In February 2023, Samara Joy made headlines at the 65th Grammy Awards when she won the Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best New Artist categories. At only 23 years old, she was understandably overcome – and characteristically charming: “I’ve been watching y’all on TV for so long, all of you are so inspiring to me…So to be here, just by being myself, by just being who I was born as, I’m so thankful.”
The Bronx born singer has made an art form out of being herself. Her double Grammy win caught the attention of the mainstream media, but Samara is no newcomer to her legion of fans on social media. Her warmth, humour and effortless performing style have racked up almost five million likes and 50 million views on TikTok from a new generation of jazz lovers suggesting covers and collaborations for the queen of the #jazztok community.
Watching Samara illustrate the influence of other singers such as Lalah Hathaway on her phrasing, or seeing fellow TikTokers duet with her, feels like sharing a friendly moment in a rehearsal room. For all the struggles musicians face today, Samara Joy shows that there’s a passionate – and growing – global audience who are adding this young jazz singer to playlists alongside superstars like Adele or Beyonce.
The digital stage was essential for Samara, at only 20, fresh from winning the 2019 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition, Joy was gearing up to launch her professional career, but then Covid-19 struck and she – like everyone else – was stuck at home. But she made the best of a bad situation, studied hard and built an audience online. And it paid off, her Facebook performance of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Take Love Easy” led to a record deal, and her star was in the ascendance.
Samara launched her eponymous album in 2021 whilst still in college, and her second album “Linger Awhile” (2022) – her Verve debut – cemented her reputation as a singer with a voice that’s both classic and fresh.
Actress and director Regina King encapsulates what so many of Joy’s fans feel on their first listen: “I discovered a young woman who just seems like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald are both living in her body.”
But Joy embodies rather than impersonates, she told Essence: “The legacy [of Black women artists in jazz] is deep – and it is important. I’m so glad to be a child of that. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.”
And she certainly knows where she came from; compare and contrast her version of “Can’t Get Out Of This Mood” with the one made famous by Nina Simone and you’ll hear a very affectionate and stylish nod to the High Priestess of Soul.
Joy is a persuasive ambassador of a classic approach to singing. Her captivating storytelling of “Guess Who I Saw Today” is tender and poignant, Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and American Songbook classics like Erroll Garner’s “Misty” and the Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” sound simultaneously imaginative, lithe and incredibly poised.
Joy’s live shows make you feel like that moment, on that stage is the only place she wants to be. At a recent London show, she had the Jazz Cafe audience in the palm of her hand as she told the story of writing her own lyrics to the Fats Navarro tune “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew)” and took vocal risks that made the high wire look like a very comfortable place to be. With a wide range of dates booked in Europe and North America for the rest of 2023 Joy’s impressive stagecraft and fanbase is only set to grow.
For a musician who still has so much ahead of her, a win for Joy is a win for jazz.
Freya Hellier is a radio, audio and content producer based in London and Glasgow. She has spent many years making programmes about all genres of music for BBC Radio 3, Radio 4 and beyond.