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Jazz Phenom Samara Joy In Conversation With Ayana Contreras

Written by on September 23, 2022

The otherworldly-voiced singer, endorsed by the likes of NPR, Anita Baker and LaKeith Stanfield, plays the Hyde Park Jazz Festival this weekend.

Samara first fell in love with the genre as a college student, but now, armed with a solid social media prescence and a newly-minted major label deal, she’s poised to pass that love onto a whole new generation of folks who are falling in love with jazz for the very first time (or perhaps falling back in love). All the while, the charming vocalist is mindfully carrying on a tradition (trailblazed by artists like Abbey Lincoln, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter and Carmen McCrae) that she clearly treasures.

Samara Joy by Meredith Truax

Samara Joy’s kinetic-yet-self-assured energy was infectious. Talking to the artist via video chat on Thursday, it became clear how in the year since we last spoke, she’s quickly amassed a million and a half likes on TikTok and signed a recording contract with Verve. The Bronx-bred vocalist is a natural-born ambassador for the music she loves, music that some folks call jazz (we’ll get into that in a bit): she makes the case that the sound and sensibility is still alive and bright and shining. Her latest album, Linger Awhile, is a sophisticated stunner, the sort of record you might put on if you are trying to fall in love, fall out of love or trying desperately to stay in love.

Samara will be playing the Hyde Park Jazz Fest this Saturday night, playing the historic (and altogether lovely) Rockefeller Chapel with guitarist Pasquale Grasso from 11pm until Midnight. Her smoked sugar voice is a perfect fit for the night owl crowd. It will be her first time playing at the festival, just one of many breakthroughs in a year full of firsts for the 22-year old.

In our recent conversation, we discussed how she fell in love with the music, jazz recommendations for newbies, how she selects her unusual repertoire, and how this past year has been such a whirlwind moment for the artist.

Ayana Contreras: I am pleased to be here with Samara Joy, who recently released Linger Awhile on Verve Records. This is very exciting. The last time I spoke with you, it was for Downbeat. And so much has happened since then! That was only 2021. It’s almost exactly a year ago. 

Samara Joy: Wow. I knew I remembered you! 

AC: That was me!

SJ: Oh my gosh!

AC: Surprise! So how are you feeling? I mean, the record just dropped. So that’s exciting.

SJ: This Friday. Yeah, it’s really… I’m excited about it. And I was kind of nervous about people’s reception to it. But everybody seems to be enjoying it, which is cool, too.

AC: So another thing that people maybe wouldn’t expect — I mean, the jazz that you’re performing, it’s timeless. It’s got history. But you’re, like, blowing up on TikTok. I mean, I think there might be this assumption that jazz is sort of grandma-granddad’s music, but you’re doing an amazing job of connecting with folks in your generation, and folks in my generation, with the music. What do you think people are connecting to?

SJ: Well, I do agree that a lot of people think jazz is old music, and it’s Christmas music… and I understand it, because of maybe the repertoire. And the fact that a lot of the standards that are normally done, that are a part of the Great American Songbook, were written quite some time ago. And so the people that may have heard them are familiar with the melodies, from when jazz was on the radio, based on popular songs and stuff like that was pretty much everything before 1960s. So I definitely understand that part of it.

But I think that, in addition to finding standards that I love, that may not be as well-known, and making them my own, in a way, then I can, hopefully, with my voice, connect with people and invite them into learning more about it. And, you know, even if it only goes as far as me, I would hope that it would go further, but hopefully, because of my voice, it allows people to be… and because of the fact that I want to interpret the songs in a way that’s authentic, and in a way that does connect with people. That’s my goal. So hopefully, you know, it’s received in that way. And it inspires a newer generation to connect with the songs as well.

Samara Joy by Meredith Truax

AC: So let’s pull a couple of those threads out. One thing that you mentioned was you like to record songs that are from that era of the standards, but maybe are less well known, right? And I think definitely this album is a good example of that, some of the deeper cuts. Tell me about… your process in deciding your personal repertoire.

SJ: It all comes through listening. I don’t, I normally don’t necessarily search for repertoire, I just keep listening. So it’s like, now I feel like my repertoire is expanding because I’m listening to more Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln. And they were writers, in addition to singing standards. In addition to having really, really great arrangements and great bands to support them with arrangements of standards, to make them more contemporary for their time, they also wrote songs. And so I feel like I’m exploring more of that, as well. So it just all comes as a product of listening.

