Catching Up with Samara Joy, and Four Finalists in the 2021 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition
I first met Samara Joy in November 2019, two days before she won the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition at NJPAC. She walked into the WBGO studio for her interview as a finalist with a very mild, unassuming presence that certainly wouldn’t set off any alarm bells.
We started talking and she mentioned how she had only come to discover Sarah Vaughan’s "Lover Man" the previous year, as a student at SUNY Purchase. She was instantly enthralled, and dove in headfirst into the legend's body of work.
Samara (who previously used her family name, McLendon) grew up in a family rooted in gospel and R&B. (Her grandparents led the Philadelphia-based gospel group The Savettes). When she began to study jazz seriously, her professor Jon Faddis was the impetus for her entering the competition, recognizing the rare talent she exhibited. “I’m just a girl from the Bronx,” Samara said during our initial interview, still unsure whether she was ready to compete against some of the best singers in the world.
Well, the judges confirmed what Faddis already knew to be true. She single-handedly captured the competition just a few months ahead of a global pandemic. Although it put a halt to a residency at Dizzy's, an appearance at Newport and other opportunities, it didn't deter Samara from creating buzz from here to Hollywood... literally.
During a roundtable discussion with film directors including Spike Lee, George Clooney and Chloe Zhao (hosted by Rebecca Keegan for The Hollywood Reporter), actress and One Night in Miami director Regina King shared her recent discovery of a young woman who "just seems like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald are both living in her body." She was referring to the timeless voice that is Samara Joy.
As the saying goes, "real recognize real." Samara's social media immediately blew up, and emails began to pour in. The stage was set for the now 21-year-old, summa cum laude college graduate's highly anticipated self-titled debut. Samara Joy, due out on Whirlwind Recordings on July 9, was produced by Matt Pierson with liner notes by veteran writer Will Friedwald. Joy is joined by the legendary Kenny Washington on drums, renowned bassist Ari Roland, and rising star Pasquale Grasso on guitar. She offers a fresh approach to standards grounded by her seemingly vintage tone, breathing new life into songs made famous by Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and other giants.
On this episode of The Pulse, Samara chatted with me from the lobby of The Django in Midtown just before her hit with Emmet Cohen and his trio. We talked about her burgeoning career and aspirations, and she provided a few words of advice to this year's finalists in the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. "Don't go in with a competition mindset," she said. "Just go in ready to enjoy the experience."
The competition takes place on June 6 at NJPAC, and will be hosted by WBGO's Gary Walker. Judges include vocalists Carmen Lundy and Vanessa Rubin, bassist Christian McBride, television and film producer Chuck Mitchell, and WBGO's founder Robert G. Ottenhoff. The top four finalists are Hailey Brinnel (Philadelphia, PA), Gabrielle Cavassa (New Orleans, LA), Tawanda Suessbrich-Joaquim (Los Angeles, CA), and Benny Bennack III (New York, NY). They all hope to snag the prestigious victory just as past vocalists Quiana Lynell, Laurin Talese, Jazzmeia Horn, and Cyrille Aimée have garnered.
Samara Joy has a voice that seems to have a gravitational pull keeping the planets in orbit. So much so that right after this interview, I rushed over to The Django in hopes of catching her last set. Luckily, I made it! It was a delicious taste of what life after the pandemic will feel like with the rebirth of live music. Joy's performance was riveting, bringing the audience to cacophonous applause with her delivery of the standards she has come to know, love, and interpret in her own sweet way.
Samara Joy will be released on Whirlwind Recordings on July 9.