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Samara Joy's polyphonic stardom

A few years after winning a prestigious jazz vocal competition while still a college student, 23-year-old Samara Joy is now a multiple Grammy nominee for her album <em>Linger Awhile</em>.
Meredith Truax
Courtesy of the artist
A few years after winning a prestigious jazz vocal competition while still a college student, 23-year-old Samara Joy is now a multiple Grammy nominee for her album Linger Awhile.

Samara Joy stood gently swaying, within a rare circle of calm late last year, as a Hammond organ purred in sanctified accord. It was four days before Christmas. Joy was at Ardmore Music Hall just outside of Philadelphia, preparing to sing "O Holy Night," which she'd released as a holiday single with The McLendon Family — her family, who was with her onstage. Joy took a deep breath and started into the hymn, her voice centered in a contralto register, exuding understated warmth and composure. It was only later in the song, when she sang "a night di-vine" — punching up the last syllable to a climactic E-flat, which she held for six long seconds before the vocal equivalent of a barrel roll — that Joy showed any sign of exertion, or the glittery star power she'd accrued. The turn in that moment was a reminder that for all her persuasive ease as an ingénue, she's acutely aware of her charisma, and how to wield control.

One month earlier, several days after Joy celebrated her 23rd birthday, she'd been named a nominee in two categories at the 65th Grammy Awards: best jazz vocal album, for her strong sophomore effort on Verve, Linger Awhile; and more surprisingly, best new artist, alongside the likes of Atlanta rapper Latto, Latin pop singer Anitta and Nashville troubadour Molly Tuttle. Joy was on a train from Washington D.C. to New York when she got the news — "but I had to keep quiet, 'cause I was in the quiet car," she later said, on The Jennifer Hudson Show. Arriving at Penn Station, she was greeted by her sister, who filmed her uncorked reaction to the nominations; a jubilant clip on Joy's TikTok has, at last count, racked up almost 4 million views.

What has come since for Joy is a high-wire act, a teetering balance of prior obligations and new opportunities. In early December, she was on the road for Big Band Holidays, an annual tradition of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, when she got an invitation to sing the national anthem at a New York Giants game. So after a concert in York, Pa., she got on a bus, making it to MetLife stadium in time to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" for 80,000 NFL fans — and then hustled back to the tour. When Big Band Holidays returned to New York for several nights at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Joy kicked into multitask mode, dropping her seasonal singles, engaging in a blizzard of promotional activity, and performing on The Kelly Clarkson Show and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. As Lara Downes recently put it on the NPR series Amplify: "All of a sudden, Samara Joy was everywhere." It's no wonder that, in order to spend the holidays with family, her best option was to bring them onstage.

Awards-season campaigning is more of an Oscars thing, but Joy's cheerful ubiquity, and the unforced glow of her ability, have conspired to make her perhaps the closest thing to a frontrunner in this year's best new artist race. Which is remarkable, given that Samara Joy sings jazz and songbook standards in a straight-ahead style that was last broadly popular in the 1950s and early '60s. Unlike late 20th-century platinum torchbearers Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall, she's finding mainstream success at a moment of extreme atomization in the music business, let alone pop culture at large. So her breakout moment comes with an inevitable burden of accountability for the art form.

"I feel it, and I understand it," Joy says about that weight on her shoulders, speaking recently from her apartment in Upper Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood. Name-checking some influences, starting with Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan, she points out that those affinities come with a natural point of departure. "I couldn't do this without that foundation that they've laid," she says. "But I am 23, and I'm singing jazz in 2023, and I come from a different background than all of those artists. So I think that carrying on the tradition is progressing as you grow, and not being in a singular box."

Before the show at Ardmore Music Hall, I ran into Matt Pierson, a record industry veteran who produced both of Joy's albums, and signed on as her manager. (He stood behind a merch table, checking his phone.) Marveling at the ride Joy was on, Pierson was quick to give her all the credit; he's fond of calling her a "once-in-a-generation talent," a phrase that has figured prominently in her publicity materials. But he mentioned something else that felt like a key to understanding Joy's spectacular rise: how her audience parses into three distinct segments, which all converged to propel her to this point in her career. It was a recognition that, rather than be one thing to all people, Joy could be certain things to certain people, in different ways. Watching her evolve over the last several years, this made perfect sense to me, not as a commercial calculation but rather a savvy acknowledgment of her background, her talent and her temperament, along with a nod toward the artist she's determined to become.

