February 26, 2024

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Samara Joy isn’t trying to make jazz “mainstream” — but she is trying to make it more accessible: Video, Photos

Samara Joy casted a spell on the audience at The Jazz Club at Aman in midtown New York in November. The crowd was mesmerized by Joy before she even uttered a word.

The house lights dimmed as the 23-year-old stepped up to the mic in the spotlight with a high, voluminous ponytail and black sequin cocktail dress. The crowd’s trance deepened when she started her set, melodiously singing her rendition of Nancy Wilson’s “Guess Who I Saw Today” with a voice full of richness and depth.

It’s no wonder how she became the first jazz artist to win the award for Best New Artist and another for Best Jazz Vocal Album at the 2023 Grammys.

During our conversation ahead of her performance, she rocks the blazer dress from the collection. For the performance, she switches to the sequin mini dress.

“I looked more into [Theory] and more into what we would be creating together. I thought it was perfect. It’s classy, sophisticated, it’s elegant, it’s laid back. I feel like they represent me,” she said of the pieces. “And so I feel really comfortable and competent in the clothes that we upgraded together.”

The Bronx native, who’s currently on her A Joyful Holiday Tour, has been on a steady rise at a young age. After videos of her wistful singing went viral in 2022, she began receiving praise from the likes of Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, among others. In September of last year, she released her debut album, “Linger Awhile.” She’s been dubbed the first Gen Z jazz star and is filling those shoes humbly.

She recalled the night of her big win at the Grammys this year. She didn’t expect the weekend full of partying and rubbing elbows would end with a career-changing win.

“I was like, ‘OK, if it happens, it happens,’” she said. She closed her eyes as Olivia Rodrigo read the nominees. “The camera catches me at the moment I opened my eyes, and I couldn’t believe it. It was a beautiful night. I was in shock. I was still in shock until like a couple of months ago.”

Though she’s still settling into her ascending status, music runs deep in Joy’s veins. She grew up watching her dad write songs and listening to him play them in his studio. Gospel was the bedrock of her ear; her grandparents founded the gospel group called The Savettes in Philadelphia. Joy said the “rawness” and “fullness of your voice” translate between gospel and jazz.

“When I first encountered jazz, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s how I feel at home.’ Even though I had never listened to it before. And even more so, I feel inspired to learn more,” she said. “And I feel inspired to delve even deeper into what about this I’m attracted to and how I can make myself you know, how I can develop my own individual voice within the music.”

Samara Joy won two Grammys this year for Best New Artist and Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Samara Joy won two Grammys this year for Best New Artist and Best Jazz Vocal Album.

She began crafting her own rich sound as a student in college. She studied Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, learning the importance of reinventing yourself in music.

Learning from the greats, including Sarah Vaughn, Lalah Hathaway, Kim Burrell and the Clark Sisters, Joy crafted her own rich sound as a student in college. She didn’t know how far she would go, initially, but her crash course with jazz led her to follow a path destined for her.

“When you have a gift, you can’t run away from it, you can’t try to abandon it for the sake of like, maybe doing something more convenient or more stable,” she said. “I had to practice and to develop my voice, I do all the fundamental things. But the fact that, you know, I don’t have to compromise with what message I’m trying to send, I don’t have to compromise as far as aesthetic is concerned, or anything, the fact that I could just be myself and express myself as a real beat through my voice. There’s nothing like that feeling.”

Joy said her intention isn’t to try to make jazz mainstream, but to make it accessible for whoever is drawn in. She believes that’s a valid way to make sure the genres people claim are dying or irrelevant continue to survive. As for her own career, she plans to forge a path “without boundaries.”

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