Samara Joy brought back old school jazz. It won him two Grammys

  • Author: Mark Savage
  • BBC music correspondent

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Joy’s velvety soft alto brings to mind the golden age of jazz singers

When Samara Joy sings, the world stops. The tension disappears, the shoulders relax, calmness seems to be within reach.

The 23-year-old’s sound is both timeless and fresh, blending old-school jazz crooning with the R&B singers she grew up with.

He is not yet a household name, but those who know, know.

And last month, the Grammys gave him the ultimate endorsement – awarding him Best Jazz Vocal Album and, more importantly, Best New Artist.

The winners of the latter award include Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo. To win, Joy had to defeat roster regulars like Latto, Måneskin and Wet Leg.

Speaking in London a month after the ceremony, she recalls the moment Rodrigo opened the envelope and read her name.

“My eyes were closed and I was holding my little brother’s hand; and when he said my name, it was like, ‘Oh shoot, oh shoot, oh shoot!’

“All these people were defending me, Adele, Lizzo, Taylor Swift… so I was completely flushed, completely humbled.”

But when he got on stage, a realization dawned.

“I had left my phone behind,” he laughs, “so my whole speech was just sitting at the table!”

After cheekily improvising his thanks, the night improved immeasurably.

“Beyoncé said congratulations to me after the show, which was ridiculous. I’m in the same room with Beyonce? And she knew I existed? That’s just crazy.”

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The singer says she only avoided crying over being named Best New Artist because she was “already in tears” after winning Best Jazz Album earlier in the night.

At this point, however, Joy should be used to receiving honors.

Although she only started jazz five years ago, she has already won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and been awarded the Ella Fitzgerald Memorial Scholarship.

His voice is warm and rich, lingering over the notes like he’s tasting wine and seething with emotional intensity.

He credits some of it to his producer/manager Matt Pierson, who told him to “pretend the microphone is the ear of the person listening to you.”

But he also has an innate ability to take an old standard and make it sound like the lyrics were ripped from his diary.

It’s an approach that causes confusion for fans who aren’t well versed in the jazz repertoire.

“People are like, ‘I love your song, guess who I saw today?’ And I’m like, ‘I wish that was mine!'” she says of her latest single, originally made famous by Nancy Wilson.

“Other people are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know about that song before and it’s a really cool story.’ I think it’s amazing that people are making that connection.”

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Born Samara Joy McLendon, the singer grew up in the Bronx, New York in a sheltered, church-oriented household.

“My parents were very protective. My dad picked us up and dropped us off at school, we went to church together, we didn’t go to the mall, I didn’t really hang out or anything like that.”

An industrious child, he devoured Teen fiction (“less popular, cheaper”) and competed in coding competitions with his school’s computing club.

But the music was always close. His grandparents are Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, who formed one of Philadelphia’s most prominent gospel outfits, The Savettes; and his father was a bassist who toured with gospel icon Andraé Crouch.

Joy also tried the bass, but it was the singing that really fascinated her.

“I used to have an iPod Nano and my dad would download music for me. I remember listening to Lalah Hathaway, Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder…and I also loved Disney Channel songs. High School Musical? That’s me.”

As he listened, he picked out various details such as phrasing, intonation and vibrato, and studied what made the singer different.

“I tried to copy every little thing and make sure I really paid attention.”

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The singer has been surrounded by music since childhood

When he was 16, he was chosen to lead worship at his local church, three services each week for two years. The experience changed him forever.

“It basically taught me how to deal with nervousness, but it also helped me realize that the show wasn’t just about me.

“In church, it’s like, ‘We came to connect with something bigger than ourselves.’ So if I’m going to be a vessel for that, I have to be completely free of any ego or nerves. That’s what I still hold onto. me now.”

Hooked on jazz

His first exposure to jazz came in high school, where he performed “contemporary, fusion” with a jazz band, but Gospel was his focus until he enrolled in college.

Even then, he chose SUNY Purchase’s acclaimed jazz program, more for its proximity to home than the chance to study with jazz masters like Pasquale Grasso and drummer Kenny Washington (both featured on his debut album).

“I remember the first day I was so confused and felt left behind,” she says, “but it turned out to be the best for me.”

When friends introduced him to Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughan, he was “hooked” and applied the same analytical approach to jazz he had practiced on Disney soundtracks as a child.

“I was like, I’ve never heard of these women before. It was really eye-opening.”

Encouraged by her professors, she won the prestigious Sarah Vaughan Jazz Competition in 2019, but her subsequent debut at the Newport Jazz Festival was abruptly canceled when the pandemic hit.

Instead, his big break came on Facebook.

Asked to record a “thank you” video for the benefactors who funded her scholarship, she filmed herself singing Ella Fitzgerald’s Take Love Easy, accompanied by one of her professors.

The next morning, the video had 4,000 views. Four days later, the number had grown to a million, and Tony Award winner Audra McDonald praised her performance.

Seizing the opportunity, Joy set up a GoFundMe page and raised $8,000 (£6,500) to fund her debut album.

Recorded in two days and released by UK’s Whirlwind Recordings, the self-titled LP received rave reviews for its cleverly chosen collection of jazz standards that harkened back to the golden age of interpretive vocalists of the 1930s and 60s.

“I was really interested in focusing on songs that no one else was doing or that were really rare and that I could make my own,” says the singer, who borrowed her approach from Cécile McLorin Salvant. (“He has an incredible repertoire. The songs are so random, but when he sings them, it makes sense.”)

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The singer is planning a tour with the rest of his family for the end of 2023

But touring the album made Joy realize that she had leaned too heavily on one aspect of her musical personality.

“Most of the songs (in my set) were sad, so I wanted one that was about love that wasn’t too corny.”

He adapted Can’t Get Out Of This Mood, previously recorded by Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone, to “the nervous feeling of being in love”.

“It’s very positive and uplifting. I thought, ‘We can bring this to the series to break up all the misery!’

It became the centerpiece of his Grammy-winning second album, Linger A While; Alongside Guess Who I Saw Today – the story of an unfaithful partner delivered with nail-biting narrative tension.

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As with his debut, Joy financed the recording himself before licensing it to historic jazz label Verve Recordings – proof that his scholarship on jazz greats extends beyond their music.

“With my mother, I watched a lot of documentaries about the exploitation of people in music, the backgrounds of artists’ lives and navigating business relationships,” he admits.

The resulting independence is a shrewd one: After the Grammys, the bidding war for her third album will be tight. But after experiencing the glamor of “music’s biggest night”, he is wary of fame.

“I saw a lot of celebrities that I’ve only ever seen online and I was like, ‘Wow, you’re real.'” But at the same time, I don’t want to be in their shoes.

“Coming to watch and put on a pedestal? It seems difficult.

“So I’m like, ‘I’m cool, I’m cool.’ I go back home, take the metro, walk the streets and just be normal.”

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