Jazz fans: That's the first, thuddingly obvious audience segment in Joy's portfolio. Pierson knows the type well. He understands how much enthusiasm jazz listeners can shower on a bright young newcomer — provided the baseline requirements are met. Jazz fans don't just fall in line; they've seen enough hype and hustle to grow a little wary with their trust.

So it's worth restating one of the more startling talking points around Samara Joy: She's only been singing jazz for the last five years. After dipping a toe into the tradition at Fordham High School for the Arts, she received a full baptism at Purchase College, whose Jazz Studies faculty includes noted players like trumpeter Jon Faddis and drummer Kenny Washington. "Everybody was really supportive, but I still had this feeling like, 'I don't know if I belong,' " Joy now recalls. "Because I didn't have this preconceived notion of what it's supposed to sound like. But as it turns out, that allowed me to be a sponge and just soak everything in."

Her father, Antonio McLendon, is a singer and bassist who toured for years with gospel star Andraé Crouch, extending the legacy of his parents — Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, who sang in the lauded Philadelphia group The Savettes. (A highlight of the Ardmore Music Hall show was a cameo by Elder Goldwire McLendon, who is 92.) While this was the tradition into which Samara was born, Antonio didn't balk at her musical pivot. "When she came into contact with jazz, she immediately developed a respect for it," he says. "I've watched her study for hours, puzzling over things: 'How does Ella Fitzgerald scat like that?' I would hear her in the middle of the night practicing horn lines, because she learned that's something Ella would do."

Samara Joy performs in April 2022, at the Jazz At Lincoln Center Gala event Body + Soul: America Rises Through the Arts.
Noam Galai / Getty Images for Jazz At Lincoln Center
Getty Images for Jazz At Lincoln Center
Samara Joy performs in April 2022, at the Jazz At Lincoln Center Gala event Body + Soul: America Rises Through the Arts.

She was 19, still known as Samara McLendon, when I first heard her with the Purchase College Songbook Ensemble in 2019, singing "A Sailboat in the Moonlight." Later that year, as a contestant in the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition, she sat for her first radio interview, with Keanna Faircloth, then a host at WBGO. Faircloth recalls witnessing a miraculous transformation: "She came into the studio meek and mild, almost like a deer in the headlights, and she walked out onto that stage in this royal purple velvet dress, in full command. I couldn't even believe this was the same girl. It was like she took on a totally different persona."

McLendon won first place, and at 20, suddenly found herself in the spotlight's glare. "As brilliant as some of the other singers were, it was very clear to me that she was the one," says Pierson, who served on the judges' panel. The realization excited and worried him. "Normally with an artist this age, coming out of college," he reflects, "you'd have a couple of years of growth, developing your career, playing in other people's bands, and finding opportunities to work with potential mentors and masters. So to me the challenge is, as things move so quickly, how do you make sure you still facilitate those developmental processes?"

Pierson was an A&R executive at Warner Bros. in 1991, when saxophonist Joshua Redman won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and set off a major-label bidding war. After signing to Warner, Redman went on to make a slew of acclaimed albums produced by Pierson; so did a few of his peers, like pianist Brad Mehldau. Their generation caught the tail end of a cultural moment primed for youthful jazz talent, traveling a path forged by Wynton Marsalis — but also diverging from it, with forays into rock, funk and soul. Still, their evident proficiency and potential sent a reassuring message in jazz circles: The music had a bright future.

