samara joys voice and social media is helping jazz find fresh ears

Samara Joy’s Voice (and Social Media) Is Helping Jazz Find Fresh Ears

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Instead, Joy listened to the old-school R&B beloved by both her parents, “Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin and Stevie and Chaka,” she said, and sang in middle and high school musicals, making her theatrical debut as Erzulie (the goddess of love) in a sixth-grade production of “Once on This Island.” “I was scared about the acting part, because I was very shy — I still get that way sometimes,” she said. “But I wanted to sing, so I was like, ‘We’re going to learn these lines and try as best we can to get inside this character.’”

Eventually, Joy did begin singing in church, where her father also performed frequently. (Antonio McLendon is a singer, songwriter and bassist who has toured with the gospel star Andraé Crouch.) “I started in the choir when I was 16, and then I started to sing lead, which was nerve-racking,” she said. “The church live-streamed the services, and I had all these eyes on me.” She nonetheless became “more serious about it, because I was there all the time. We had rehearsal, we had Bible study, we had services on Saturday and Sunday. That was my priority — whereas jazz band was just an after school thing, a couple of songs here and there.”

When Joy won the Sarah Vaughan competition, “My grandfather was disappointed, I think” — Ruth McLendon had died in 2014 — “because he thought singing belonged in the church, that it should serve as worship to God,” she explained. “I don’t think he would ever come into a jazz club, because of his beliefs, which I respect and understand. I know that he still loves me, regardless of how he feels about the career decisions I’m making.”

Joy’s ambitions include writing; she penned rhapsodic lyrics for “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew),” a sweetly breezy number on “Linger Awhile.” “Now I’m paying more attention to the melodies and harmonics of all these songs I’m singing,” she said. “I’m telling this composer’s story and this lyricist’s story, and it’s beautiful, but I hope I can be influenced enough to write content for myself.”

Studying giants like Vaughan and Fitzgerald — Carmen McRae and Betty Carter are also favorites — has also made Joy eager to explore a range of styles: “Sarah Vaughan could sing anything; she could go incredibly deep and then she could sing operatically, and neither seemed like a struggle. I look at her, and at some opera singers, and I want that ease.”

When Joy speaks specifically of jazz, of course, there is a particular sense of devotion. “I look at all these influences — like Charlie Parker, like Duke Ellington, like Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan — and I think, these people were here,” she said, a measure of awe creeping into her quiet voice. “This is a young music, and they did so much in their lives to draw people to this type of music; it deserves to be talked about and shared. And as long as I’m passionate about it, that’s my goal — to share it.”