AC: Yeah, absolutely. The other thing that you mentioned, you were talking about, sort of younger people connecting to the music, and sort of just trying to connect to people through the music. I know so many artists are fans of yours. I know a lot of artists, and they’re all fans. And I also know a lot of people who aren’t artists are really kind of digging on this concept of, sort of, abolishing genres. And somehow jazz didn’t get… It didn’t get its [freedom] papers. Do you know what I mean? In the sense that, somehow people say, “Oh, I don’t… I don’t believe in genres. I just like music.” But then they’re not necessarily seeking out jazz in the same way. 

SJ: No. And then trying to say, “It’s dead!” I’m just like, “Wait!”… I still am, I guess, educating myself on that topic. But I think that, even if the name is taken away, I just… this is a quote from Abbey Lincoln, she’s like, “There’s no such thing as jazz, there’s only a song.” But then she still credits Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, and all of these other singers for their influence on her voice and on her artistry. So I think, a lot of times, when you’re just like, “Well, jazz is just free, and it’s just in the air, and it’s just improvisation.” It’s just, it’s like, “No, there are people who made the style, who solidified this style and this genre in America.” And I think their names… if the name jazz is such a problem, then those names should definitely still be uplifted. In spite of it, or something. I don’t know.

AC: Yeah. That’s it. That’s exactly it. That’s the quote, right there. I think it’s true. I do, I think it’s true. It’s like, I would hate for someone to really feel like they really understand music, and the power of music, but they don’t have any familiarity with, I don’t know, Alice Coltrane. I’m like… come on, man. What’re you doing?

SJ: Don’t pretend like you’re just making this up out of thin air. Like there wasn’t… there’s not a foundation here. There’s a sound. And I feel like, when I was first getting into it, I didn’t have the sound of an Alice Coltrane or John Coltrane or Ella [Fitzgerald] or Sarah [Vaughan] or anybody in my ear… And I can imagine how it feels, when a young person just doesn’t know what it sounds like. They don’t know what jazz sounds like, they don’t have it playing on their radio, on social media, in supermarkets and stuff like that. So once I started getting into it, I was like, “Okay, I know — not everything, but it’s like, I have the sound of R&B in my ear. I have the sound of gospel, I have the sound of ’70s and funk and stuff like that. But I need this sound, too.” Because this is just as important as genre. And there’s a style to it. And I don’t want to try to be like, “Well, you can just sing jazz like this. And it’s just like this, and we’re innovative, and we’re…” you know, whatever. But in order to get to where you’re going, you have to know where we’ve been, what’s already been created, in order to create something new.

Samara Joy by Meredith Truax

AC: And then, just the understanding that they’re all threads, or they’re all parts of the same tree. Like gospel, especially gospel today, is so influenced by jazz, in those licks. And most gospel bands I know, those musicians play jazz, too. And I mean, I think just an understanding of how inter-woven, especially in Black music, all of the quote-unquote “genres” actually are, and how indebted they are to each other, I think is really important. One thing you mentioned, just now, was this idea that you hadn’t really been into the music. And I remember, when we talked, you were saying you didn’t really get into jazz until you went to college. Is that right?

SJ: That’s right.

AC: What was the moment? Was it you taking a music theory class, or just hanging out with somebody? Like, what… ?

SJ: It was a combination of moments, I think, because when I… I would like to say, I’m very fortunate to have had the experience that I had. I feel like I got to college, like just the right time. Because my class, especially, I’m still friends with them to this day… they were so passionate about it, and they were already into it. And it made me want to learn more about it, as well. And so I had repertoire classes, and we had to learn a couple of songs a week in order to perform them in class.

And so I started doing my own research about like, “Okay, who sang these songs? Which interpretation do I like? Which singer?” And Sarah Vaughan and Ella were the two starters. They were just the main ones that I started listening to. And I was like… I had never heard that style of singing before. I just never was exposed to it, which is embarrassing to say, being from New York, knowing that there’s a jazz scene there. But it also helped. I was like, “Okay, I’m at zero right now. I’m at the the complete bottom, don’t know anything about this,” freshman year. But I’m gonna keep learning about it.

AC: That’s what college is about, right? Figuring out where you fit into the world. And out of it, you got signed to Verve, which is kind of like… that’s bananas. Let me tell you.

SJ: Crazy, it’s crazy. I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t… I can’t explain it.