Instinctively, Pierson knew Samara McLendon could strike a similar chord. They started talking, and he eventually produced Samara Joy, recorded late in 2020 and released the following year on Whirlwind Recordings, a well-regarded independent label. Featuring a trio led by the Italian guitar virtuoso Pasquale Grasso, whom Pierson had signed to Sony Masterworks, it's a springy and elegant first outing for Joy. Its glowing reception made clear that she would need management, a role Pierson had long resisted in the industry. "But when Samara came along," he says, "I felt a connection with her, and frankly — I mean, I have three daughters in their 20s. I've worked with young artists who didn't have support, or people they could trust. I know all the horror stories about what can happen. I wanted to protect her and protect the music."

Last summer at the Newport Jazz Festival, where jazz fans have been the key constituency for some 70 years, Joy performed on a side stage and had the crowd eating out of her hand. It wasn't just her extravagant vocal command, or her relatable banter. She was also generous in showcasing Grasso, who was then still in the band. She exuded the air of someone in thrall to the jazz tradition — with a sensitive reading of Thelonious Monk's iconic ballad "'Round Midnight," after the example set by Carmen McRae, and the inclusion of a more obscure Monk piece, "San Francisco Holiday (Worry Later)," with lyrics that were once recorded by Jeanne Lee. These were a connoisseur's choices, but she made them seem open and accessible, allowing the audience to share in a feeling of discovery.

"With a couple of years of touring behind me," Joy says, "I find I'm a lot more comfortable with myself, and with being open to the audience. Because I really do want it to be a collective endeavor. You know: We're here to experience this music together."

That sense of communion speaks to Samara Joy's second audience segment, which stems from the Black experience. "It's a grown-up African American audience that encompasses the gospel church," Pierson says, "and also what used to be an urban adult-contemporary audience, which in some cases became smooth jazz. It's people that love Luther and Anita, Aretha and Sade, even Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye."

I've witnessed Joy's bond with this portion of her base, never more clearly than on a club date last fall at South Jazz Kitchen, an upscale soul-food restaurant in North Philadelphia. She connected easily with the audience, predominantly an older Black demographic that seemed to delight not only in her music but also her shining promise. She received the love with gracious humility, like a favorite niece at Thanksgiving, and sent it back through the music.

"The first time I saw her onstage, I could tell she was searching," her father reflects. "Now, I'm so amazed at her comfortability onstage. Picking up on all the little signals and words and signs to include people, to make them feel like they're in it together." At South, she prefaced a song called "Nostalgia (The Day I Knew)" — featuring her charming lyrics to a 1958 Fats Navarro recording, the result of an assignment in Jon Faddis' transcription class at Purchase — by polling the room: Any couples out there? How long have you been together? She turned this into an extended bit of crowd work, fielding answers with wide-eyed awe and good-natured teasing.

Considering Joy's familial foundation in gospel, soul and R&B, it's striking that her Grammy-nominated album, Linger Awhile, hews so faithfully to straight-ahead acoustic jazz. Even within those parameters, there's no cover of, say, a Lauryn Hill or Stevie Wonder song. This speaks to Joy's relationship with the jazz canon, which is still in the act of formation. But it also capitalizes on what you might call a market opportunity. Jazz hasn't been hurting for exceptional vocal talent lately, but all of the artists who broke through to a mainstream audience within the last dozen years — Gregory Porter, esperanza spalding, Cécile McLorin Salvant, José James, Jazzmeia Horn — have moved on from a traditional mode, delving into other forms and approaches. Joy has stepped all the way in to fill the void.

What's fascinating is the way her repertory resonates in different settings. "Guess Who I Saw Today," for instance, is a story song addressed to an unfaithful partner, with a narrative tension that builds to its accusatory climax. When I first heard Joy's version on Linger Awhile, it struck me as callow, an expert but hollow piece of playacting. (I was biased, having once witnessed Salvant, among our greatest musical dramatists, completely sell the song.) But when Joy started into "Guess Who I Saw Today" at South Jazz Kitchen, I heard the contented sighs in the room — a spark of recognition from those who love Nancy Wilson's recording from 1960, or perhaps know the earlier version that Joy more closely emulates, which Carmen McRae made in '57.

