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Finalists of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition share their love of the legendary Newark singer

The five finalists of the 12th annual Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition
The five finalists of the 12th annual Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition

The five finalists of the 12th Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition will take place on Sunday, November 19 at NUPAC as part of NJPAC’s TD James Moody Jazz Festival (Nov 3-19).

Pulled from a record 280+ submissions representing 37 countries, these gifted young contestants from around the world represent the next generation of great jazz singers.

Finalists Darynn Dean (Los Angeles, CA), Bianca Love (New Orleans, LA), Tyreek McDole (St. Cloud, FL), Ekep Nkwelle (Washington, DC), and Emma Smith (London, UK). joined WBGO News Director Doug Doyle to talk about the competition and their love of Newark's legendary singer Sarah Vaughan. (CLICK ON LISTEN AT THE TOP OF THIS ARTICLE)

WBGO's Doug Doyle chats with the five finalists of the 12th annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition
Doug Doyle/Zoom
WBGO's Doug Doyle chats with the five finalists of the 12th annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition

Ekep Knwelle was a finalist in last year's competition.

"After that performance a lot of other opportunities opened up for me. So much has happened in the past year. I definitely would say that this competition can set you up for a lot of success. I had never done a competition before so it was like a whole new world for me. I was really excited and invited all my family members. I loved the music I performed. I loved the musicians that were accompanying me. The producers were amazing. I had a blast. I'm so grateful and excited to be back this year."

Bianca Love, who also plays the trumpet and guitar, grew up in New Orleans and has listened to plenty of jazz.

"One of the biggest infuences and inspirations is Sarah Vaughan. She's powerful, she's delicate, and she has wings when she's singing. She really gives you an entire experience. I feel like every single singer or instrumentalist that plays this music is inspired in some way."

Tyreek McDole would be thrilled to win the competition.

"Not only would it be an incredible honor because of winning a competition as prestigious as the Sarah Vaughn competition, but it's a celebration and dedication to one of the greatest artists in the continuum this music, Miss Sarah Vaughan. To be a male and to stand on the shoulders of someone so incredible would mean a lot. Win or lose, it's an honor to celebrate her legacy and her life."

For Emma Smith, who hails from London, Sarah Vaughan is the biggest inspiration for having play time with her voice.

"For being truly creative and childlike with a massive lashings of sort of playful and creative improvisation. The way she works her way through a standard, giving all the colors from like the nasal ugly sounds to the full, plump, lush undertones of her voice, it was absolutely amazing to grow up listening to her music."

Darynn Dean will take all the experiences she has enjoyed into the SASSY Awards competition.

"I think it's just the ability to be able to fit into different environments and still do my absolute best to express myself, no matter who I'm playing with. That's a super fun thing to do that being in different group and ensembles have helped me with. To just explore and have fun is something I love doing especially when making music for the first time with people I haven't met. I really excited to meet all the musicians, have a connection and sing."

The finalists will compete on the iconic NJPAC stage in front of a live audience and before a distinguished panel of judges, including: acclaimed female vocalists Jane Monheit, Madeleine Peyroux, and Lizz Wright; NJPAC’s Jazz Advisor and multi-Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride; and three-time Grammy Award-winning producer and executive vice president of Mack Avenue Records Al Pryor.

The 12th annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition is part of NJPAC's TD James Moody Jazz Festival
The 12th annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition is part of NJPAC's TD James Moody Jazz Festival

Hosted by WBGO Radio’s Pat Prescott, this special event will also include performance by G. Thomas Allen, winner of the 2021 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. The first-prize winner of The SASSY Awards will receive a $5,000 cash award, second-place $1,500, and third-place $500. The winner will perform alongside past winners and special guests at the Sarah Vaughan Centennial Concert Hosted by Dee Dee Bridgewater on April 19-20, 2024, at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, also known as “The SASSY Awards”, is open to singers over the age of 18, of all genders and nationalities, from anywhere in the world, and not signed by a major label. Entrants are judged on vocal quality, musicality, technique, performance, individuality, artistic interpretation, and ability to swing.

