Stand at a certain angle on Greenwich Avenue, and the massive Freedom Tower that looms in the distance can be seen perfectly smack in the middle of the long, red awning of the Village Vanguard. The image is as New York as one can get: a striking intersection of modern and classic. It’s also increasingly precious. Incomparable Big Apple relics routinely go out of business and are replaced by a Citibank, or a high rise, or a high rise with a Citibank on the ground floor, but the Vanguard is the oldest jazz club in New York. It first opened in 1935, hosting folk and poetry, and by 1957, had switched to Jazz.
In those early days when Jazz and its associated standards were at the forefront of the consciousness of American music, young artists who captured the country’s attention were a fixture of the iconic smoke-filled clubs of the Village. But just like the Big Apple era of affordable rents, it’s an era that’s long gone and probably never coming back. Maybe that’s why Harlem native Samara Joy’s recent week-long residency at the Vanguard felt like something out of the past.
It wasn’t that long ago that the 23-year-old singer took home GRAMMY awards for Best New Artist and Best Jazz Vocal Album. The latter win was a shock, not because Joy lacks talent—she has prodigious amounts of it—but because Best New Artist is not an award generally associated with this genre. Esperanza Spalding was the first-ever Jazz artist to win in the category. Joy is the second.
Jazz is an art form that has been pushed out of the mainstream and into the niche edges of culture, at least since those days when the Village was a hotbed of the stuff in the early 60s. But in the Vanguard’s tiny basement, with its ramshackle stairwell and no-frills stage, Joy celebrated achieving a rare feat: simultaneously infiltrating the mainstream and fitting in at a venue indelibly part of New York City’s rich Jazz history.
“As you probably know, a lot of things have happened over the last couple of months,” Joy said to knowing laughter and applause from the crowd as she opened up her third night of her week-long residency. “It’s very nice to finally be able to celebrate at home. Lives were changed, celebrities were spotted and it was a whole thing. But I think I’m back down to earth now. At least I hope so. I don’t know, maybe not. But we’ll just enjoy the ride.
Last year, Columbia Records remastered and released what was to be Barbra Streisand’s debut album, Live at the Bon Soir, recorded live at the defunct, eponymous Manhattan club; another basement, this time on West 8th Street. Streisand was just twenty during the 1962 show, and the album features her iconic and masterful vocals dominating everything from the melancholy (“Cry Me A River”) to the buoyant (“The Big Bad Wolf”).
At the Vanguard, Joy showcased a similar range and a reminiscent personality, equal parts relatable and overflowing with class. She effortlessly played with her vocals; her voice rising and falling, her delivery unique with every line. On songs ranging from the single “Guess Who I Saw Today” to the swingin’ “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” I was reminded of what she told me when I interviewed her for Billboard earlier this year. “The art of interpretation is definitely a sensitive one,” she said of putting her own unique spin on her sound before adding, “I think about this quote from the great trumpet player Clark Terry, which I believe is: ‘Imitation, assimilation and then innovation.’”
What’s interesting about Joy is that she isn’t trying to emulate any one artist. At certain points she may sound like Ella Fitzgerald; at other times she leans into a Streisand-like delivery. She’s also unafraid to try new things, even going so far as to explore vocals in other languages. To prepare for an upcoming trip to Brazil, she learned a song in Portuguese (“Living Flower”), and at the Vanguard, she sang it in a Bossa Nova style as effervescent as any Sao Paulo native could deliver. Joy also crooned a segment of “April in Paris” in French (she said she Google-translated the lyrics on a recent flight there).
In English or otherwise, Joy as a vocalist manages to embody every lyric; some of which elicit deep emotion. Her touching spin on Arthur Prysock’s “Lovely in Her Evening Gown,” a story about a love that was not to be, feels personal and touching. The Village Vanguard audience leaned in during her performance, and upon its final crescendo, someone in the crowd yelled “Genius!”
Following the release of Live at the Bon Soir, the GRAMMY-winning composer and conductor Bill Ross mused to the New York Times about what made the album, and Streisand herself, special. “To be able to just sing to the listener wherever they are and make them feel an emotion, and to that extent? That is another level. And, you know, it’s very rare that you come across vocalists who have that.”
Rare, yes. But not impossible.