Samara Joy’s Big Year: Rising Star Artist/Rising Star Vocalist

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“I don’t want to listen to jazz because I have to save it,” said Joy. “I want to listen to it and play it because I like it.”

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

It would be safe to say that Samara Joy, the 23-year-old vocalist with a spellbinding voice and sophisticated command of the jazz tradition, is having an exceptional year.

In February, Joy won both the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for her sophomore triumph, Linger Awhile (Verve), as well as the Grammy for Best New Artist — a practically unheard-of honor for artists outside of the realm of pop music. And, as of this month, Joy’s been recognized as Rising Star Female Vocalist of the Year and Rising Star Artist of the Year in the DownBeat Critics Poll.

“DownBeat is one of those resources [that] I’ve been able to [use to] look up and find articles from everybody like Sarah Vaughan and James Brown,” said Joy. “It means a lot to be recognized by an organization and a magazine that’s supported jazz for so long. It means everything.”

Coincidentally, on the day she spoke with DownBeat about these fresh accolades, those gleaming Grammys arrived at her parents’ house. The fact that they were sent there, and not to the Bronx native’s new apartment in Harlem, speaks to her humble, hardworking character and the gratitude she feels toward her musical family, which played an important role in where she is today.

“I want to look at [the Grammys] from time to time but I don’t want to see them [every day],” said Joy. “I’m only just beginning, you know? There’s still more music to be made and more growth that needs to happen. I’m not saying that it isn’t great. It’s awesome, and I’m very happy that my parents get to experience all of this, like, ‘Hey, by the way, check out my daughter.’”

Joy’s father, Antonio Charles Mclendon, is a vocalist and bassist who’s played widely with gospel artist Andraé Crouch, and her paternal grandparents were the founders of The Savettes, a notable Philadelphia gospel group. Naturally, Joy was singing for audiences as early as 5th grade, and by 16, she was tapped to sing in front of the gospel choir at her contemporary church, which live-streamed services all over the world. These early performance opportunities helped Joy become comfortable on stage early on — and she continues to perform with her family to this day. In December, in fact, she will tour with her family members as “Samara Joy and the McLendon Family,” performing the gospel music she was raised on.

Jazz first came into Joy’s life at Fordham High School for the Arts. While studying there, she was tapped as vocalist for the jazz band. She went on to win Best Vocalist at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition. Then she headed off to SUNY Purchase, where she says some of the more formative moments for her jazz career occurred.

For instance, it was at SUNY Purchase that Joy first met and sang with the masterful guitarist Pasquale Grosso, a visiting affiliate artist at the school who has become one of Joy’s closest collaborators. Along with Grosso’s appearance on Linger Awhile, Joy performs with Grosso’s trio and the pair have released several jaw-dropping YouTube videos of duo performances. Grosso’s exploratory and pianistic approach to the guitar keeps Joy hooked.

“I like playing with people who are constantly seeking different ways to approach and make music. I think he’s one of those people,” said Joy. “I feel like we’re going to move [jazz] forward steeped in tradition [and] understanding what jazz sounds like, but also [by] honoring our own creative impulses.”

This passion-fueled and future-looking philosophy is evident in the way that Joy approaches music and audiences.

As she sings standards like “Misty” and “’Round Midnight” on Linger Awhile, she’s fluent in the jazz language, but not tethered to it, as she responds on a whim to the emotional timbre of a lyric and chases down improvisational flourishes with aplomb. And, with that same sense of boundlessness, she’s also done something that few jazz artists have been able to do: genuinely reach new young listeners across social media platforms, especially on TikTok, where she has nearly 600,000 followers as of this writing.

“There are a lot of people that come to my shows that say, ‘This is the first exposure to jazz I have ever had ... and it’s because I saw you on Instagram, Spotify ... or whatever,’” said Joy, who herself listens widely and shares with her peers a love of pop stars like Adele and Snoh Alegra. “The market and the radio are so oversaturated with everything else, I think [young people] are just not used to the sounds [of jazz]. They just don’t know ... whether it’s in the ’50s or whether it’s … a contemporary genre.”

As Joy looks forward, she’s pushing her artistry forward — particularly by taking interesting melodies from instrumental jazz standards and contemporary compositions and writing her own lyrics to them.

“That feels like [something] that’s holding vocal jazz back, only singing standards,” said Joy. “I find myself being attracted to the way [instrumentalists] interpret a standard or interpret their own composition, and I want to write lyrics to [those melodies], not necessarily to create a new song but introduce people to a melody they may not hear otherwise.”

At the same time, passionate about creating even more connections for new listeners of jazz, in an authentic way. She’s teaching workshops in elementary schools — in fact, she had just finished doing a workshop in New York for 7- to 11-year-olds before her call with DownBeat — and continuing to consider how to share jazz with people on her social media channels without putting the idea of saving the genre on them.

“I don’t want to listen to jazz because I have to save it. I want to listen to it and play it because I like it,” said Joy. “That’s why I’m happy that on social media I can [come] from an authentic place, not from desperation or anything like that. I don’t know if I can save it. I didn’t even create it. I’m just trying to add my footprint to the genre and ... I’m glad that I can be one of the voices that advocates for it.” DB



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