Allen Named 1st Male Winner of Sarah Vaughan Competition


G. Thomas Allen soaks in the applause after winning this year’s Sassy Awards.

(Photo: Courtesy NJPAC)

G. Thomas Allen’s falsetto vocals make him unusual for a male singer — and they helped him become the first man ever to win the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition on Nov. 14.

The Chicago-based vocalist, composer and music educator drew on his training as a classical countertenor at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, showcasing a four-octave vocal range.

“My gut [feeling] was that they were either going to love it or hate it because it is a very unique approach,” Allen, 37, told DownBeat in a post-competition interview.

He was only the fourth man ever to perform in the finals of the 10-year-old competition, following a 2017 rule change that allowed male singers.

The contest is also known as the Sassy Awards, a nod to a nickname for singer Sarah Vaughan (1924–’90), an NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame inductee who hailed from Newark. It was the first time a full audience was allowed to witness the proceedings since November 2019. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 edition of the competition was held in front of the judges and only a smattering of guests, although a recording of the show was made available on Facebook.

Allen, who is the jazz and contemporary voice instructor at the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) and serves on the voice faculty of Columbia College Chicago, received a $5,000 cash prize.

Asked how it felt to be the first male winner of the Vaughan competition, Allen, who has performed with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, said: “The first thing is gratitude because the legacy is bigger than I am.”

The former Los Angeles Opera artist, who counts Bobby McFerrin as his top jazz influence, opened with “Good Morning Heartache,” separating himself from the pack with his first high, long notes. Shifting into uptempo mode on “Just One Of Those Things,” he intentionally sang an octave lower to highlight his versatility, he said during the interview. He closed with “Misty,” a Vaughan signature number.

With Allen’s victory at NJPAC, he joins the ranks of past winners Cyrille Aimée (2012), Jazzmeia Horn (2013), Laurin Talese (2018), Samara Joy (2019) and 2020 co-winners Gabrielle Cavassa and Tawanda Suessbrich-Joaquim.

This year, second place went to April May Webb, from Edison, New Jersey. Webb, a founding member of Sounds of A&R, which has toured with drummer T.S. Monk, finished second and received a $1,500 cash prize. Arta Jekabsone, a native Latvian who lives in New York and is an accomplished veteran of jazz singing competitions, finished third and took home $500.

The other finalists were Vik Gecyte, a Paris-based native of Lithuania, who was a finalist in the 2019 Vaughan competition, and Andrea Miller of Costa Mesa, California, who has been active internationally, playing clubs in France, Mexico and Los Angeles.

Held as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival at NJPAC, the festival was open to solo vocalists who were not signed to a major record label. Finalists were chosen from more than 160 submissions from over 25 countries.

The judges for the finals were Steve Williams, president and CEO of Newark public radio station WBGO; vocalist Jazzmeia Horn; guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli; vocalist Sheila Jordan; and pianist and composer Renee Rosnes.

Accompanying the singers was a trio led by pianist and musical director Sergio Salvatore, with bassist Gregory Jones and drummer Buddy Williams.

Before the winners were announced, host and seven-time Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride teamed up with vocalist Dianne Reeves, a five-time Grammy recipient, in performances of “Lullaby Of Birdland” and “Tenderly.”

Webb opened the competition, singing “Social Call,” “’Round Midnight” and an original, “They Keep Saying No.” Next came Miller, who performed “The Masquerade Is Over,” “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Willow Weep for Me.” Gecyte, up next, sang “That Old Black Magic,” “That’s All” and “I Got Thunder And It Rains.” She was followed by Allen and then Jekabsone, who sang “Four,” “Gone With The Wind” and an original, “Clouds.” DB

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