Past winners include Samara Joy (Grammy winner for Best New Artist 2023), Cyrille Aimée, Jazzmeia Horn, Ashleigh Smith, Arianna Neikrug, Deelee Dubé, Quiana Lynell, Laurin Talese, Gabrielle Cavassa and Tawanda Suessbrich-Joaquim, G. Thomas Allen, and Lucía Gutiérrez Rebolloso.

Sarah Vaughan got her big break at a vocal competition
Sarah Vaughan got her big break at a vocal competition

The competition recalls the humble beginnings of legendary jazz singer/NEA Jazz Master Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) who, back in 1942, was a Newark teenager and winner of an amateur singing contest at the Apollo Theater. That memorable night helped launch the lifework of one of the most successful, influential jazz vocalists in the history of American music.

Below are the bios for the five finalists:

About Darynn Dean

Darynn Dean is a dynamic vocalist, captivating performer and composer. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she earned a master’s degree in music from the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz at UCLA. Dean’s most notable performances include singing at the Hollywood Bowl, Walt Disney Concert Hall and The Kennedy Center. Awards and honors include being named the 2015 YoungArts Foundation National Gold Medal Level Finalist, NAACP ACT-SO’s National Gold Medalist and the 2015 Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award Grand Prize Finalist. -more- She was also a participant in Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Residency at The Kennedy Center and a fellow of Dee Dee Bridgewater’s The Woodshed Network. Her documentary All About Love: Jazz + Gender chronicled her creation of the first “All-Women’s Cross Big Band.”

About Bianca Love

Bianca Love, a seasoned artist, graces the world stage with her vocals, trumpet and guitar prowess. Hailing from New Orleans, her musical journey began with influences spanning Charlie Parker, blues, soul and the traditional sounds of her hometown. Love’s deep appreciation for the Black American music tradition shapes her artistic identity. She debuted in 2018 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Jesse McBride and The Next Generation, and has shared stages and recorded with revered artists in cities including Mumbai, Kolkata, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. Collaborations with musicians such as Maurice Brown, Marcus Gilmore, Ben Williams, Takahiro Izumikawa, Lawrence Fields, Michael Ode, Joe Blaxx, Kermit Ruffins, and others have enriched her musical tapestry.

About Tyreek McDole

A native of St. Cloud, Florida, Tyreek McDole captivates audiences with his velvety voice and polished delivery. Since his singing career began at 18, he’s been compared to legends such as Andy Bey, Johnny Hartman and the illustrious Joe Williams. McDole made his vocal debut at the acclaimed Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition where he won the Outstanding Vocalist Award. Since then, McDole has graced the stage with some of the best in the business including NEA Jazz Master Gary Bartz, Rodney Whitaker, Theo Croker, Nicholas Payton, Ted Nash, Russell Hall, Jonathan Michel, Eric Reed, Carl Allen and many others. A graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, McDole plays in venues and performance spaces across the U.S. and remains a sought-after vocalist in New York City.

About Ekep Nkwelle

Ekep Nkwelle is a Cameroonian-American jazz vocalist living in New York City (originally from Washington, DC). She has trained at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Howard University and The Juilliard School, and worked alongside jazz masters such as Russell Malone, Cyrus Chestnut and Peter Washington. She was also featured at Radio City Music Hall with renowned classical pianist Lang Lang in a collaboration with Disney. She has performed at Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center and Newport and Montclair Jazz Festivals, but most notably, she was featured in 2022 on NPR’s Tiny Desk singing her arrangement of Geri Allen’s “Timeless Portraits and Dreams.” Nkwelle is one of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s rising stars, and with her artistry, she strives to display her passion for music all over the world.

About Emma Smith

With extensive performing experience in the world’s leading jazz clubs and collaborations with the likes of Michael Bublé, Quincy Jones and His Orchestra, Jeff Goldblum, Bobby McFerrin and Seal, London-based Emma Smith has created a reputation as a powerful and expressive artist on the global jazz scene. Last year marked the release of Meshuga Baby, her first solo album in 10 years. -more- The album has been received with critical acclaim, racking up millions of streams since its release, receiving multiple award nominations and global radio support. The album title is a nod to Smith’s proud Jewish heritage. Inspired by the likes of Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard, Barbra Streisand, Anita O’Day and Oscar Peterson, Smith is a fresh and swinging jazz voice who sparks joy among the masses.

You can SEE the entire interview with the five finalists here.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 250 awards from organizations like PRNDI (now PMJA), AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.