Samara McLendon Wins Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition

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Samara McLendon poses with her plaque for winning the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition on Nov. 24. From left: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Laurin Talese, McLendon and Jane Monheit.

(Photo: Anthony Alvarez)

Singers typically become more sophisticated interpreters of lyrics as they grow older and gain life experience. So one can only imagine how the years to come will improve Samara McLendon, an immensely talented 20-year-old who took first place on Nov. 24 at the 8th Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.

With the interpretive skills of a far more seasoned singer, McLendon exhibited a mature sense of swing and a husky beauty in her lower register to emerge as the winner in the competition, held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

The competition is also known as the Sassy Awards, a nod to a nickname for singer Sarah Vaughan (1924–’90), a NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame inductee who hailed from Newark.

McLendon, a Bronx resident who is a junior in the jazz studies program at the State University of New York at Purchase, received a $5,000 cash prize and was guaranteed a performance slot at the 2020 Newport Jazz Festival.

On all three of her songs at the finals, the flexibility and purity that characterized McLendon’s style reminded the listener of Vaughan—McLendon’s idol—who was only a teenager herself when she won the Apollo Theater’s amateur singing competition in 1942, in a career-launching performance. But in McLendon’s horn-like scat singing, she evoked her other great influence: Ella Fitzgerald. With such an impressive toolkit, McLendon was well equipped to turn a song’s lyrics into a meaningful story for the listener and herself.

“When I’m singing, I want to tell a story, and I want to do it my way,” she told DownBeat.

Aided by networking skills, this gifted newcomer to the New York jazz scene already has managed to get gigs at top rooms—including Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Mezzrow and the Blue Note—and perform alongside such jazz luminaries as trumpeter Jon Faddis and pianist Barry Harris.

With her victory at NJPAC, McLendon joined the ranks of past winners, such as Cyrille Aimée (2012), Jazzmeia Horn (2013), Arianna Neikrug (2015) and last year’s winner, Laurin Talese.

This year, second place went to Daniela Spalletta, a Sicilian-born vocalist, composer, arranger and lyricist who has generated acclaim in Italy. Spalletta, who teaches vocal jazz at several music conservatories in Italy, received a $1,500 cash prize. Viktorija Gečytė, a Paris-based native of Lithuania, finished third and took home $500.

The other finalists were New Mexico-based Christine Fawson and Vivian Sessoms of Jersey City, New Jersey.

The singing competition—the final event of this year’s TD James Moody Jazz Festival at NJPAC—was open to solo vocalists who were not signed to a major record label. Nearly 600 contestants from more than 30 countries submitted audio tracks online. Through three rounds of public voting, the field was narrowed to five performers.

The judges for the finals were six-time Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride; Grammy- and Tony-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater; vocalist Jane Monheit; Monifa Brown, a DJ at Newark public radio station WBGO; and record producer Matt Pierson. Accompanying the singers was a trio led by pianist and musical director Sergio Salvatore, with bassist Gregory Jones and drummer Buddy Williams.

Under the contest format, each singer performed two songs and then returned to sing one more.

McLendon’s decision to open with “Sophisticated Lady” and “Perdido”—two songs from the canon of Duke Ellington—proved wise, effectively showcasing her versatility as both a singer of ballads and a hard swinger.

The contest featured both a high level of skill and a diversity of vocal styles. The host for the finals, WBGO on-air personality Gary Walker, congratulated the members of the audience for being on hand “to witness the start of some spectacular careers.”

“You can legitimately say, ‘I knew them when,’” Walker said.

Spalletta, possessed of a silken voice with remarkable fluidity and range, kicked off the first round with “Everybody’s Song But My Own” and “Stella By Starlight.”

After McLendon performed her first two songs, Fawson, a risk-taker who frequently plays with the shape, timing and color of a lyric or note, sang “My Heart Stood Still” and “It Never Entered My Mind.”

Gečytė, who has been touring and recording for more than a decade with New Jersey-born bassist Gene Perla, swung earnestly on “Destination Moon” and displayed superlative skills as a ballad interpreter on “Angel Face.”

Sessoms, a complete and soulful performer, skillfully delivered the standards “Stardust” and “Love For Sale.” DB