May 29, 2024

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Samara Joy’s voice is helping Jazz find fresh ears: Video, Photos

The 23-year-old singer had something rare in the genre — a viral moment — and will compete for best new artist at the Grammys in February.

Samara Joy was kicking off an encore engagement at New York’s storied Blue Note club in November, just days before her 23rd birthday, when sparks began to fly.

“It was my first set, and I was in the middle of telling a story,” she recounted a few weeks later. “I was building up this whole scenario that was going to get me into the song, and then I closed my eyes — and when I opened them, five seconds later, there was all this smoke coming up.” (A woman seated by the stage got a bit too close to a flickering candle; the fire was swiftly extinguished.)

“Nothing like that had ever happened to me before,” Joy said, giggling softly. Just a week later, she had another, more traditional first, picking up two Grammy nominations for “Linger Awhile,” her second album and Verve Records debut. The album teams her with noted musicians — the guitarist Pasquale Grasso, the pianist Ben Paterson, the bassist David Wong and the drummer Kenny Washington — on standards including Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” and Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Joy, a Bronx native who’s currently based in Washington Heights, goes by her first and middle name (her surname is McLendon). She will compete in February for best jazz vocal album and best new artist — a field in which recent winners have included ubiquitous stars such as Olivia Rodrigo, Megan Thee Stallion and Billie Eilish.
When she got the news, Joy was on a train heading home after a gig in Washington, D.C. “I felt like screaming,” she said, “but I was in the quiet car, so I couldn’t freak out.”

Joy has grown accustomed to reaping honors. In 2019, as a student at the State University of New York at Purchase, she won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition; she became an Ella Fitzgerald Memorial Scholar the following year. Joy’s singing, with its precocious depth, creamy tone and fluttery vibrato, continued to inspire comparisons to both of those legends after the release of several videos that went viral, something of a rarity in jazz — in one, she performed Duke Ellington’s “Take Love Easy,” a song recorded by Fitzgerald in the 1970s — and a self-titled album in 2021.

While Joy said she wasn’t especially active on social media at first, it has grown into a natural tool for expression. Jamie Krents, the president of Verve Records, said Joy’s presence there “was one of the things that attracted us to her — seeing how genuine and intriguing she was, and how that could shine through on those channels. She’s a normal 23-year-old person who happens to be a world-class singer.”
Regina King, Anita Baker, Chaka Khan and Don Cheadle have also expressed admiration. The celebrated bassist and composer Christian McBride, who judged Joy in the Sarah Vaughan competition, finds her vocals “full of wisdom.”

“It’s spooky; she sounds and tells a story like an elder,” he said in a phone interview. “But I think what I love most about her — and I pray that the challenges in life don’t change this — is she’s always positive. She’s got such a fun, positive spirit.”

That spirit was palpable during a conversation at a food court in her neighborhood, where Joy admitted her fast success has left her head spinning a bit. “Sometimes I honestly don’t believe this is happening,” she said. “I see pictures of this glammed-up girl, but I’m just me” — on that afternoon, a young woman wearing sensible glasses and no perceptible makeup, clad in sneakers and a down jacket she picked up at Marshalls.

The singer, who is currently touring with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in “Big Band Holidays” — the show will arrive at the Rose Theater Wednesday through Sunday — has spent little time at home over the past six or seven months, juggling dates throughout the United States and Europe. “When there are people my age in the crowd, it’s mostly students,” she said.

Joy can empathize: She sang with a jazz band in high school that tended toward “a lot of contemporary, fusion-y stuff,” and was largely unfamiliar with the repertoire until arriving at Purchase. And while she’s the paternal granddaughter of the noted gospel singers and preachers Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, who performed with the Savettes of Philadelphia, that genre also held little appeal initially.

Joy, dressed in back, poses against a large brassy sculpture at a New York theater.
Joy will compete for two Grammys in February, including one in an all-genre category: best new artist.

Instead, Joy listened to the old-school R&B beloved by both her parents, “Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin and Stevie and Chaka,” she said, and sang in middle and high school musicals, making her theatrical debut as Erzulie (the goddess of love) in a sixth-grade production of “Once on This Island.” “I was scared about the acting part, because I was very shy — I still get that way sometimes,” she said. “But I wanted to sing, so I was like, ‘We’re going to learn these lines and try as best we can to get inside this character.’”

Eventually, Joy did begin singing in church, where her father also performed frequently. (Antonio McLendon is a singer, songwriter and bassist who has toured with the gospel star Andraé Crouch.) “I started in the choir when I was 16, and then I started to sing lead, which was nerve-racking,” she said. “The church live-streamed the services, and I had all these eyes on me.” She nonetheless became “more serious about it, because I was there all the time. We had rehearsal, we had Bible study, we had services on Saturday and Sunday. That was my priority — whereas jazz band was just an after school thing, a couple of songs here and there.”

When Joy won the Sarah Vaughan competition, “My grandfather was disappointed, I think” — Ruth McLendon had died in 2014 — “because he thought singing belonged in the church, that it should serve as worship to God,” she explained. “I don’t think he would ever come into a jazz club, because of his beliefs, which I respect and understand. I know that he still loves me, regardless of how he feels about the career decisions I’m making.”

Joy’s ambitions include writing; she penned rhapsodic lyrics for “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew),” a sweetly breezy number on “Linger Awhile.” “Now I’m paying more attention to the melodies and harmonics of all these songs I’m singing,” she said. “I’m telling this composer’s story and this lyricist’s story, and it’s beautiful, but I hope I can be influenced enough to write content for myself.”

Studying giants like Vaughan and Fitzgerald — Carmen McRae and Betty Carter are also favorites — has also made Joy eager to explore a range of styles: “Sarah Vaughan could sing anything; she could go incredibly deep and then she could sing operatically, and neither seemed like a struggle. I look at her, and at some opera singers, and I want that ease.”

When Joy speaks specifically of jazz, of course, there is a particular sense of devotion. “I look at all these influences — like Charlie Parker, like Duke Ellington, like Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan — and I think, these people were here,” she said, a measure of awe creeping into her quiet voice. “This is a young music, and they did so much in their lives to draw people to this type of music; it deserves to be talked about and shared. And as long as I’m passionate about it, that’s my goal — to share it.”

“This is a young music,” Samara Joy said of jazz. “It deserves to be talked about and shared. And as long as I’m passionate about it, that’s my goal — to share it.”

A portrait of Samara Joy, wearing all black with her hands brought together under her chin, in front of a red curtain.


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