Samara Joy is a throwback jazz singer with a TikTok sensibility

Only 22, she is debuting at the Newport Jazz Festival

On Saturday, 22-year-old Samara Joy McLendon will make her debut at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, just two months after the singer made her first appearance at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

While the Apollo traditionally has been a proving ground for up-and-coming talent, Newport is a place for established veterans. This puts McLendon in the challenging position of having to prove herself in the midst of luminaries who already have made it.

“I’m excited and nervous about Newport,” she said Saturday from France, where she was completing a three-week tour with an appearance at the Marciac Jazz Festival. “It has such a cemented place in the history of this music, basically all of the greats, as far as musicians and singers, have graced that stage and, therefore, made it sacred ground.”

Her appearance at Newport culminates a meteoric rise that began in 2019 when she won the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. First prize was an appearance at Newport, though McClendon’s appearance was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of the contest, Samara was still a student at the State University of New York at Purchase. While there were more experienced contestants, the judges agreed that McLendon was mature beyond her years, though her age was definitely a point of discussion.

“There was a hesitance to give it to her because she’s so young and the idea that she was only 19 and she was still in college, and whether that would be a distraction from her studies and her growth,” recalled Matt Pierson, one of the judges and now McLendon’s manager.

Christian McBride, the master bassist and bandleader who was also a judge, said, “I actually don’t remember there being a conversation about her not getting it because she was too young. There was definitely a conversation that we can’t believe how young she is. We thought she was exceptional that day. And generally, when we have those competitions, most of us tend to defer to the legend.”

In this case, the legend was vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, a three-time Grammy winner, who has a Tony Award for her role as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz and hosted an NPR jazz show for more than two decades. “We said, ‘Hey, Dee Dee, it’s your call,’ ” McBride recalled. “ ‘Whoever you like, that’s who we’re going with.’ And we all liked Samara and she felt the same way.”

The last year and a half has validated the judge’s decision. McLendon, who performs as Samara Joy, has been on fire. Her first self-titled album of standards such as “Stardust” and “It Only Happens Once” came out in July 2021 to strong reviews. The Guardian called it “beautifully poised” and Downbeat said “listeners are compelled to focus on the purity of her tone and the purity of the music.”

Singling McLendon out for praise is no slight to her peers. The pool of talented young Black women singers, from Cécile McLorin Salvant to Jazzmeia Horn to H.E.R., is deep and wide. McLendon said she does not see herself as part of some competition. For example, she regards Horn, 31, as a big sister and admires the way she conducts her business.

Still, at 22, McLendon is a bit of a unicorn. It’s difficult to compare her to anyone who recently has come along because no one like her has come along. Dee Daniels, a veteran of more than 30 years of performing, caught McLendon in concert in Vancouver, British Columbia, last month. But she initially was exposed to McLendon online.

“When I saw her online I said, ‘Holy crap! How is this baby girl being this mature?’ ” Daniels said during a recent phone interview. “She’s been listening, she clearly has had some good mentors and guidance and of course the natural talent. She’s exceptional. I’d say of all the young ones in her age group out there now, she’s the most extraordinary.”

Samara Joy (right) with jazz singer Dee Daniels (left) in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Samara Joy was giving a concert.

Samara Joy

In more than three decades, McBride has played with scores of singers. But he hasn’t seen a singer as young as McLendon with such a grasp of the tradition. “She is a magnificent young musician and most importantly, she’s got her head on straight,” he said. “She’s a great listener. I realize she’s … going to learn a lot and she’s going to live a lot, but she’s just very mature. She’s settled inside of herself. And not in a way of ‘I’ve arrived’ or ‘I’m no longer going to grow.’ It’s apparent that she knows who she is, and she knows what she has, and she’s comfortable with that.”

McLendon is a jazz purist who embodies generations of great Black female singers across idioms: The Ma Rainey-Bessie Smith tradition; the Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan tradition; the Betty Carter and Carmen McRae tradition. And of course the contemporary tradition exemplified by Bridgewater.

“There’s such an incredible and rich history of Black female singers,” McLendon said during a recent conversation. “I see so much of myself in them and see the way they paved the way so I can do what I’m doing. And then the way that they sing and the songs they sing, I can relate to and hopefully carry it and pass it down so that nobody forgets those Black female singers who have such an impact and influence on music as a whole.”

We also spoke of the activist tradition of Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone and the implications they had for McLendon’s career. I happened to catch McLendon last May when she performed at the Falcon in Marlboro, New York.

