Samara Joy in Dublin: The young jazz star who earned a standing ovation from Adele, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift

The Grammy winner, who performs at the National Concert Hall this month, only has to sing a note or two for you to realise how exceptional she is

When Samara Joy auditioned for the jazz studies course at the State University of New York, in 2017, she had just one problem: she knew practically nothing about the music.

Although she had won the outstanding-vocalist award at Essentially Ellington, a national high-school jazz-band competition, the 17-year-old Joy had not listened to very much jazz, not even to such canonical singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. “Jazz was a sound that I wasn’t used to hearing,” she recently told DownBeat magazine.

Even though at 16 she had become lead singer of the choir at her local church in the Bronx, Joy had also had no formal voice lessons or professional training, no background in music theory or experience in reading a lead sheet, and knew only one jazz standard: Duke Ellington’s gently swinging I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart, the tune she had learned for the high-school band contest.

“When I’d finished the song, the head of the conservatory, Pete Malinverni, said to me, ‘Okay, that’s good, but, you know, do you want to sing a hymn or something?’ – and I thought, This is not a good sign,” says Joy, letting out one of her infectious laughs. “But I sang Blessed Assurance, with him accompanying me on piano, and afterwards I was, like, ‘All right, I did my best: this is what I have right now when it comes to my voice and my knowledge of music – I can’t fake it. But hopefully they’ll see there’s fertile ground for me to learn.’”


A week later she was offered a place on the four-year course, but she was uncertain. She knew she loved to sing, but her musical heartlands growing up had been gospel, R&B and soul. She also had an offer from another college for a Stem course “that would offer me, like, a real actual job at the end of it”; she thought she could still sing at church and in her spare time. “That was the turning point. The path was: no music or, at best, music as a hobby; or music as a life,” she says. “And I chose the latter.”

It was a good decision. In the next five years or so, two of them severely interrupted by the Covid pandemic, Samara Joy went from being a callow jazz student to forging a burgeoning career as a global singing superstar. This month she makes her Irish debut, at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

In 2019 Joy won the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition; she beat more than 300 competitors from 34 countries – so compelling was her performance that, in the middle of one song, the audience broke into spontaneous applause. While, at college, she had rapidly begun to assimilate some of the main tenets of jazz singing and history, it was almost as if Joy had arrived fully formed, a preternatural talent mature beyond her years. The following year she received a prized Ella Fitzgerald memorial scholarship.

Joy signed a three-record deal in 2022 with one of the most illustrious labels in jazz, Verve, home to legends such as Nina Simone, Stan Getz, Bill Evans and, yes, Ella Fitzgerald, who was Verve’s first signing. Her debut release for the label, Linger Awhile, won Joy two awards at the 2023 Grammys: best jazz vocal album and, more significantly, best new artist.

In recent years the much-coveted new-artist gong has been awarded to acts such as Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and Olivia Rodrigo; Samara Joy saw off challenges from the British indie rockers Wet Leg and the precocious jazz disrupters Domi & JD Beck. Film of the ceremony shows her being given a standing ovation by Adele, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.

Like all great female singers, many of them by now mononymous – Ella, Aretha, Whitney, Joni, Mariah, Amy, Patsy, Bessie, Björk – you only have to hear Samara deliver a note or two to know you are in the presence of someone exceptional, someone special.

There are countless examples on her three releases to date: her self-titled, crowdfunded 2021 debut album, on the small London-based indie label Whirlwind; the best-selling Linger Awhile, which was also released in an expanded “deluxe edition”, with extra tracks and alternate takes, in 2023; and her surprisingly engaging and unsentimental six-track Christmas EP, A Joyful Holiday, which came out at the end of last year.

If you only listen to one such series of notes, however, make it the final, mostly a cappella phrase in her reading of the classic romantic ballad Misty. Joy’s deep, rich and warm contralto has been described by critics as “silky”, “creamy” and “honeyed like a cognac supped by the fire”, and she employs the fullness of that timbre, and much of her considerable range, in an improvised line that lightly dances up through the scales to land on an upper-register note of pure emotional tenderness and beauty. Joy caresses the lyrics rather than croons them; she makes you hear a familiar song anew.