AC: What I will say is, I’m not shocked. Your voice is outrageous. You have such a beautiful tone. Like, a very self-assured, mature tone. I’m sure you’ve heard that a million times, but I mean, I think that voice is so special. I’m glad that they found it. And all the little TikTok people who are watching you “Dream a Little Dream,” and all those songs. I’m not on “the Tikky-Tok.” But that’s what…

SJ: That’s what they’re saying!

AC: You know it’s big if people who aren’t on TikTok know about it.

SJ: That’s true. That’s true.

AC: So when did you get into TikTok? Because I feel like… when I talked to you last, you weren’t doing TikTok.

SJ: At all. January of 2022. That’s exactly when I got into it. New Year’s resolution was I’m gonna get on here and try to build a platform. This is before Verve, it’s before everything. So when I got to them, they were like, “Okay, you already have a social media presence. Let’s help you build it, but we’re not starting from zero.” Which I think they appreciated, too.

AC: No, absolutely. Because I know, when I interviewed you, you were doing Instagram, and people were feeling it. You do Instagram Lives quite a bit. I know that, because I do follow you!

SJ: Because I like that. I like that. And I’m always traveling. And it’s, no shade, but it’s like, I’m only talking to the band, and my parents and stuff like that. I’m like, let me connect with the people and see… this is just one one avenue to do that. But I want to try it out.

AC: Okay, so you’re coming to Chicago, which also has a deep jazz culture, right? And we just had the Chicago Jazz Festival, but you’re actually coming for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which is kind of… it’s got a different flavor, actually, than the Chicago Jazz Festival. It’s a beautiful one, and I love it. You haven’t played it before, right? The Hyde Park Jazz Festival?

SJ: I played at the Harris Theater, I think.

AC: Yes. I remember that. That was recent.

SJ: It must have been a couple of months ago, and we’re coming to Jazz Showcase in November.

AC: So there’ll be a lot of people of all ages, who will come to see you perform [at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival], some of [whom] might have learned about you on “the Tikkity-Tok,” or on social media. Some people have just been listening to you for years, some people will be older people who will just be like, “Who’s this young thing?” Whole spectrum of people. I’m actually going to drill in a little bit. A lot of our audience is younger, and may or may or may not be real big into jazz. And I know you are ahead now. Tell me like two albums that you think somebody who has heard your music and is now curious should check out. Just whatever two you’re vibing on.

SJ: First album: Carmen McRae‘s Bittersweet. Her voice on that is just incredible. Every arrangement is uniquely kind of formed… it perfectly fits the song and it perfectly fits her voice, and they’re all mainly ballads. And so I think that will help. That’s a nice, easy start. But still, I mean, great. I come back to that album all the time. Carmen McRae’s Bittersweet. And The Audience with Betty Carter.

AC: Betty Carter is so special. I mean, they’re both special, but Betty Carter in particular, is the musician’s vocalist in so many ways. People really, really love her, and yet she doesn’t have… that household name-ness that, like, Sarah — she deserves it, right — or Ella would have. And that’s unfortunate. So I’m glad you mentioned her, for sure. 100%. If you had the opportunity to do a collab with somebody who’s in another genre, who would it be and why?

SJ: Since we’ve last talked, a lot of musicians and singers have been following me, which is kind of crazy. Like, Anita Baker shouted me out. I can’t remember who else… Jazmine Sullivan. Somebody from Top Dawg Entertainment, too. So I don’t know. A lot of bass players, Derrick Hodge, Matt Ramsey. Who would I want? Maybe… Let’s say Jazmine, for now. Jazmine Sullivan.

AC: Because sometimes you have to put that in the universe, you know?

SJ: And speak it. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, I don’t know what song, but… I’m always down. Like, with great singers and great musicians, it really doesn’t matter the genre, for me, and I think it’s a challenge. It’s like a nice, you know, challenge. I feel like, with jazz, it’s like this is where I feel like I can express my voice the most and… expand and grow and develop. But also, if The Gap Band, if they call, if Cameo calls… if — any of those. I can sing all of them joints. Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, any of them, I’m coming!

AC: That’s amazing. I want to hear you with Charlie Wilson, desperately. I feel like that would be amazing.

SJ: Okay? “Outstanding.” “You Dropped A Bomb On Me.” I can get ’em, I can get the lyrics together, okay. ‘Cause I normally fumble them.

AC: Alright, well, let’s put all that in the universe! Well, I’m gonna let you do your thing. Have an excellent show and all of that, and more soon!

Follow Samara Joy on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, and stream “Linger Awhile” on Spotify below.

Written by Ayana Contreras, Interview conducted by Ayana Contreras, Transcription by Morgan Ciocca

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