Five years after getting big break at NJPAC competition, Samara Joy returns as headliner

by Marty Lipp
samara joy interview


Samara Joy will perform at NJPAC in Newark, June 23.

When Samara Joy entered the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition in 2019 as a junior in college, she barely knew any jazz standards.

But the perfect match of singer and repertoire led to her winning the contest, which took place at NJPAC in Newark as part of The TD James Moody Jazz Festival. Now, at 24, Joy is returning to NJPAC as a headliner who has ridden a wave of critical and popular success that has included three Grammys, and concerts around the world.

Looking back at her rapid rise, she noted that the competition named for the Newark-born Vaughan was her first big break.

“I had the mindset from the very beginning that, no matter the outcome, I was grateful to be a finalist and to be introduced to other wonderful singers,” Joy said. “Its aftermath truly came as a shock to me because I was just introduced to jazz approximately two years beforehand. So I’m grateful to the judges for seeing something in me.”

Joy was born and raised amid a multi-generational musical family in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. Her paternal grandparents had been in the Philadelphia gospel group The Savettes and her father, Tony McLendon, sang and played bass with the gospel performer Andraé Crouch. Joy grew up hearing and singing gospel as well as her parents’ beloved Motown tunes, but not jazz and what is known as the Great American Songbook.

As a high school student, she was happy to sing gospel and soul, and to perform in school musicals. Knowing only one jazz standard, she auditioned for the jazz department at the State University of New York at Purchase. The school proved to be an incubator for her, but one moment there made her suddenly realize she had found a new musical home and career.

“I watched a video of Sarah (Vaughan) singing ‘Loverman,’ and I was floored by how flawless her voice was, as well as her beautiful tone and expansive range,” Joy said. “I knew then that I wanted to learn how to sing as freely and as deeply as she did.”

She won a scholarship at Purchase and recorded a thank-you video of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Take Love Easy.” The simple performance video went viral and led to a GoFundMe campaign that paid for the recording of her eponymous 2021 debut album.

The cover of Samara Joy’s album, “Linger Awhile.”

Joy’s career has also been notable in that she has attracted a new, younger audience to the classic jazz canon, with the help of her enthusiastic social media following.

“Whether it’s a Songbook standard or a jazz composition that I put lyrics to,” she said, “I think that people are attracted to the beautiful melodies and to the fact that the subject matter is such that anybody can relate to at any age. So it’s not too far out of reach.”

Her second album, 2022’S Linger Awhile, was on the prestigious jazz label Verve and garnered her two Grammy Awards — for Best New Artist (she competed against chart-topping rappers and rockers and this category) and Best Jazz Vocal Album. Her third Grammy, this year, was in the Best Jazz Performance category, for her single “Tight” (watch video below).

Usually accompanied by a small acoustic combo, Joy has a rich, deep voice that makes her seem well suited to the sophisticated narratives of classic jazz despite her relative youth compared to icons like Fitzgerald and Vaughan.

“As much as I love singing them, I’ve always found myself gravitating towards songs with mature messages that I haven’t necessarily experienced for myself,” Joy said. “It might come from adopting my parents’ musical tastes, but I find the inspiration and guidance comes from the beauty of imagining what the experience would be like through the song and through my own interpretation.”

At the same time, Joy’s swinging, multi-textured singing makes the most of the lovely melodies and their emotional punch.



Although her jazz career is blossoming, she has not forgotten the soundtrack of her earlier life with her family in the Bronx. Could she once again turn her instrument to an album exploring soul or gospel?

“I have a holiday family tour that intertwines all of those influences, which I’ve had tremendous fun experimenting with,” she said. “I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’m open to wherever the inspiration leads.”

What is coming up is more material, which Joy is excited to have recorded in the hallowed Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs. The landmarked studio, which was custom built in 1959 for acoustic jazz, has seen a Who’s Who of great musicians, including John Coltrane, who recorded his seminal 1965 album A Love Supreme there.

As she goes from ecstatic audience to ecstatic audience, Joy herself is surprised by her relatively new career.

“I’ve had a bit of a shock at how much impact the music I’ve released thus far has had on people,” she said. “I sign merch and take pictures after every gig so when I hear about the different ways people of all ages and demographics are inspired by my music, I’m filled with overwhelming gratitude that this is, in fact, my life.”

Samara Joy will perform at Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark, June 23 at 7 p.m., as part of the North to Shore Festival. Visit ticketmaster. She also will be at Town Hall in New York, June 20-21 at 8 p.m.

For more about her, visit


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