The concert took place a day after a gunman slaughtered 13 African Americans at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in May. In trying to find more news about the incident, McLendon stumbled across the livestream of the shootings. She was sickened by what she saw, and the images stayed with her even as she was preparing to perform. “I was done for the day,” she said. “My heart was so heavy. I couldn’t believe what I just saw. I was so discouraged.”

Her dilemma was whether to say something to her mostly white audience. “I thought about bringing it up,” she said. “All day during the car ride up, I couldn’t think about anything else but that.”  

She had to do a balancing act. She was hurt and angry, but the audience had come to be entertained. Should she risk bringing them down? Should she dedicate the performance to the slain African Americans, or should she go on with the show as if nothing had happened?

“Part of me was thinking, ‘I don’t care if you feel bad. You should feel bad.’ ”

In the end, she went on with the show and didn’t mention the massacre. But the incident made her think about who she wanted to be as a Black female artist. Would she be publicly apolitical like Vaughan and let her talent do her speaking, or would she speak her mind like Lincoln and Simone?

McLendon’s path to a career in jazz is a modern departure from the way performers used to come up as graduates of what I call the University of the Streets. Before the 1970s and ’80s, when jazz education began exploding on college campuses, the University of the Streets was where most aspiring jazz artists came from, hitting the road for one-night gigs, living the night life, and learning on the bandstand. If you were Black, the road was even tougher, with segregated housing arrangements and the constant threat of violence. If you were a Black woman, racism was intensified by misogyny. This was hard living with a capital “H.”

But those who survived developed a mental, physical, and spiritual embouchure. The jazz annals are filled with stories of aspiring young musicians leaving high school to pursue their careers. Vaughan, for example, dropped out of high school after her junior year to begin her career as a singer.

Today, the university provides a safe place for young musicians to explore jazz without having to experience that rough-and-tumble existence. As the trend toward an academic certification apparatus for jazz musicians picked up steam in the 1980s — effectively putting a price on access to the stage — I worried it would reduce the flow of young African-American musicians into jazz.

McLendon has forced me to rethink my position.

She was the valedictorian of her class at Fordham High School for the Arts, where her first exposure to jazz was being asked to sit in with the school’s jazz band. She sang in the choir for three years at the World Changers Church in the Bronx. But by her own admission, McLendon said that when she enrolled at SUNY Purchase in 2017, “I didn’t know anything about jazz.” Then she sang for Pete Malinverni, the director of the Purchase College jazz program. “If I hadn’t gone to Purchase, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” she said. “I would have never known about the Sarah Vaughan jazz competition. I don’t know what I would be doing.

“I feel that I was at the right place at the right time.”

Many of her professors at SUNY Purchase were working musicians, including drummer Kenny Washington, who taught a rigorous jazz history course. She listened to records, studied the lives of great singers, learned about the obstacles they faced and how they overcame — or succumbed to them. Like an athlete preparing for game day, she studied mountains of film of iconic jazz singers. One video in particular changed the trajectory of her life: a 1958 recording of Vaughan in concert.

“When I saw that video — I think she was singing ‘Lover Man’ — what attracted me the most was that she was just standing there — there was no theatrics, no big show,” she said. “It was just her. She came out and sang so confidently. It was so bold and yet, there were sensitive moments when she would lower her voice and lead to this big crescendo. The whole arc of that video was perfect.

“When I saw it, I thought ‘I have to figure out how to do that.’ Even if I never get there, I have to figure out how she did that and how she managed to be so enchanting.” 

The academy has not educated the soul out of McLendon, who graduated with a degree in jazz studies. As McBride observed, “She’s going to get that feeling she has inside of her, that feeling that all Black folks have. I don’t think any conservatory was going to be able to wean that out of her.”

Besides McLendon’s voice and the way she approaches her craft, the thing about her that is decidedly old school is her ferocious touring regimen.

Performing in the controlled setting of the academy is one thing. It’s quite another to hit the road for a string of one-night stands, contend with the rigors of travel, have your butt kicked nightly on the bandstand, and meet the expectations of being “on” night after night.

Samara Joy (right) in concert with pianist Ben Patterson (left) and guitarist Pasquale Grasso (center).

Antonio McLendon

When we first met in March, McLendon was coming off her first two-week tour with the Pasquale Grasso trio. “The first couple of days, I got three or four hours of sleep — altogether,” she said. “At first it was exhausting, but once I get on the stage, I’m not tired anymore. If anything, I’m energized by the music and by the people that I’m playing with. Overall, I’m just grateful to be able to do music.”

