Samara Joy on bringing jazz to Gen Z & the Grammys: "Maybe I am the underdog!"

Feeling Christmassy yet? Samara Joy might help. The jazz singing sensation’s new Christmas EP, A Joyful Holiday is out now; play it and you’ll feel irresistibly drawn to the idea of pulling on an itchy Christmas jumper and sipping mulled wine by the fire. Such is the allure of her velvety refined voice (sounding like a beguiling blend of her idols Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday), it’s easy to forget that this two-time Grammy winner from the Bronx is only 24 years old.

We address the two golden-shaped elephants in the room first: Joy won two Grammys this year; Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best New Artist. The latter award is more impressive still, due to the fact that it's almost always won by an artist dominating the commercial music scene – the previous three years being won by Olivia Rodrigo, Megan Thee Stallion and Billie Eilish. 

If you’ve ever seen the annual Grammy winners list – it’s long – and far away from the shiny, headline grabbing categories, jazz is buried deep down, sandwiched between ‘new age, ambient or chant’ and ‘gospel/contemporary Christian music’ – not exactly the evening’s highlights. With historical roots in early 20th-century America, jazz is a world away from the contemporary tastes of younger listeners, yet this year saw Adele, Taylor Swift and Lizzo get to their feet to applaud Joy’s win.

“It was really surreal,” says Joy from a nondescript hotel room in L.A., sharing that her two awards are still in the box. Like her singing voice, Joy seems mature beyond her years, and likely due to back-to-back press interviews and a combination of adjusting to her new hectic schedule and life on the road – “I’ve had some conversations about how much I can roll with it” – is a little reserved at first, providing short, to-the-point answers (but you never forget she can sing; her speaking voice is measured, yes, but unmistakably melodious), but soon warms up when recalling one of the biggest nights of her career.

“I was starstruck and just taking in the whole experience,” she says of her Best New Artist win in particular. “I was shocked. It was very surreal. I couldn't really grasp it for the first couple of months. With Best Jazz Vocal Album I felt like I maybe had more of a chance because there were only five of us in that first category, so I was like, ‘Okay, there's kind of a chance, you know?’ And I performed right before they announced that category. 

"But for Best New Artist, it was 10 of us. I was like, ‘I'm the second to last underdog, or maybe I am the underdog!’ The impossible seemed to happen. Now, I feel like I'm starting to grasp it and I can finally look back at the speech without it being on mute, because before I was like, ‘I didn't say everything I wanted to say’, and I was so nervous,” she cringes. “I was stuttering, but now I'm like, ‘Wow, that was a really big moment’. It's taken me all this time just to settle into it.”

Easier than it sounds when Beyoncé took the time out of her record-breaking night to congratulate Joy personally. “I had never been at an event like that before,” Joy stresses. “I don't travel in those circles. I'm on the road, I don't go to parties. I don't go to award shows. So that really was the first time I was in proximity to that much star power. I looked back at the speech and I saw everybody's faces and I saw Beyoncé standing up. 

"A lady sitting next to me tapped me and said, ‘Somebody's trying to say something to you’. I turned around like, ‘Who could this somebody be?’ And it was her. She told me congratulations, but I didn't get to say anything to her face because she was maybe two tables away and I was just like, ‘If I try to get to her, I'm gonna fall. I know I'm gonna tumble.”

for Best New Artist I was like: maybe I am the underdog!

One of the most promising jazz vocalists of her generation, Joy brings a refreshing blend of vintage elegance and unmistakable R&B flair to her craft, while her voice, characterised by its warmth, clarity and remarkable range, allows her to effortlessly navigate the intricate melodies and improvisational nuances that define jazz music. 

So it might be a surprise to some to learn that she’s straight out of the Bronx, which thanks to more contemporary recording artists like Cardi B, Mary J Blige, Jennifer Lopez, KRS-One and Fat Joe, is forever musically linked to hip hop and rap – commercially anyway.

Joy only had a passing interest in jazz when she was growing up due to absorbing the music her parents listened to. She treasures her musical lineage, which stretches back to her grandparents Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, both of whom performed with Philadelphia gospel group the Savettes, and runs through her father, who is a singer, songwriter and producer who toured with gospel artist Andraé Crouch.

“I wasn't interested in jazz early on,” she admits. “I never got into it until I got to college. That wasn't what my friends were listening to; they never seem to be affected by it. People were listening to Beyoncé, Tyler, The Creator and Paramore. I really didn't listen to much of it; I didn't feel connected to it as much as I felt connected to the music my parents listened to. Maybe that's why with jazz, it didn't feel as unorthodox to pursue a career in it because I'd already been used to not listening to or singing music that was popular,” she muses.

I wasn't a diehard, know-every-single-deep-cut Beyoncé fan. But after going to the concert, I understand.

Joy is exciting to watch, interpreting classic jazz standards with a fresh and soulful perspective, yet is deeply connected to a jazz-vocal tradition that harkens back to when her heroes like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald (she simply name-checks them as Sarah and Ella) and Betty Carter were dropping jaws. Headliner wonders if Joy was born with this mature, refined, singing voice, or whether she intentionally trained herself to sing with a jazz inflection?

“If I listened back to myself, I would say my voice was definitely not mature,” she reflects. “But I think my parents might say that it was mature for my age. It definitely developed once I listened more intently, because I already loved listening to music and imitating singers. I remember looking up videos of Sarah Vaughan to see if there was any difference between the live versus the studio versions. I remember looking at a video of her singing Lover Man, They All Laughed, and Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and it was so elegant and controlled, yet spontaneous. 

