QUEENS, NEW YORK—To celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Queens College put together a compelling program that combined a very to-the-point speech from Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and staff writer for The New Yorker, with a marvelous performance by the rising jazz singer of the moment, 24-year-old Samara Joy.
Cobb noted King’s famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” but added that it doesn’t bend by itself—it takes a lot of hard work. He talked about attending the multi-cultural Jamaica High School (and playing on its firmly integrated baseball team), but also being called the “n” word on a Queens street, and living through the 1986 Howard Beach tragedy. Three African-American men were attacked by a group of white youths outside a Queens pizza parlor—resulting in the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith. Spike Lee made a movie about it. Progress has been made, he said, but much remains to be done.
MLK’s important legacy was invoked by numerous speakers (including the Queens borough president and the speaker of the City Council), all before an intermission. Since tickets only cost $20, this was a rare occasion to see an affordable first-class jazz performance in an ideal venue. And this was no ordinary performer—Joy is on an escalator to musical stardom, records for Verve, appears on late night TV shows, and is soon off to Europe. She won the Sarah Vaughn International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019, and was the Best New Artist for Jazz Times in 2021. The New Yorker says she “has all the goods to hold a room spellbound.”
And that’s just what she did at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts, with a trio featuring Luther Allison on piano and Evan Sherman on drums. Joy, who performed a program of mostly new (to her) songs, has range, taste, power, dynamic control, and lots and lots of drama. She is, simply, the most exciting jazz singer (of either gender) to appear in the last 20 years. Actually, should we go back further?
Watching Bronx-born Joy conjures an amalgam of the standard-singing mastery of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn with the more experimental bop vocalizing of Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter. With the latter (and Cassandra Wilson), she shares an ultra-low bottom range and rapid-fire tempo changes.
Joy performed only two songs from her Verve album, Linger Awhile—which is mostly standards. Instead, the repertoire was representative of her recent listening. A singer who mostly listened to R&B in high school– Kendrick Lamar, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross—has spent the time since catching up on the history of jazz singing. She did two songs by Abbey Lincoln, “Straight Ahead” and “Retribution,” both from the classic 1961 Straight Ahead album; and “Tight,” from The Audience with Betty Carter (1980).
I’ve listened to a lot of Monk, but never before encountered his 1959 “San Francisco Holiday,” which had lyrics put to it by Margo Guryan—a Queens native! Now it’s called “Worry Later.” Samara Joy could make it into a standard. From the album we got “Guess Who I Saw Today,” which is most often associated with Nancy Wilson, though Carmen McRae (another source for Joy) sang it first. A highlight was a version of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” accompanied only by Allison’s piano. She concluded with a blues.
Like Lincoln, Joy is an actress who, as they used to say, “knows how to put a song across.” She radiates intense, well, joy, about just being on stage. She tells stories about the songs, introduces the musicians, points them out when they take an especially audacious solo, and switches seamlessly into vocalese. On the album, she sings a vocal version of Fats Navarro’s “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew).” Her study of the form, nodding to the greatness of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, grew from school assignments. “Over time, it became a style that I’ve enjoyed exploring and playing around with,” she said.
There is no trajectory but up for this singer. Of course, she could realize there’s more money in R&B and ride that wave. Other jazz singers did it—Dee Dee Bridgewater (who later came back), Al Jarreau, Jean Carn (a/k/a Jean Carne). But let’s not stir things up. For now, Samara Joy is firmly committed to jazz. She loves jazz, and it loves her back.