After we spoke, she went on a three-week European tour before returning to the United States for another string of one-night stands. She hit the road again in late June for another tour during Europe’s jazz festival season. She returned last week for a series of gigs leading up to the Newport Festival appearance.

 “I can’t lie,” she said on Saturday in a text message from Marciac. “This tour was a bit of a rough one. But only because I had two weeks of tour in the States, two days to run errands and repack, and then once again back on the road for another three weeks.  I’m still getting acclimated to this lifestyle because it was not my norm about a year ago. But there have been so many fun moments and new experiences that have opened my eyes to the beauty of all that the world has to offer.”

Anyone who has followed McLendon can see how the work has paid off in her confidence, her stage presence and mastery and expansion of the material. She’s felt it as well. “This past year I feel like I’ve grown so much,” she said. “I was put in the position of being a bandleader for the first time. I always admired confident singers, but I never thought I’d be one of them.”

She has had experiences that cannot be simulated in the classroom: “Every night making sure I get my rap together, making sure I connect with the audience and being mindful of these things, being mindful of the band.”

Keith Balla, her backing trio’s drummer, has known McLendon since SUNY Purchase when he decided to go back and complete work on his degree. They were in the same jazz history class. He has been playing behind her for the last year and a half.

“Samara’s a rare combination of someone who is outstandingly gifted musically but she’s also extremely gifted as a performer,” Balla said.

That’s reflected in how her performances change from concert to concert. “She could sing the same song from night to night, but the way she phrases the melody might change in really unexpected and inspiring ways,” Balla said. “The way she connects with the audience becomes more refined every night.”

As much as McLendon is an old soul in her choice of songs, she is a product of her generation when it comes to social media. She has put herself — and the music — before a generation of peers whose primary frame of reference is contemporary R&B, hip-hop and rap. A few months ago, for instance, she recorded a TikTok video that attracted positive reaction from, among others, singers Anita Baker and Regina King. An intern from the Today show saw it and producers invited McLendon and guitarist Pasquale Grasso to come on the show in February.

McLendon said that one of her missions is to introduce more young African Americans to the great Black music called jazz. “We have to make the music accessible,” she said. “Right now, it seems like the only thing marketed to Black people is rap and hip-hop and these certain images you see. I don’t want to talk about the stereotypes, but that’s all that I see. I’m like, man, I’m not really proud of this.

“I like the sound and the beauty of jazz,” she said. “Hopefully I can convince you to at least take a listen to it.”

Aside from being attracted to jazz because of its beauty, McLendon’s father, Antonio, thinks his daughter was attracted to the music’s spirituality. “I think it was the purity of jazz,” he said. “Real singers, real musicians, and a sort of family-friendly content. I think it made her relax as far as her Christian background. She was singing about people’s real lives and real-life journeys. I think she felt ‘I can do that faithfully and it doesn’t challenge me to be something I’m not.’ ”

McLendon gets her musical chops from her father’s side of the family and those roots run deep, but not in jazz. Her father began playing bass when he was 10, but his parents, Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, banned secular music — including jazz — from their home. “If you were caught listening to secular music, there was corporal punishment,” Antonio McLendon said.

He learned to play R&B on the sly. “He had to sneak, and he had to learn from the radio when his parents weren’t home,” McLendon said. “He was playing bass in church but on the side would sneak and learn the popular songs of the day. His trick would be to learn a song before it ended on the radio, and then go to the next one. He built his ear training that way.”

Antonio McLendon remembers that his parents started something in Philadelphia called The God-mobile. “They took an old van,” he recalled. “My dad worked on it, brought it up to date. He put a vaulted ceiling on the van and made it look like a church. And they would drive around and just pull up on any corner that they felt God wanted them to stop on and have a church service.” He had to sing as well.

By contrast, McLendon grew up in a household drenched in contemporary R&B. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Earth, Wind & Fire were the artists her parents embraced. Even as she discovered jazz, those R&B roots remained part of her identity. “Those singers and artists that I grew up listening to and absorbing and immersing myself in through my parents affected my sound, affected my tone, affected the way that I sing and the way that I story-tell with songs. All of these different traditions that I’ve been exposed to and been able to listen to and immerse myself in led to the artist that you see now.”