"I wanted to be able to do that: to sing what I felt, but also be technically proficient enough to execute it and to have it be effortless and unrestrained. I already had a lot of different influences in my voice, kind of ingrained from listening and copying a certain style for so long. I don't mean [my voice] to be exactly like Ella or exactly like Sarah. 

"It took me a minute. I wasn't trying to diminish the influences that I had. But I was trying to make it so that if I wanted to sing in a certain way, I had control over it. I can make a choice to do it – it’s not necessarily, I can't help it. It's just how I sing,” she explains.

With jazz, it didn't feel unorthodox to pursue a career in it because I'd already been used to not listening to music that was popular.

You only have to check the comment sections around popular music online to know that Swifties, the BTS ARMY and whatever Harry Styles’ fans call themselves (Harries? Stylesies?) are a pretty good indication of what Gen Z goes feral over on social media. Joy couldn’t be further from these more obviously mainstream-marketable pop artists, yet her distinctive singing style has already earned her legions of fans in addition to over half a million TikTok followers, leading her to be called ‘the first Gen Z jazz singing star’. How does Joy feel about bringing jazz to a younger audience?

“It feels cool knowing that, because I didn't set out to do that,” she says humbly. “The fact that people are gravitating toward something that I love to do and it's inspiring them to want to sing or to want to listen to it and show other people…” she trails off. 

“I get a lot of people who come to me after the show and say, ‘My daughter introduced me to you’, or, ‘My friend introduced me to you’. I don't wanna say word is getting around, but like the fact that people are excited about it and are inspired enough that they want to share and support on social media and in person. It feels good,” she smiles.

Aside from Ella, Sarah and Billie, does Joy have any unexpected music tastes? “I'm a pretty predictable person,” she says, laughing at herself. “I listen to the same stuff, outside of maybe a couple of songs here and there. I like to follow pages that have playlists of new artists, but I'm pretty predictable. I did go to the Renaissance concert!” she offers. “I went to Tampa, Florida. It was really fun. We were pretty bad at the mute challenge – there were a lot of misses for us. No rhythm. I was first introduced to Beyoncé through her music videos; I would watch them all the time, but I wasn't a diehard, know-every-single-deep-cut fan. But after going to the concert, I understand,” she says seriously.

I wanted to sing what I felt, but also be technically proficient enough to execute it and to have it be effortless and unrestrained.

Joy released Tight this year, a single featuring her band (pianist Luther Allison, bassist Mikey Migliore and drummer Evan Sherman). Originally written by American jazz singer Betty Carter and a true showcase of Joy’s dynamic range, Tight has become a fan favourite during her onstage sets.

“I first decided to start singing Tight because I wrote a song called Nostalgia which is dedicated specifically to couples. I was talking about a couple on their anniversary, explaining how they first met and how their love hasn't changed in the 50-odd years that they've been together. I would always ask how many couples were in the room, and it would be people celebrating a 50 year anniversary, or 60 or 70 years together, and I would always shout them out in the song. I was like, ‘I think we need one for singles too’ so I thought it would be funny because Tight starts with, ‘I don't know where my man is’, right after we come from couples that are celebrating a long time together. 

"I honestly wasn't intending to keep it in the show because I was like, ‘I feel like I'm just copying Betty Carter. I don't know if I have my own individual style on this song’. Because I listened to her recording so much, I didn't know if I could break out of the things that she does. But the more we played it, I was like, ‘Okay, we're playing it at a faster tempo, and there are certain things that we do as a quartet that aren't on the recording’.”

Joy’s second album, Linger Awhile won her the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album and was responsible for her Best New Artist gong. With Tight, she wanted to come out of her shell, vocally, and showcase her range.

“Since Linger Awhile I haven't really released anything, so I figured since all of my recordings feature me being a little bit more reserved, because I want it to be appealing to everybody, I wanted to surprise people and not show off, but show them where I am now and maybe the direction that I'm headed. I felt like it was one of the better choices for doing that because it's quick and it's just like, ‘Bam!’ It's exciting and maybe it can be played over and over again.”

All of my recordings feature me being reserved because I want it to be appealing to everybody. I wanted to surprise people.

Just in time for the festive period, Joy released a gorgeous cover of Have Yourself A Merry Christmas, taken from the EP, A Joyful Holiday. She shares that the song was recorded two years ago, waiting for the right time to release it.

“We just kind of had it in the vault. It's a familiar song and it’s one that everybody will recognise. I don't think Christmas is necessarily about being innovative,” she considers. “It's about tapping into nostalgia and making people feel warm and that the season is upon us. When you hear this song, it's that time of year!

A Joyful Holiday features two previously released holiday singles, plus four new never-before-heard tracks. The Christmas Song (Live) even features a live duet with Joy and her equally gifted father, Antonio McLendon.

“There's also a song that Stevie Wonder does; I don't know if everybody knows it,” she says, referencing Twinkle Twinkle Little Me. “It's classic to me. I think it's beautiful. It's not necessarily one of the quote-unquote classics, but I heard Stevie sing it and I was like, ‘I want to do that’.”

Headliner imagines that Joy is constantly being asked to cover contemporary music in her unique, jazzy style?

“People are like, ‘Make an R&B album!’ and I'm like, ‘That's… not what I do,’” she laughs good naturedly. “I love R&B and gospel, but I don't know.” She pauses, thinking…”I recorded it, but people still ask me to do Misty live – there’s a lot of requests coming in. I'm always adding repertoire to the book, so you can definitely expect some beautiful, large ensemble music in the future.”

Photo credits:

Main image by Gabriele Bifolchi (

Article images by Meredith Truax.