravitas to how she sang it. She clearly wanted the audience to learn everything she had learned about life and the meaning of life. There was, in retrospect, a sense of her saying, “I want to leave you with this.”
She had just found out that she had terminal lung cancer. But she had hardly told a soul.
So, when I put all that together, that’s how that arrangement unfolded.
Q: You must have uncovered a lot of information about Sarah Vaughan in your research.
A: I did. I learned she had a dream; she always wanted to perform with Leontyne Price, the great opera singer. When I was at Ravinia, when I was 16-years-old, I met Leontyne Price after her show. It was then I realized singers can be vessels of God. So, I was so captivated by how much Leontyne Price and Sarah Vaughan had connected, so on this CD I did “Un Bel Di” and “Poor Butterfly” as an imagining of what that collaboration would have been like.
Q: While you say you don’t want to be known as merely a singer doing tribute albums, the artists you’ve chosen are certainly ones who set the bar high, aren’t they?
A: Yes. I must say that doing albums about Ella [Fitzgerald], Sarah Vaughn and Barbra Streisand have certainly upped my game as a singer. It’s such a daunting task to honor these women and put my own stamp on the songs and tell a story that’s engaging. That’s the whole point, really. It gives you an appreciation of what made these women great.
Q: It is important to mention that you put your own twist on those songs.
A: I think anyone who just does those songs and merely imitates the original artist is really missing out on a great opportunity. Their duty as an artist is to make their own statement with a song, and that’s what makes thing interesting.
I remember Mabel Mercer, one of the great artists, said “A real singer is able to take a song that is very well known, and sing it in a way that it makes you feel like you’re listening to the lyrics for the very first time.”
I’m always thinking about that as a goal.
Q: I’m also pleased you mentioned your dad. He was such a powerful and positive force in journalism in Chicago.
A: I wish there were more John Callaways in the world. I wonder why isn’t there more of that sensibility and that work ethic in broadcast journalism. But I know it’s hard to keep that kind of integrity in the climate of today’s infotainment that is served up as news, especially on television. It’s a very challenging world in which to tell a story well.