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Samara Joy — voice of a new generation

Scott Haas
Samara Joy — voice of a new generation

Samara Joy McLendon, winner of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition in 2019, is at the age of 21 emerging as a powerful vocalist on the cusp of international fame. Her first album, self-titled, will be released on July 9 with Whirlwind Records, and a European tour will follow. Performing with her on the album are guitarist Pasquale Grasso, bassist Ari Roland and drummer Kenny Washington. Although she just graduated from college this spring, Samara Joy, which is her professional name, has been identified as a star-in-the-making by big names in entertainment, such as Spike Lee and Regina King. The Banner caught with up with Samara Joy from her home in the Bronx, New York City.

Banner: Your first album will be released on July 9. Tell us everything we need to know about the songs you chose.
Samara Joy McLendon: You should know that the songs are all standards of the Great American Songbook made famous by my heroes, my idols: Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McCrae. Songs include “Stardust,” “Everything Happens To Me,” “It’s Easy To See the Trouble with Me is You,” and “Moonglow.”


Your grandparents Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon led the Philadelphia-based gospel group The Savettes and your dad toured with gospel artist Andraé Crouch. What were their roles in your musical life?
Thanksgiving was a master class in music! I learned everything from my family. They’re my inspiration, and I joined in when I wasn’t too nervous. My uncle played drums, my father played bass and sang. Everybody sang! But I didn’t start singing until I was in middle school. I was a late bloomer! I’m so grateful to have the direct inspiration.

As a worship leader in your church choir and with your family background in gospel, what are listeners hearing in your music that brings gospel into the mix?
I can’t say that it’s in the song material, but my voice did develop in the choir. The tone in my voice. The emotion in my voice. The ways I interpret a song.

How did you get into jazz?
So when I was in high school, around the time I was trying to decide where to go to college, I joined a jazz band after school and learned a standard I have in my pocket: “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart,” by Duke Ellington. I auditioned at only one school, SUNY Purchase, and in the Jazz Studies Program there, from which I just graduated, I met other students who were really into jazz.

You won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition in 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. What is the actual competition?
They open up submissions from May through September, and each applicant has to submit three audio clips on their website. I was one of five finalists. I had about a month to prepare for the actual competition. There were two rehearsals, Friday and Saturday, and then the final program took place on Sunday. Each singer sang three songs. In my year, the judges included Christian McBride, Jane Monheit and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Who are you listening to currently?
I love listening to vocalists Cécile McLorin Salvant and Jazzmeia Horn.

I see you’re performing soon in London and Italy. How about stateside?
Yes, I’m so excited about all of it! I’ll be at Ronnie Scott’s in London on July 6th and 7th, in Paris on the 8th, and at a festival in Perugia, in Umbria, on the 9th. In the U.S., I’ll be performing in Philadelphia and then headlining at Mezzrow [in New York City] and also at William Patterson University in Cape May, New Jersey.

I read in a blog from WBGO DJ Keanna Faircloth that Spike Lee, George Clooney, Chloe Zhao and “One Night in Miami” director Regina King named you as a young woman who “just seems like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald are both living in her body.” What was it like for you to hear that?
That was insane! I saw a comment on Instagram saying, “Regina King is so right” and citing an article in the Hollywood Reporter; I hadn’t known about it. It still doesn’t feel real.

I know you’re only 21, but you’re lucky to have mentors and a musical family. Any advice for up-and-coming musicians? Particularly women?
Do what you love and be authentic, and willing to grow, and learn from others. I’m so used to being independent and trying to figure things out on my own, but I know it’s OK to ask for help and seek mentors. Break free from
your shell.