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G. Thomas Allen takes top honors at the 10th annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition

G. Thomas Allen
Anthony Alvarez
G. Thomas Allen at the 2021 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition, where he took first place.

G. Thomas Allen has made history as the first male winner of the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. The 10th annual edition of the event was held on Sunday night at NJPAC, as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival.

Allen, who hails from Chicago, took the stage with a version of Erroll Garner’s “Misty” — and immediately captivated the sold-out crowd with his operatic range and crystal-clear falsetto. The audience seemed to melt, mesmerized with bated breath in anticipation of his next note. Allen’s set concluded with a rousing standing ovation; he was the only contestant to receive such a reaction.

But the other four finalists all came out swinging, starting with April May Webb of Edison, N.J., who commanded the stage with her presence and delivery. Clad in a vibrant red and gold caftan reminiscent of The Divine One herself, Webb truly took on Sarah Vaughan’s persona. Just as she mentioned recently on The Pulse, she treated her performance as if it was her gig alone, displaying the showmanship of a seasoned professional. It brought her second prize.

Snagging third prize was the fresh voice of Arta Jēkabsone, who lives in Jersey City. Her confident delivery underscored her familiarity with the world of vocal competitions: she has previously earned top honors at the Montreux Shure Jazz Voice Competition in Switzerland, second prize at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Voice competition, and third prize at the Ella Fitzgerald International Vocal Competition.

2021 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition
Anthony Alvarez
G. Thomas Allen, center, with his fellow finalists at the 2021 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, as well as (left to right) judges Steven A. Williams, Sheila Jordan, Christian McBride, John Pizzarelli, Jazzmeia Horn and Renee Rosnes.

This year’s finalists, winnowed down from more than 160 submissions, competed before a distinguished judges panel: NEA Jazz Master and jazz-vocal legend Sheila Jordan; guitarist, singer and Paterson native John Pizzarelli; pianist, composer and bandleader Renee Rosnes; former Sassy Awards and Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition winner Jazzmeia Horn; and WBGO’s president and CEO, Steven A. Williams.

The evening was hosted by Christian McBride, whose hilarious, down-to-earth personality kept the evening moving along without a hitch. While the judges deliberated, McBride took the stage with NEA Jazz Master Dianne Reeves for a duo set of tunes associated with Vaughan.

Just the night before, I sat down with Reeves for a chat about her involvement in the Sassy Awards, and how she has made it one of her personal missions to foster the next generation of jazz artists. She even poured into me at the conclusion of our conversation with a few sage words of advice.

This year’s judges may have had their hands full with ranking the finalists, but the audience served as an additional jury, making their choices known throughout the evening. It was certainly a night to remember, and an honor to witness the next generation of jazz vocalists carrying on the legacy of Newark’s own Sarah Vaughan.

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.