Ascending to a new height in her artistry, jazz music’s premiere savant is ready to learn new things
WORDS BY NAT LAZZAROTTO | PHOTOGRAPHY BY MEREDITH TRUAX | THE BRONX
AUG 08 | ISSUE 12 | ELLINGTON
Still reeling from a double Grammy win for her 2022 album Linger Awhile, 23-year-old Samara Joy has seen remarkable success in these early years of her professional career. With a voice already dripping with the tones, history, and artistry of great jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson, it is no wonder her accolades now include the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album─an award first given to Ella herself in 1977, the Grammy Award for Best New Artist─a big win for a jazz artist competing with more mainstream artists in a general category, on top of winning the 2019 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. As the self-proclaimed “first Gen Z jazz-singing star,” she grapples with the external pressure of her musical heritage and influences, while challenging herself to make mistakes, learn, and find her own way.
Linger Awhile, Joy’s major label debut under Verve, is her second album and follow-up to her self-titled album from the year prior for Whirlwind. It comprises some of the most classic jazz repertoire, some well known, and others more obscure. The feat of receiving the Grammy for Best New Artist with an album of songs many times older than the artist themself is something to be praised in its own right, especially given the instrumentation found on the album, a rotating cast that’s as small as two and, in the case of Thelonius Monk’s “‘Round Midnight”, as large as seven. Joy’s voice soars above the band, coupled with time-tested lyrics that at once evoke nostalgia and are immediately relatable to all who have experienced the trials (and errors) of romance.
Joy’s influences are like a walk through the Jazz Hall of Fame: from the legendary vocalists listed above, to Fats Navarro and Lester Young, to the late Barry Harris─a dear mentor to whom Linger Awhile is dedicated. Of note is the depth in which Joy has plunged into the history of jazz. Her exposure to the genre is relatively recent, beginning in earnest during her time in school at the State University of New York’s Purchase College. Her use of vocalese — a technique ubiquitous in the bebop era where one puts lyrics to instrumental solos or melodies — highlights her passion for the history of jazz, just as her artistic vision highlights a desire to build upon that history.
"Linger Awhile" Album Cover
Varsity Series - Samara
sM | Congrats on winning your first two Grammys. Has it sunk in yet?
SJ ─ No, and I don’t know if it ever really will because it’s just so unbelievable. Going into it, I was like, “Okay, I’m really excited. This is a new experience. I’m going to ‘Music’s Greatest Night’ and I’m just gonna have fun.” Yeah ... it hasn’t sunk in yet.
sM | One of the things that so many people find impressive about you, in the background of the music that you make, is that you’re a bit of a savant of jazz history. Owing to the influence of your grandparents, your parents, and growing up in the Bronx, in many ways you were made by the music you make. You’ve said, “I’m still very much a student, even though I’ve graduated,”─what did you mean by that?
SJ ─ I meant that I’ve now entered into the real school of what it takes to be an artist and a singer and a performer. In school, you get the foundation of things that you need to know – rules, history, background – making sure that you’re prepared to go into the world of music.
The classroom is a safe space, so when you get to the classroom of the stage, that’s when all of the truth starts to show and you really get to sharpen your craft. You’ve learned the language of the music, you’ve learned its history, but now it’s time to follow your own creative voice in the midst of all that.
sM | One of the recurrent stylistic devices in Linger Awhile is the use of vocalese. But you of course have to first find these instrumental classics. What is your process of discovery, and how far back have you gone?
SJ ─ I think specifically the ones that I recorded happened because of being in school, being in class, and hearing about musicians that I didn’t know of: Lester Young, Fats Navarro. I was like, “Who are these musicians? I wanna know.” I’m not expected to know everybody’s entire catalogue, but I wanted to research a little bit more.
And through researching people – researching their songs, looking up albums, and just listening – I don’t wanna say they found me, but I knew exactly which ones I wanted to write lyrics for the moment I heard them.
I think that’s what happens anyway when I’m listening to music because when I try to seek out a certain song or try to ... I guess, look for it, it seems farther and farther away. (Laughs) My process really is just to listen, enjoy, and absorb. Then from that, that’s when the ideas flow and the songs eventually show themselves.
sM | As a Gen-Z artist singing “music of her parent’s childhoods” – which is incredibly sincere music that connects with other young listeners – why do you think this revival of that retro vocal jazz aesthetic is connecting with a younger generation?
SJ ─ I think that there’s definitely an aspect of society, or maybe of this generation in particular, that craves nostalgia. I hear the term “90s R&B” being thrown around constantly.
It’s interesting because as connected as I feel to my generation, I’ve always felt like I liked different music. I didn’t really listen to much rap (I wasn’t allowed to), but I was quote-unquote “old school” because I liked classic love songs – whether they were from the ‘90s, the ‘70s, or the ‘60s – so I can’t deny that’s part of my musical identity.
When I was 10 years old I was singing along to breakup songs and songs that maybe I shouldn’t have been listening to. And although the songs I work with now may be older than those I was singing when I was 10, I think that the message remained. Whether it’s love, or love lost, or heartbreak, or (with “Guess Who I Saw Today”) infidelity and betrayal─all those feelings, they connect people no matter what era the song is from.