Hailing from the Bronx, NY, and raised by a musical family, a deep love of music was instilled in Samara Joy at a young age. Both of Joy’s parents are from Philadelphia; her father, Antonio Charles McLendon, is a gospel singer; and her grandparents led the Philadelphia based-gospel group, The Savettes.
However, it wouldn’t be until her time in college at SUNY Purchase, where she studied jazz, that she would begin to seriously consider a career in music. A pivotal moment for Joy was when she heard for the first time Sarah Vaughan’s version of “Lover Man,” live from Sweden, which served as motivation to dive deeper into her interest in jazz.
In 2019, while a student at SUNY, Joy entered and won the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Since then, her career has been on a rapid ascent. In 2021, she released her self-titled debut album to much acclaim. Hollywood actress and director Regina King called her a “star in the making.”
Joy is currently in the middle of a three-country tour, and Bay Area residents will have three opportunities to see her perform. Her Verve Records debut, Linger Awhile, is set for release on Sept. 16.
In an interview conducted via Zoom, we talked with Joy about her musical upbringing, her residency in Italy and what jazz fans can expect at her three upcoming Bay Area shows.
EBX: The paternal side of your family is made up of a bunch of musicians. Interestingly, you shared that you didn’t realize you wanted to sing as a career until college. What were some of your early career aspirations growing up?
Joy: I wanted to be a couple of different things. I loved cooking, and I loved science. I still loved to sing at that point, and I knew that I wanted to keep it in my life in some way. I used to do musical theater in school, and I joined the choir at church. I knew I had to keep music in my life, because it already had been the norm at that point.
I guess I just figured that I would work in an office or some type of professional job, but keep music on the side, until it came time to choose a college. I knew that maybe I wanted to keep singing in school, too. Not knowing where that would lead. College is pretty much the reason that I’m doing what I’m doing now.
EBX: You’ve mentioned before how going to an arts high school, and your experience at SUNY Purchase, helped introduce you to jazz music. What else do you think can be done to get young people into jazz?
Joy: The biggest solution is just spreading awareness and just spreading the music. With pop culture, everything is so in your face, you know. There’s so many little pockets of culture and music that don’t normally get the spotlight shone on them. Jazz, I don’t think is ever going to be as popular as a lot of music that is trending or is in the ear of the population. So, yeah, I think it’s spreading it as much as possible. If people like it, they like it. If people don’t, they don’t. There’s music for everybody.
EBX: In July, you completed your first jazz residency at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy. What was that experience like?
Joy: Oh, that was so fun. Oh my goodness. It was my first residency. We played every day for 9 or 10 days. On the weekend, we opened for Tom Jones and Jeff Beck.
I don’t normally play for an Italian audience, but I had the chance to for like a week. Not only that, but I also got to interact with other musicians. We ran into Christian McBride.There are people before us, after us. We have different slots. So we can go and check out other music. That’s what I love about festivals.
We performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and it was the same kind of thing. There’s different stages, different artists, you know; you can not only perform, but you can experience live music along with everybody else.
I love the festival season because everybody’s doing their own thing, artists and musicians. So it’s nice that we have places where we can meet up and cross paths in our respective journeys.
EBX: You’ve been compared to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. How does that make you feel?
Joy: It makes me feel excited, because I learned a lot from them. I’m still learning from them. To hear that people are either reminded of those singers or that certain songs that I sing, it takes them back to when they were listening to their parents’ soundtrack, or when they were listening to singers at a jazz festival or something like that, it really makes me feel happy.
At first, I thought it was a great responsibility. It’s like, okay, I can’t do anything foolish with those names attached to my name, but, you know, at the end of the day, I have to be me. And I think that they have influenced me a lot. But just like they had their own unique influences growing up and developed into the artists that they became, I have my own as well. I will naturally express it differently, because I have a host of influences on my music.
EBX: Your second album, Linger Awhile, will be released on Sept. 16. How’d you come up with the name of the project?
Joy: That’s actually one of the songs on the album. It works like a double meaning. The song “Linger Awhile” is talking about lingering a while with someone you know, like on a date or something like that. The album title kind of invites people, especially for the Verve Records debut, is like, linger a while, stay with me, you know, listen to the songs and hear what I have to say.
EBX: In 2019, you won the Sarah Vaughan Jazz Vocal award, you released your self-titled debut album in 2021, and your next album is set to release this month. You’ve also said you’re still learning. What excites you about the next steps in your career?
Joy: I had the chance to record a couple of songs for this movie that’s coming out on Apple TV+ called Sharper, with A24 Productions. I went in and I filmed for like a day with these actors—Sebastian Stan, Julianne Moore and John Lithgow, those were the ones that were in the room. I think it’s coming out next January.
EBX: Who’s coming up with some of these film placements and things like that? Is that you saying, “I want to do this,” or are these opportunities coming your way?
Joy: Opportunities that came my way. Friend of a friend knows somebody, you know, that kind of thing. Hopefully it’ll turn into me seeking out those opportunities, but the tour schedule is really bonkers, right now, for lack of a better word. I’m a little bit busy or a little bit more occupied with my schedule.
EBX: On Sept. 20, you’ll be performing in Berkeley, followed by the Monterey Jazz Festival on Sept. 23, and a performance in Half Moon Bay on Oct. 2. Is this your first time performing in Northern California?
Joy: I’ve only been to Los Angeles. So yeah, I’ve never been; I’m excited.
EBX: What can fans expect to see?
Joy: I think that they can expect to see a well thought out and developed set of songs that they may not recognize or have ever heard of. But hopefully, it’ll be conveyed in a way that they can relate to and enjoy.
Samara Joy’s debut album on Verve Records, ‘Linger Awhile,’ will be released on Sept. 16. Bay Area fans have three opportunities to see Joy perform live: Tuesday, Sept. 20, Berkeley, Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, doors 7pm, show 8pm; Friday, Sept. 23, Monterey Jazz Festival; and Sunday, Oct. 2, Half Moon Bay, Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, 4:30pm. Tickets can be purchased on her website, samarajoy.com.