Joy performed the song again at Ardmore Music Hall, and as soon as she began, a woman seated near me murmured, "Oh, I love this song." Later, when I asked Pierson whether he'd been the one to suggest "Guess Who I Saw Today" for the album, he confirmed that he had, but with different reasons in mind. "There's a new audience Samara is reaching that doesn't know that song," he says. "I felt it was a song she could own, and that it could appeal to her peers."

The magic trick of that resonance, across multiple audiences, relies in part on Joy's commitment to a unified sound. "I have friends in the industry," her father says, "and they're like, 'Oh she could do an Anita Baker song like this.' But I encouraged her not to rush it. I said, 'You've struck a nerve in a genre that needed some revitalization to bring it back to the prominent place where it deserves to be. And God chose you with this wonderful voice you've been blessed with.' "

McLendon continues: "It seems like she was groomed for this style of music. Because it just fits her so well. So I tell her, 'Offer that genre everything that you have. Take it up — and bring a lot of young people with you, to understand the value in it.' "

When people mention the substantial young audience that has rallied around Samara Joy, they're inevitably talking about TikTok. Long before her sister filmed her viral celebration dance around Penn Station last fall, Joy had found serious traction on the platform — often with clips that simply featured her singing, but also with breathless responses to her own good fortune. One video from just over a year ago features Joy's exaggerated facial expressions laid over a glowing endorsement from the actress and director Regina King. (It got 1.3 million views.)

So this is her third and most talked-about audience segment: "We call it the social media audience, but it's much more complex than that," Pierson says. "It's a younger demographic — 16 to 40, but a lot of people in their 20s. They discovered her on TikTok and say: 'I didn't know jazz could be this cool.' A lot of LGBTQ people, a lot of musical theater people, a lot of sophisticated college kids."

To hear everyone tell it, Joy included, she wasn't naturally drawn to social media. (Faircloth recalls encouraging her to get on Instagram.) But she belongs to a generation that instinctively understands short-form visual media. At first, she was intimidated by the extroversion and choreography she saw on TikTok, until she found a way in. "I know I can't dance, but I can share what I love to do, and hopefully people will gravitate toward it," she told Downes. "It grew exponentially in just a matter of weeks. Still, I'm finding that I'm meeting people on the platform that are like, 'I've never heard this kind of music before, you're exposing people to and taking them back to a time we've never been.' "

Joy's TikTok feed now mingles promotion with more personal fare: reaction clips, musical memes, a rapid-fire impersonation of famous singers. "It's been incredible to see her go from this really shy, introverted, all-to-herself type of young lady to someone who just blossoms in front of an audience," says McLendon. "Now, our family, we're a company of comedians. So there was always laughter, jokes, and everyone thinks they're the best comedian in our family. So I love watching her pull from that part of her life, to help her deal with the fear of people."

There are other artists of Joy's generation who have amassed a robust online following; one key example is the instrumental duo DOMi & JD Beck, who are also up for best new artist at the Grammys this weekend. Their hyperallusive brand of next-wave virtuosity, littered with inside jokes, would seem more ideally suited to the digital platforms they inhabit. And their music embodies a facet of jazz that Joy hasn't yet chosen to foreground: its voracious mutability, the tendency to keep absorbing and evolving, always one step ahead of comprehension.

Joy could go that route if she so chooses, just as she's begun to alter the public dimensions of her style. This week, as part of a best new artist tie-in with Spotify, she released a luxuriously intimate cover of Adele's blockbuster ballad "Someone Like You" — backed only by Shedrick Mitchell on organ, just as she'd been at the outset of "O Holy Night" in Ardmore. Joy's performance on the track is a study in gradual build and unguarded emotional connection, and it's a testament to her supreme self-confidence that she had the nerve to tackle the song.

She's scheduled to perform at the Grammy Premiere Ceremony on Sunday, and what happens beyond that is a matter of conjecture. For the whole spectrum of her fan base, which is probably about to get bigger and broader, this feels like a pivotal moment. Joy sees it, purely and simply, as a blessing. "The goal is to be as true to myself as I can be," she says, "while continuing to grow and stretch the boundaries of what I think I can do."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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