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Interview: Lillias White Brings the Music of Sarah Vaughan to the Virtual Stage

White will perform her new show Divine Sass for Flushing Town Hall's online platform.

On February 18 at 7pm ET, Flushing Town Hall will present Tony winner Lillias White in her new online show Divine Sass: A Tribute to the Music, Life, and Legacy of Sarah Vaughan. White first discovered Vaughan's music a long time ago, and the Grammy-winning vocalist's artistry has stuck with her ever since her youth. The concert, White says, is a way to pay tribute to Vaughan's impact and to reintroduce the world to an incredible singer.

Lillias White
(© David Gordon)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

When did you first discover the music and life of Sarah Vaughan?
When I was in high school in Brooklyn, my aunts and uncles were young adults, and they used to play a lot of music around the house. I also hung out with a crowd that was a little older than me, and they were also young adults — though a lot younger than my aunt and uncle — and they were always going to concerts and talking about these different musicians. Sarah was a particular favorite of one of my dearest friends. I got to sit in the living rooms of my friends and listen for hours to this music. I didn't know that it was seeping in at that time, but it kind of stayed with me.

One of the things that fascinates me about the vocal prowess of Sarah Vaughan is her range, and her ability to change keys, and her musical ear. Her ear was incredible. She was just a remarkable specimen, and to my knowledge, she didn't really have voice lessons. From what I've read about her, she just got on stage and hit it, very often getting a new piece of music moments before going into a concert, and sight reading it. It's remarkable to me that someone can come in and do that.

I've been doing some research and a lot of listening to her over the past year, and while I am not Sarah Vaughan and I will not try to be Sarah Vaughan, I want to express my gratitude to her through these shows and shed some light on this wonderful vocalist.

Are you recording this show from your house, or are you doing it at the theater?
We're doing it at Mathis Picard's house — he's my pianist and musical director for this show. I wish that the theater was open. I really miss the people. I miss seeing the lights and people's eyes. I miss hearing people sigh or cry or laugh. And I miss hugging people. I miss that contact that you don't get when you're in a virtual Zoom situation. I'm trying to adapt to it as much as I can, but it's not my favorite cup of tea. It's really hard.

Why is the story of Sarah Vaughan important to explore now?
It's important because she mattered, and she came through an era where things were not so easy for Black musicians, for Black people. There were lots of trials and tribulations that people went through to be able to present their music and their art. She's one of those people that broke barriers and could perform in a nightclub or a concert hall, and she was loved and adored by many people because of her musicianship. I really admire that.

I think it's important to know her story, to know who she was, so that we don't forget. She's an icon. She was a master of her craft. Whatever her technique was, it was incredible how she was able to jump up more than three octaves. It's really remarkable. So, I'm paying tribute to her and hoping and praying that I do her justice with this concert.

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