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Encore: At age 22, Samara Joy is a classic jazz singer from a new generation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Late on a Wednesday night last year, I went to a jazz club that's been around for over half a century.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAMARA JOY: (Singing) Can't get out...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

JOY: (Singing) ...Of this mood, can't get over this feeling.

SHAPIRO: Blues Alley, here in Washington, D.C., is a place where many greats have played - Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan. On this September night, a newcomer graced the stage who is already on a path to follow in their footsteps - Samara Joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOY: This is my first time in D.C. - first time.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Last night, the 23-year-old won two Grammy awards - not only best jazz vocal album, but best new artist across all genres.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2023 GRAMMY AWARDS BROADCAST)

JOY: See, I'm - oh, my gosh. I can't even believe - I've been watching y'all on TV for, like, so long (laughter), so to be here with you all - born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y. My family's here (laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: When Samara Joy came into NPR the morning after her Blues Alley show in D.C., she told me she only started singing jazz at age 18, but she comes from a musical family.

JOY: My dad - he's a bass player, so it was a lot of, like, funk and, like, soul and R&B. But also, he was the one who mainly grew up in church and grew up playing in church. And his parents - my grandparents - they had a choir called The Savettes of Philadelphia. But he also used to tell stories about the fact that they had a Godmobile (ph). Like, they had - they rented a van, and they called it the Godmobile. They, like, painted it really big on the car. And they would ride around Philly and just pick a corner and literally have church on any corner that they could...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

JOY: ...That they felt, you know, led to do. And he would play, and they would - you know, they would do praise and worship. And my grandparents, you know, would preach.

SHAPIRO: So on this album, you do some really well-known standards, like "Misty" and "'Round Midnight."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'ROUND MIDNIGHT")

JOY: (Singing) A pale and lonely moon lights the sky in the dark before the dawn.

SHAPIRO: When you approach a song like that, do you do a ton of research and listen to the way others have approached it, or do you try to come to it with a clean slate and bring your own interpretation?

JOY: I think with songs like that, because - at least at this point - because I've listened to them already and I already have a version in my head that I love, I do a bit of both. I'm like, oh, I love the way Ella, you know, sings this phrase, but I can't copy, you know? I can't copy exactly. So it's a bit of a mix.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example? Like, can you take a moment in one of these tracks and say, oh, well, so-and-so might have done it this way, but...

JOY: Well, in "Misty," there's a live performance of Ella. And she's like, (singing) walk my way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISTY")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Walk my way, and a thousand violins begin to play.

JOY: She does it - she, like, walks up. And it's like...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JOY: It's so beautiful and majestic. I was like, I have to do that.

(LAUGHTER)

JOY: And I think I did. I think I recorded it like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISTY")

JOY: (Singing) Walk my way, and a thousand violins begin to play.

But I know that when we came up with the arrangement, I wanted it to be, you know, simple and just give the song space to breathe. But I added kind of a little bit of a scale in the beginning and at the end to give it some mystery.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISTY")

JOY: (Singing) And too much in - look at me.

SHAPIRO: There are also some of your own lyrics on this album. Tell us...

JOY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Where we can hear them.

JOY: You can hear my own lyrics on "Nostalgia."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOSTALGIA")

JOY: (Singing) Nostalgia hit me, as I recall, the day I knew that I loved you.

SHAPIRO: "Nostalgia," the melody that you're singing here, was originally a trumpet line?

JOY: Mmm hmm.

SHAPIRO: What made you decide to put words to it?

JOY: I was in class, and my professor, Jon Faddis, is like, what do you have to present today? And I was like, OK, I listened to "Nostalgia" again. I really love it. And this is one solo that I knew that he would, I guess, appreciate me doing and learning. But...

SHAPIRO: And this professor is a famous trumpet player.

JOY: Yes (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOSTALGIA")

JOY: (Singing) The way you smiled was a work of art. You wouldn't believe how it thrilled me.

And he was like, yep, keep going (laughter). Keep going. Finish it.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to a little bit of it.

JOY: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOSTALGIA")

JOY: (Singing) We used to talk on the phone till 3. It made my...

Oh (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOSTALGIA")

JOY: (Singing) ...Mother so angry.

SHAPIRO: Are - does it still make you embarrassed to hear yourself?

JOY: A little bit (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Really? Wow. That surprises me. You're blushing. You're...

JOY: A little bit (laughter).

SHAPIRO: But on stage, you're just so chill and relaxed.

JOY: I think the people help.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOSTALGIA")

JOY: (Singing) I figured after all this time and all these years together, all the memories made, that you would be tired by now.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about where these lyrics came from.

JOY: So "Nostalgia" - the album cover is a trumpet on a bench. And so I was like, hmm, you know, Fats Navarro - he died from tuberculosis, and he was only 26 years old. And looking at that trumpet on the bench, I was like, well, what if he was, you know, 60 or 70 years old, and he was able to look at the person he loved and - you know, and recall the day that they first met? He might have been, like, playing at a gig or something. I was just trying to imagine, you know - and I use the model of my own parents. They're celebrating 31 years of marriage in November. So I wanted to try to use that example of, like, long-term love and apply it to this situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOSTALGIA")

JOY: (Singing) And now the feelings are just as strong as when I first laid eyes on you.

SHAPIRO: You won the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition when you were 19 years old...

JOY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...And jazz audiences tend to be older folks these days. What do you think the secret is to attracting younger fans to this music?

JOY: Hmm. Most of the younger people that I see are musicians themselves, too. So I've been trying to get on TikTok and be more active on social media because that's where my generation is. And I, you know...

SHAPIRO: You say you're trying to get on TikTok.

JOY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: But, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOY: (Singing) But in your dreams, whatever they be, make me a promise.

SHAPIRO: You just kind of offhandedly sang a version of "Dream A Little Dream" that racked up close to 2 million views.

JOY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOY: (Singing) Dream a little dream of me.

SHAPIRO: So I think you're succeeding at...

JOY: Doing...

SHAPIRO: ...Being on TikTok (laughter).

JOY: Doing all right. I really only started doing TikTok in January of this year. I posted a couple of videos, and a month later, 100,000 people - I was like, I can't (laughter). This is too much. You know, the fact that, in just a month, you know, that many people - and people now are, like, coming up to me, like, I found you on social media. I found you on TikTok, and I just had to, you know, come see a show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOCIAL CALL")

JOY: (Singing) Happened to pass your doorway, gave you a buzz...

So I think anything, you know, to share the music - and then if people, you know, my age are attracted to it and they want to know more about it, then it's cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOCIAL CALL")

JOY: (Singing) Do you recall the old days? We used to have a ball. Not that I'm lonesome...

SHAPIRO: That's Grammy award-winning artist Samara Joy. Her latest album is called "Linger Awhile."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOCIAL CALL")

JOY: (Singing) Your doorway, gave you a buzz. That's all. Lately I've thought lots about you, so I thought I'd pay a social call. Do you recall the old days? We used to have a ball. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mia Venkat
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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