In November, on a train home to the Bronx after singing at an event at Kennedy Center, Samara Joy had to contain herself when she found out she’d been nominated for two Grammy Awards. And not just for Best Jazz Vocal Album —for her newest release Linger Awhile (September 16) — but also in the overall Best New Artist category, unheard of for a traditional jazz singer.
“I found out 30 minutes before we got to Penn Station,” she says. “And so I had to keep in everything until I got off the train.”
“Oh, there’s a video,” she says, a big grin breaking out. “There’s a video that’s been shared now, that you can watch of me.”
It’s quite something — an eruption of screams, laughs and some physics-defying dance moves.
She’s barely 23 and until several years ago she’d had little exposure to the music she’s excelling with now, let alone dream of Grammy Awards. Gospel was the main soundtrack of her youth. Her grandparents, Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, led the well-known Philadelphia gospel group the Savettes and her father, Antonio McLendon, played bass for gospel star Andraé Crouch. (Her father and grandfather, plus an uncle and two cousins, are featured on her new seasonal single of the hymn “O Holy Night.”)
Her epiphany came only after enrolling in the music program at the State University of New York at Purchase.
“I would listen to Sarah Vaughan and be like, ‘Oh gosh! I didn’t know this style of singing existed!’” she says. Now, her interpretations of “Misty,” “Someone to Watch Over Me”—as well as lesser-known gems—showcase her stunning range and vivacious spirit, earning her glowing comparisons to Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
And when did shestart singing like that?
“In front of people? It was a jam session at a club called Dizzy’s, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City,” she says. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’”
Clearly she did. That was 2018 when she was a sophomore. In 2019 she won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and in 2021 released her debut album, Samara Joy, with a trio featuring two of her professors, guitarist Pasquale Grasso and drummer Kenny Washington. Soon she signed with the storied Verve Records label — home to Ella herself in her most-celebrated years — which released the new album last summer, just a year after her graduation.
So, to recap: In only four years she’s gone from hardly ever having sung jazz to being on Verve, sharing stages with such luminaries as Dianne Reeves (they just did a short tour together with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), appeared at Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival and, of course, getting those Grammy nominations.
She’s even writing her own lyrics to transcribed instrumental solos a la the late Jon Hendricks. It’s a way in which she can make this “old” music young, make it hers, without gimmicking up the sound. One of two songs with her words on the new album, “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew),” is to a solo from a 1957 Fats Navarro recording, spurred by an assignment in class taught by trumpeter Jon Faddis. The inspiration was an unlikely, though age-appropriate, source: a teen-romance novel she was reading.
“Whenever I think about writing lyrics, I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s come up with some sort of story I know I can tell.”
She laughs. “I was listening to Betty Carter sing an original of hers called ‘30 Years’ where she talks about being married to someone for 30 years and then they step out on the relationship. Like…I know I can’t talk about that!”
Her nostalgia right now, though, is for November. “I wish I could get that day back,” she says. “I wish I’d bottle up that feeling again, of just finding out. It’s beautiful.”
Time I woke up Generally, I wake up around 9:30 a.m., no matter what time I actually went to bed the night before.
Every day starts with Brushing my teeth, washing my face and even writing in my journal.
Breakfast consists of Breakfast scramble of kale, bell peppers, eggs, and sausage. Side of toast when the mood is right.
To get going I always Get out of bed immediately and do the floss/brush/skincare routine.
I don’t feel dressed without My favorite Nike hoodie, especially when there are no errands to run for the day.
Before I start working I must Listen to music. It really sets the tone for the day and reminds me of areas where I need to improve and inspires me to keep growing.
Currently working on Writing lyrics to some of my favorite jazz compositions by musicians like Barry Harris and Charles Mingus. The melodies are gorgeous.
But I’d really love to be Learning a new language or taking piano lessons.
Book I’m reading I just finished reading Homegoingby Yaa Gyasi. Now I’m reading a Jon Hendricks interview.
If I had to play one album on repeat, it would be Errol Garner’s Nightconcert.
The perfect midday consists of Walking through the park in my neighborhood.
To help get through the day I need Peppermint tea or hot chocolate.
Not a day goes by without speaking to My parents.
My daydreams consist of Thoughts surrounding music…if I’ll ever be as good at the electric bass as my dad.
In a perfect day, in a perfect world I’d eat regularly and exercise every day.
I’ll always fight for My family and friends.
Currently in love with Reading. Being on tour actually helped to reignite my passion for finding old and new stories to dive into.
Hoping to make time to watch My favorite genre of movie: rom-action comedies.
By my bedside I always have Water, my laptop, and a list of to-dos for the next day.
To help get through the night I don’t have to do anything but lay my head on the pillow and I’m fast asleep.
Bed time Varies, but I’d say between the hours of 9:00 p.m. and midnight.
When I think about tomorrow, it’s always Another opportunity to get it right.