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In a First, the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition Finishes in a Tie

Close finishes are not unheard of at the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, which has crowned some of our leading new singers, like Jazzmeia Horn and Cyrille Aimée. But there had never been a tie for first place prior to Sunday night, when Gabrielle Cavassa and Tawanda Suessbrich-Joaquim both took top honors.

Cavassa prevailed with a performance that included a buoyant take on "You'd Be So Easy to Love" (backed by a swinging house trio) and a spare, touching "I've Never Been in Love Before" (accompanying herself on solo guitar). And Suessbrich-Joaquim made a potent impression with her sumptuous treatment of "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" and, though the sentiment hardly proved prophetic, "All or Nothing at All."

They performed — alongside fellow finalists Benny Benack III and Hailey Brinnel — onstage to a strictly limited audience at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in a concert hosted by WBGO's Gary Walker and webcast on NJPAC's Facebook page. The first place winner from 2019, Samara Joy, also took part in the musical presentation, delivering a stunning "Stardust" and soulful "Jim" with Pasquale Grasso on guitar.

This ninth edition of the competition, also known as the Sassy Awards, was originally scheduled for 2020, and got rescheduled due to restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

"Just being in the building again was a really great feeling," bassist and bandleader Christian McBride, NJPAC's jazz advisor, tells WBGO. "Walking through the doors again and seeing the staff, and just being among the NJPAC family and seeing how happy everyone was to be together again."

McBride served on a distinguished judging panel along with noted jazz singers Carmen Lundy and Vanessa Rubin, veteran record producer Chuck Mitchell, and WBGO's founder and former CEO Robert Ottenhoff.

Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition Judges Panel
Anthony Alvarez
Christian McBride, Gary Walker, Carmen Lundy, Bob Ottenhoff, Vanessa Rubin and Chuck Mitchell at the Sarah Vaughan Competition.

"I love the fact that we’re remembering the commitments of Sarah Vaughan, both to the city of Newark and to the broader world of jazz," says Ottenhoff. "So we’re honoring that history, and we’re doing it by introducing a brand-new generation. It’s really what jazz needs to do, always: honor the legacy without getting trapped in it."

The next edition of the Sassy Awards is right around the corner: the 10th Anniversary Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition will take place on Nov. 14, 2021. The deadline to enter is Sept. 7 at 5 p.m. ET; more information is available at sarahvaughancompetition.com.

Nate Chinen