Some time in 1985, probably the autumn, I was interviewed by Sarah Vaughan (born March 27, 1924).
No, I did not interview her. She interviewed me.
It happened at the Blue Note. She was booked for a week, Tuesday-Sunday at the famed club. I had wanted to go, I but figured that press comps were out of the question as I had just finished my rookie season as a professional journalist. It had been great start to my career. In rapid-fire succession I went from writing for the Amsterdam News to writing for a feistier Brooklyn-based African American weekly called The City Sun and I was about three months into freelancing to Newsday, one of the ten largest newspapers in the country. At Newsday, my work went through the jazz columnist, a former Features Editor named Stuart Troup. I’d pitch my story ideas to Trooper and he’d get the greenlight from his replacement on the Features Desk, Caroline Miller. Then I’d type my story on a Smith Corona and bring it to Troup for editing before it was sent off to Miller. The edit process was rough. He’d rip apart my copy and rewrite it, explaining to me why he was doing what he was doing. Then after we were done, and my self esteem was embedded into the carpet, he’d whack me on the shoulder and say, “let’s get dinner.” Usually over dinner he’d regale me with stories about Woody Herman, Benny Golson or Gerry Mulligan or Miles.
The week that Vaughan was playing the Blue Note, he casually asked me what night I was going.
I shook my head.
“I thought you liked her,” he growled.
I told him that I thought the gig was beyond the reach of my press credentials and I certainly didn’t have Blue Note level cashflow.
His brow furrowed in slow motion then he released. He shrugged. “I thought when you said you went to Columbia that you meant the Ivy League university, not some Columbia High School that I’ve never heard of.”
I sat across from him stunned silent.
“Call their PR people first thing tomorrow morning and if they give you any static, tell them to call me.”
I did and to my substantial surprise, Martin Johnson/Newsday was on the press list for the show that night. They even offered me a plus one, which made me realize I needed to boost my self-esteem and start dating.
The show was wonderful. I wasn’t a huge fan of club’s amenities, but to be that close to legends was far more important than food or drink.
After the set, I wandered upstairs to the men’s room and when I came out, I saw Sassy, reclining in a desk chair in the green room probably still catching her breath from the performance and the club’s steep stairwell.
For the second time in just more than 24 hours, I was stunned speechless.
“Well hello there,” she said, looking straight at me.
I opened my mouth praying that words and maybe sentences would come forth. They did. I said something to the effect of “hello Ms. Vaughan, that was a great show.”
“And who are you” she asked genuine curiosity rising in her eyes.
“I’m Martin Johnson, a freelance writer,” I told her gradually gaining confidence that I belonged in this dialogue. “I write for Newsday and the City Sun. I used to write for the Amsterdam News.”
“Well Mr. Johnson,” she said rousing the giddiness in me. “What do you write about?”
“I write about jazz,” I repeated. Then I ran off a litany of musicians that I’d written about recently: Art Farmer, Don Cherry, David Murray, Duke Ellington…”
“Really,” she said somewhat incredulously. I thought she thought I was making this up.
I offered to send her clips.
She caught my suspicions and allayed them. “No, young man, that’s impressive, very impressive.”
For the first time since I exited the men’s room, a smile crept across my face.
For the next five or ten minutes, she asked me how I got into jazz (my father’s records and my sibling’s musical taste), how I began writing, and what I wanted to do next (get a staff job and have a career talking to jazz legends was the answer though I don’t think I said that in so many words).
She paused to process what she had just heard.
Then she told me she had to go and that it was nice speaking with me.
She stood up and as she did, I extended my hand for a hand shake. She grabbed my hand and pulled me close to her. She whispered in my ear, “go inspire your younger brothers and sisters to follow in your footsteps.”
We separated, and I told her I’d try and that it was great talking to her.
I bounced down the stairs and on to the street. Or well sort of. I don’t think my feet touched the ground on my way home.
A couple of weeks later, on a Monday night, I brought another story to Trooper. He ripped it to shreds and pieced it back together. Then he announced we should go hear the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard. He scooted off to the men’s room and told me to call the club and let them know we were coming.
Still afloat from my encounter with Sassy, I called the Vanguard. When Stu returned he asked me if I’d called and told him yeah, “Martin Johnson plus one is on the list.” He laughed uproariously and took a bottle of whiskey out of his desk and got two coffee cups so that we could have a drink before heading to the club.
I don’t know if I’ve inspired my younger brothers and sisters, but I do know I’ve never doubted that I belonged after my interview with Sarah Vaughan.