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Samara McLendon Wins the 2019 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition

Keanna Faircloth

Samara McLendon took first place in the eighth annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, also known as the Sassy Awards.

Hosted by WBGO's own Gary Walker, the competition was held on Sunday at NJPAC as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival. As winner, McLendon receives a $5,000 cash award and a guaranteed slot at the 2020 Newport Jazz Festival.

The five singers in the final round of competition were judged by a distinguished panel: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Monifa Brown, Christian McBride, Jane Monheit and Matt Pierson. With the caliber of talent this year, the panel had their work cut out for them. 

But when McLendon walked onto the stage following her introductory video, a collective gasp ran through the audience. She was clad in a violet velvet gown, complete with stunning rhinestone jewelry, and her hair in an elegant bun.

Credit NJPAC

McLendon’s performance of “Perdido” made it was clear that she was the one to beat. The ease with which she scatted, coupled with her natural poise and grace beyond her years, was eerily reminiscent of the Divine One. It was clear that she was channeling the regal spirit of Sarah Vaughan.

Each finalist offered something different for the judges to consider. Daniela Spalletta placed second, wowing the audience with the crystal-clear tone of her upper register. The runner-up, Viktorija Gečytė, showcased her command of the band and her comfort onstage.

The final group performance of a Sarah Vaughan medley was something to behold. Each competitor made their final attempt to win the crowd. All of them certainly made their mark, garnering a standing ovation from the audience. And the 2018 Sassy Award winner, Laurin Talese, gave a performance that made everyone remember why she holds the title.

When Walker announced the winner, McLendon looked shocked, excited, and humbled. The 20-year old college junior certainly has a bright career ahead of her.

Last week, each of the five finalists stopped by WBGO for an interview on Afternoon Jazz. Meet them all below.

Keanna Faircloth is a Washington, DC native and comes to WBGO getting her start on-air at WPFW 89.3 FM in 2003, most recently as the host of Late Night Jazz: The Continuum Experience. She is a graduate of Howard University having majored in Music History with a minor in Classical Piano. Keanna has written for NPR Music, and worked for Radio One as an on-air personality, producer and voice-over talent. She is also the creator and host of Artimacy Podcast, where she has interviewed artists like Wynton Marsalis, Matthew Whitaker, Jonathan Butler, and Dionne Warwick. As a result, she was recognized by Radio Ink Magazine as a 2019 African American leader in radio.