Janice McLendon, who graduated from Adelphi University with a degree in business administration, has watched her daughter’s ascendance with a parent’s concern but also with a sense of awe that her reserved little girl is knocking on the door of fame. Antonio McLendon is more comfortable because he has lived the musician’s life. In the early 1990s, he moved to New York to work with producer Keith Diamond on projects with Gladys Knight, Billy Ocean and Donna Summer.

When Diamond died suddenly in 1997, Antonio McLendon’s music career came to a halt. With two children from a previous marriage to care for and a young child from his marriage to his wife Janice, he took a security guard job to make ends meet. McLendon was born in 1998 and her younger brother was born in 2003.

In 2005, he was given the opportunity to tour with gospel singer Andraé Crouch. “I was in fourth and fifth grade,” McLendon recalled. “He was like, ‘I’m going to Holland, I’m going to the Netherlands. I’ll be back.’ ”

During this period, Antonio McLendon put together a demo album called “The McLendons” featuring his sisters, his brother, and cousins. The album was never distributed but remained one of McLendon’s favorite records. It inspired her to record a Christmas album with her father, her uncles, and her grandfather.

From left to right: Samara Joy with her grandfather Goldwire McLendon, father Antonio McLendon and Goldwire McLendon’s wife Wanda.

William C. Rhoden

I traveled to Philadelphia last month to watch the recording session. I was curious to see McLendon outside a jazz club setting. I also wanted to meet her family, especially her grandfather. Now 91, Goldwire McLendon was born in Jacksonville, Florida, where he began singing gospel — and only gospel — at 15 as a member of the Cosmopolitan Gospel Singers. His mother, McLendon’s great-grandmother, was also a singer.

He moved to Philadelphia when he was 17 where he met and married his wife, Ruth, who was a member of a gospel group called the Saveettes. They remained married for 65 years until her death in 2014.

McLendon and her grandfather share a deep affection that is apparent in the way she attends to him and the way they interact. Once, between takes they performed an impromptu call-and-response rendition of a gospel song in the control room.

On this date in Philadelphia, Goldwire McLendon sang a passage of “O Holy Night’ with his son and his granddaughter. He was clearly thrilled.

“It’s a great and wonderful thing for me to witness at the age of 91,” he said. “I have witnessed a lot of singing, since I was 9 years old, but today, to hear my granddaughter and my son, it’s awesome. I can hardly believe it’s happening to me. It’s fantastic to hear them making harmony here in 2022.”

His attitude toward secular music, though, has remained unchanged. It has no place in his life. I asked him how he balanced love and pride in his granddaughter with his religious beliefs.

He said that he has learned not to press the issue. “I spoke to her, but the Spirit told me just to withdraw,” he said. I suggested that perhaps there is some spiritual fulfillment that McLendon is sharing her gift with the world. Without missing a beat, he said, “It belongs to God, not the world.”

I asked McLendon about her grandfather’s attitude toward her career. She said she was hurt when he didn’t congratulate her after she won the Vaughan competition. On the other hand, she knows he’s in her corner.

“I know my Pop Pop loves me,” she said. “I also know that, at this point in his life, he isn’t going to change his mind. As a Christian, I believe God is with me everywhere I go and in everything I do. The church isn’t a building. I never left.”

Antonio McLendon has had these battles with his father over the years. In the interest of peace and love, they eventually declared a truce. “I had to tell my dad at 90, ‘Pop, you did a good job raising us. We are firm believers in Jesus Christ. But I also understand now that God is OK with me working as a musician and not just singing only in church. I’m a Jesus guy to my core.’ I told him, ‘You can count on me. I’m not going to get out there and embarrass you in the world.’ ”

Antonio McLendon celebrates his daughter’s musical triumphs as if they are his own.  

“I never get tired of hearing her, I never get tired of hearing about her,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, you’re doing things I always dreamed I could do.’ I always heard that if your children turn out better than you, you did a good job.”

McLendon has achieved much in a short amount of time. Thanks to her jazz history course, she knows that one of the greatest markers of success is longevity. Vaughan had a 40-year career, Ella Fitzgerald’s career spanned 66 years. McLendon knows that she has barely completed the first leg of a long journey. “I think people may view it as overnight success, but a lot of years go into the art of singing, the art of being a musician,” she said. “I can’t say how long, specifically, but I know it’s going to take a while for me, and I’m prepared for the journey.”

Liner Notes

An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect age for McLendon. She is 22.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.