Likely the first Gen Z jazz singing star, the Bronx native has impressive vocal skills, a sizable following on TikTok and such high-profile fans as Regina King and Anita Baker. She makes her San Diego debut with a pair of March 19 concerts
The 2023 Grammy Awards took place more than a month ago, but Samara Joy’s feet are still not back on the ground.
“No, not yet!” said the 23-year-old vocal sensation, who won both the Best New Artist and Best Jazz Vocal Album honors.
A Bronx native, Joy became only the second jazz artist in the 65-year-history of the Grammys to earn the Best New Artist award. Bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding was the first, back in 2011. She was 26 at the time.
Unlike Spalding a decade ago, Joy has built a sizable following on social media, in particular on TikTok, where she has had millions of views over the past few years.
That makes Joy the first Gen Z jazz singing star, a fresh-faced vocal sensation who — at least offstage — looks like an unassuming teenager. She and her seven-man band make their area debut next Sunday at La Jolla Music Society’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.
Joy’s Grammy victories are notable for a number of reasons, starting with the fact she has the vocal sound, abilities and poise of someone at least twice her age.
“Samara is a wonderful person who picks and sings great old songs with the skill of a much older person — and she’s still a kid!” said jazz sax legend Houston Person, 88. His other collaborators have included such vocal greats as Etta Jones, Ernie Andrews, Leon Thomas and Dakota Staton.
“Oh, man, that’s so sweet,” Joy said when told of Person’s comments.
Does Joy — who expertly performs songs that predate her birth by 60 or more years — feel like an old soul in a young body?
“Well, I feel like both,” she replied, speaking from her New York apartment. “They are both part of who I am, an old soul with youthful energy, spirit and a passion for learning, combined with my love of classic music.”
What classic music, specifically?
“Jazz, Motown, gospel and a lot of contemporary music,” Joy said.
Music in her DNA
Joy grew up in a musical family.
Her dad, bassist and singer Antonio McLendon, toured for years with gospel vocal star Andraé Crouch. Her grandparents, Ruth and Elder Goldwire McLendon sang in the noted Philadelphia gospel group The Savettes.
“Samara Joy,” her self-titled debut album, came out in 2021 — before she earned her degree in jazz studies that same year from New York’s Purchase University. Two years earlier, she earned first-place honors at the 2019 edition of the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.
Not coincidentally, Joy cites Vaughan as a key singing inspiration, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae and bebop trumpet and vocal great Dizzy Gillespie.
“I always think about how Betty and Dizzy developed their own sound and style whenever they opened their mouths,” Joy said.
And what drew her as a teenager to the equally singular music of Fitzgerald, who died in 1996 at the age of 79?
“I recognized that it was beautiful singing, but I had never heard storytelling like that before or done in that way. The sound of it was so unique and so special,” Joy said.
“That made me want to learn how to do that. I had no idea how to stand so tall, and confidently interpret a melody and make it sound like I’ve rehearsed it a million times — and they’d never done it before and it was never the same way twice.”
Financed by an online GoFundMe campaign, Joy’s 12-song debut album features two of her now-former professors, drummer Kenny Washington and guitarist Pasquale Grasso. Her second album, the Grammy-winning “Linger Awhile,” finds Joy sounding more supple and assured, more like a wise old musical soul who knows digging deep into a lyric for its emotional essence surpasses any “look-at-me!” vocal acrobatics.
“If the melody is nice but the lyrics are corny, I won’t do it,” Joy said. “It’s the same if the lyrics are nice, but the melody isn’t really happening. If I don’t feel I am connected, I won’t do it. More often than not I find songs I feel are beautiful, harmonically and lyrically.”
Asked to cite her first musical epiphany as a jazz singer, Joy makes an important distinction.
“I didn’t grow up listening to jazz. I didn’t really start getting into it until I was an undergrad in college,” she said.
“But I can remember listening to Luther Vandross. My mom used to watch this video of him, live at Wembley Stadium in London. He had the most amazing background singers and he captivated the audience; they hung on every note and word he sang.
“That is one core memory of watching a singer do what they do best. And it made me realize it might be in the cards for me. I would say I was about 13 at the time. I started singing songs by Luther at home.”
Joy attended university on a full scholarship. She graduated, magna cum laude, two years ago. Her journey to jazz seems almost pre-ordained, even though she began charting that path just five years ago.
“It was definitely more of a gradual immersion,” Joy said. “Because when I was in my high school jazz ensemble, I only did a couple of songs and that was the extent of our education. We wouldn’t talk about the history of the music or the performers.
“So, I only began to immerse myself in jazz when I got to college, where I applied for the jazz studies program. I’m amazed, to this day, I got in! I sang a (1938) Duke Ellington number, ‘I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,’ and a hymn.”
Once accepted into the jazz program, Joy was all-in.
She took three years of jazz vocal lessons. She also studied ear training, music theory, piano and transcribing, as well as jazz history and music history.
“I took a year of classical voice lessons, too, because I wanted to make the most of my time there,” said Joy, who played jazz club dates with her professors while she was still their student.
“I’m glad I took AP academic classes in high school so I could focus on music in college,” she continued. “I went into college as a good student, a valedictorian, and always wanted to apply myself. All the music classes were pretty difficult for me, but I was determined to learn.”
Joy’s fan base includes such famous fans as Regina King and Anita Baker. Her road to Grammy success was swift, but Joy’s talent is as undeniable as her ability to breathe new life into weathered jazz classics.
“Winning (the) Best New Artist (Grammy) can completely change and elevate somebody who wasn’t that well-known,” she noted. “It was pretty crazy and I didn’t imagine it would happen to me.”
Joy was on a train to New York late last year when she learned about her two Grammy nominations. Because she was in a “quiet” passenger car, she had to keep her excitement under her hat.
But when Joy disembarked at Penn Station, her sister was waiting, phone in hand, to film Joy, who screamed with — well — joy, danced, sang and danced, then screamed some more as she walked through Penn Station to an adjacent subway platform. The video of Joy’s ecstatic reaction to her Grammy nominations now has more than 4.5 million views on TikTok.
“I think it’s very helpful because you can only reach so many people live or in an email blast,” she said. “Getting to share music (online) where millions consume content everyday gives you a wider platform to share your music, find your audience and eventually build up an in-person (concert) audience as well.
“It’s been a huge help in connecting me with people who wouldn’t otherwise hear jazz. They first hear me because I’m connected to Instagram and TikTok, as well as because they’re connected (online) with celebrities who give me shout-outs and connect me with their audience. I just approach social media by being myself.”
When: 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. next Sunday
Where: La Jolla Music Society’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Avenue, La Jolla
Tickets: Sold out
Phone: (858) 459-3728