COVER STORY: Samara Joy, Making Jazz Cool Again for a New Generation

by | Dec 9, 2022 | Interviews and Features

To the casual listener, the cool and loungey sound of a jazz ensemble is likely to conjure up images of elegantly smokey and dimly-lit nightclubs buzzing with the chatter of debonair patrons sipping on expensive cocktails and exuding a perfectly cultivated air of urban sophistication. One might reasonably picture the type of refined and swanky environment where it would be expected to run into such urbane regulars as the late poet and art critic Frank O’Hara or the fictional Madison Avenue advertising guru Don Draper. A place that belongs in the collective memory, held together by the sweet and gentle sounds of a bygone era. But for jazz vocalist Samara Joy, the sassy and sultry sounds of yesteryear are less a reason for lapsing into teary-eyed nostalgia than a real opportunity to brighten the musical palette for today’s youth.

Born and raised in the Bronx, the twenty-two-year-old comes from a long lineage of musical performers. Her grandparents both performed with the Philadelphia-based gospel group The Savettes, while her father toured with gospel artist Andraé Crouch. From an early age, Joy began performing with her family’s church choir, learning the fundamentals of harmony in the process. It was this love for singing that eventually led her to attend Fordham High School for the Arts, where she won the award for Best Vocalist at JALC’s Essentially Ellington Competition. Emboldened by the experience, she enrolled in the jazz studies program at SUNY Purchase where she effectively began a promising and successful career as a vocalist.

While at SUNY, Joy won the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, an accomplishment that opened up various doors in the music industry. Following her graduation from SUNY in 2021, Joy released her eponymous debut, a lively collection of standards that won her both praise from critics as well as comparisons to legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. These accolades, in turn, landed her a live performance on the Today Show along with a record deal with the legendary jazz record label Verve Records. It’s on Verve that she released her second studio album, Linger Awhile, this last September.

I caught up with Joy and discussed her meteoric rise in the industry, her view on social media where she currently has over 182,000 followers on Tik Tok and nearly 100,000 followers on Instagram, and what the rest of the year has in store for her.

It’s safe to say that you come from a musical background. What are some of your first memories of listening to music?

They range. I remember listening to music in the car on the way to school with my dad. I also remember being at church listening to my family sing or my mom dancing at home while listening to her old favorites. There’s not really one moment, but a series of moments combined throughout my childhood.

Your family’s musical lineage goes back a long way. Your grandparents used to perform with the Philadelphia-based gospel group The Savettes, and your dad used to tour with gospel singer Andraé Crouch. How much has Gospel influenced you as a musician?

I would say that it influenced me deeply. I grew up listening to all of these amazing singers and these choirs and all these groups singing such amazing harmonies, even before I knew what harmony was. I would just try and copy lead singers, and eventually, I started singing in church seriously when I was 16. Singing in church, I realized that it’s not necessarily about your performance. It’s not about showing off what you can do. It’s more of an invitation for the audience to partake in the music. So similarly, I want that to be the case whenever I sing jazz. I want it to be an inviting and collective experience for the audience.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue music as a career, and what was it about jazz that attracted you to that genre?

I always loved singing and knew that it would be a huge part of my life in some way. But I actually didn’t know that I would make a career out of it until I started getting into jazz.  I was introduced to jazz in high school, but I wasn’t really interested in pursuing it until I went to college to study it. I think eventually what happened was that this amazing and broad world of music opened up and I just started getting into all the styles it had and into all of the instrumentalists and singers who established a style of song in the genre. While immersing myself in it, gigs also started coming up and that’s when I felt like I had found a place in singing and that it could become a career.

Did you listen to jazz through your teens, or did you gravitate toward other genres?

I listened to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and a mix of singers from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even some from the ‘90s. I loved Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross, a lot of Motown groups, The Spinners, The Isley Brothers, and anything else that was part of my parents’ soundtrack. Then, of course, artists like Destiny’s Child and Aaliyah or Beyonce.

You attended the jazz studies program at SUNY Purchase, and while there you won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019. Fast forward a couple of years to graduation, and you release your eponymous debut which opened up the doors to performing with the likes of Christian McBride as well as making an appearance on the Today Show. How did this feel for you as it was happening in real-time? How did you navigate this insane whirlwind of amazing experiences?

In real-time, it honestly felt really fast and overwhelming, and I don’t think that that feeling has left. Looking back on it, though, as fast and crazy as it felt I’m really grateful that through that period I got to play as many gigs as I did and got to work on applying what I learned in school on the stage.

Your newest record, Linger Awhile, came out this past month to glowing reviews. It was also your debut with the legendary label Verve Records. How did you come to work with Verve and what was the process of recording this album like?

So, we recorded the album first and then started shopping around and meeting with labels. There were a lot of meetings with a lot of amazing people, but ultimately, when we met with Verve it just felt right. The team there is unbelievably dedicated and supportive and I’m just incredibly grateful to have gotten to work with them on this record.

As far as recording the album, it was fairly straightforward. We knew that it was time to record again, so we came up with a list of songs that I wanted to sing that I felt would bring in the general public because they were a bit more popular. Once we picked the material, we just went into the studio and held a couple of rehearsals before recording the whole thing in two days. 

There’s a specific singing style that you use on this record called vocalese. You can hear it in your rendition of the late great Fats Navarro’s classic “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew).” For those that may not be familiar with it, tell me a bit about it and how it was that you came to experiment with it.

Vocalese is essentially putting lyrics to an improvised solo. The greatest group to ever do it was Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross although there are many others. But they are luminaries in the style. For my senior year of undergrad, in transcription class, I had an assignment where I was asked to bring in solos and my professor had me bring in one for “Funky Blues.” So, I had the solo for Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, and Benny Carter and I wrote lyrics for each one of the solos. I think that the pressure of being in school and it being an assignment made me actually enjoy it to the point that I actually had a lot of fun with it. And over time, it became a style that I’ve enjoyed exploring and playing around with.

As a Gen Z artist, you’ve been able to build a large and dedicated following on social media. Currently, you have over 182,000 followers on Tik Tok and nearly 100,000 followers on Instagram. What’s it like to bring a vintage genre to a mostly younger digital audience? And what do you see as the hurdles as well as the benefits of using social media to promote your brand?

I was never really much of a productive user of social media, but the response so far has been amazing. It’s cool because I get a lot of support from younger audiences who are really interested in what I’m doing and who often respond to my posts saying things like “you remind me of a time that I never lived in or a time I never knew.”

So, it feels great to know that I’m able to add to the musical palette that’s presented on social media. As far as pros and cons, online you can obviously reach way more people than you could physically at a club or a venue. It’s just amazing to see people from all over the world who find their way to my corner of the internet and become connected with me and each other. As far as cons, I’m not sure. Maybe when people tell me that I make Christmas music (laughs).

You’re currently on tour. What does the rest of the year look like for you and what’s on the horizon?

The horizon is looking quite busy. We’re in Europe until the 28th of October before getting back to play a couple of gigs in Chicago. After that, rehearsals start for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Tour. I’m going to be singing with the orchestra and with Dianne Reeves on tour for two weeks before going back to New York where it’s just going to be me with the JLCO. I also have some gigs coming up with my family, with my grandfather, my dad, and my cousins at the Ardmore Music Hall in December, so it’s going to be a busy couple of months.

Are there any artists that you look forward to working with in the future?

A lot of amazing bass players and R&B artists follow me, like Derrick Hodge, Matt Ramsey, PJ Morton, and Jazmine Sullivan so I would love to work with any one of them.

Follow on Instagram @samarajoysings

photos by Meredith Truax