Joy is more of a classicist than a modernist. She has stuck closely to a repertoire of jazz standards and Great American Songbook tunes that, in some cases, date back 100 years, and proved to be a gifted interpreter of vocalese, the art of adding lyrics (some of them her own) to a recorded instrumental solo that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

So far she has taken few artistic risks – certainly compared with another American generational jazz vocal talent who is her near contemporary, Cécile McLorin Salvant. Yet her soulfulness and youthful spirit, relaxed yet self-assured style, playful yet unaffected tone and wonderfully clear diction make Joy’s music at once weirdly contemporary and wholly accessible.

She was born Samara Joy McLendon in the Castle Hill neighbourhood of the Bronx at the end of the 20th century, on November 11th, 1999. Even though she is aware of the New York borough’s historic reputation for poverty and urban decay (and its renown as the birthplace of hip hop), she says the area she grew up in was “quiet, familial and community-based”.

“I really have fond memories of being here – in my childhood, I don’t feel like I lacked anything at all,” she says. Although she now lives in Harlem, she is talking to me from her old teenage bedroom, since converted into her mother’s office, while on a visit to her parents’ house. “I never felt like I had a vision of wanting to get out of this place.”

Samara is the second-youngest of five children, and she was raised in a family that was both musical and religious. Her paternal grandparents were noted gospel singers, preachers and founders of the Philadelphia choral group The Savettes; they passed on their fervour to Joy’s father, Antonio, a bass player, songwriter and producer who has worked as a gospel singer and toured with “the father of modern gospel music”, Andraé Crouch.

“My dad was my main influence and inspiration,” says Joy. “He still has his studio in this house, and I grew up surrounded by musicians working on songs and recording. He also introduced me to lots of gospel and soul music.” Through her mother, Janice, a clinical-trial monitor, she also got to hear artists such as Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross and Chaka Khan.

Although Joy says she was, as a child, “pretty quiet, pretty shy”, and she told Ebony magazine she was “always a bit of a loner”, music provided her with both a catharsis and a sense of belonging. At home, her extended family would often sing after meals and celebrations; they would do the same every week in church. For Samara, singing was almost second nature. As was being a good Christian. “I was taught that, whatever your purpose in life, make sure that God is at the centre of it,” she says in a video posted recently to her 660,000 TikTok and 520,000 Instagram followers.

It’s a growing audience that is not only introducing a younger cohort to classic jazz but also fuelling a sizeable demand for her talents (winning another Grammy this year, the best jazz performance award for her gymnastic vocals on the two-minute single Tight, has also helped). As well as TV and chatshow appearances, she is now touring the world, playing concerts in increasingly large venues, from London’s Barbican to the Hollywood Bowl, often to rapturous applause.

“I feel like the past couple of years have been 10 years, so much has happened,” she says, stifling a yawn, before quickly explaining that she is also in the middle of recording a new album.

She appears at the NCH backed by a young piano trio, handpicked by Joy to skilfully support the personal storytelling element inherent in the songs she performs, and to spotlight how she inhabits these standards and makes them her own. These are often timeless tunes of love and loss, of relationship blues and dreams, but, perhaps because of her age and cheerful disposition, they often retain a curious sense of optimism.

“I feel like, in some way, shape or form, everybody can connect to the music that I make, to stories about human emotion, about longing and losing somebody,” says Joy. “People like to draw attention to the awards and talk about how I’m the first Gen Z jazz star, and I’m grateful for that. But one of the core values I learned from my family is understanding that the gifts, and your life, are not just for you; they’re for building yourself up so that you can help others.

“What I’m trying to achieve with my music is to unite people of diverse backgrounds and different ages, to build community. I’m trying to draw people into a purpose greater than myself.”

Samara Joy is at the National Concert Hall, in Dublin, on Saturday, April 20th