When the Grammys get it right
The Grammys have often been known to get it wrong, as any Beyoncé fan will tell you. But during the 65th edition of the awards on Sunday night, they also got a few things right — none bigger than the selection of Best New Artist, which went to Samara Joy.
For many of us, watching the growth and astonishing success of this 23-year-old jazz singer has been a highlight of this awards season. I was reminded of this as soon as I walked into the Microsoft Theater for the Premiere Ceremony, and immediately spotted Joy’s family, the McLendons, being interviewed at the Grammys’ designated “Family. Matters.” station. Their pride in her achievement was palpable from across the room.
This was my first experience with the awards, as a member of the New York Grammy chapter. Taking my seat in the seventh row for the Premiere Ceremony, I was primed to pay special attention to the jazz and classical fields. The first award for jazz went to Geoffrey Keezer in the Best Instrumental Composition category, for “Refuge,” from his album Playdate.
Next, Vince Mendoza took the award for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals, for his orchestral version of “Songbird.” That award was handed out by the star of MJ: The Musical, the charismatic Myles Frost. The young poet laureate Amanda Gorman followed him to hand out the award for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, which went to Wayne Shorter and Leo Genovese for their playing on “Endangered Species,” from Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Also nominated in that category were Gerald Albright, Melissa Aldana, Marcus Baylor, and John Beasley.
The Premiere Ceremony is built to accommodate a select handful of live performances, and this year it included one by Samara Joy. I flashed back to the first time I saw her perform, at the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019. She had a similar glide in her step as she took center stage at the Microsoft Theater, poised and unshakeable. As I looked around the room, I could sense that there were some that still weren’t quite sure who she was (despite her media blitz over the last several months).
Joy seemed a bit nervous as she began by calling out her bandmates; clearly, the weight of this moment wasn’t lost on her. But in typical Samara fashion, once she began to sing, those nerves seemed to gradually fall away. She was at home, doing what she does best. I could see that her voice was leaving an indelible mark in the room. As she serenaded us with “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” the mouths of people around me began to drop, one by one. She finished her song to a standing ovation — and was shortly back in the spotlight, as the winner of Best Jazz Vocal Album, for Linger Awhile.
When Gorman opened the envelope and read her name, I couldn’t stop myself from nearly catapulting from my seat with pride. And it’s worth noting that Joy was up against some serious competition: The Baylor Project for The Evening: Live at Apparatus; Carmen Lundy’s Fade to Black; The Manhattan Transfer with the WDR Funkhausorchester for Fifty; and Cécile McLorin Salvant for Ghost Song. Samara’s acceptance speech was clad with humility, gratitude, and shock, her voice shaking as she mentioned how being born and raised in The Bronx, she never would have imagined experiencing this moment.
Immediately following, the award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album went to Terri Lyne Carrington, who had two nominations in the category. She won for New Standards Vol. 1, taking the stage with her partners on the album: pianist Kris Davis, bassist Linda May Han Oh, guitarist Matthew Stevens and trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
Earlier in the week, Carrington had been honored at The Village Studios by the Recording Academy’s Producers and Engineers wing, along with classical producer Judith Sherman (winner of this year’s Grammy for Producer of the Year, Classical). I had a chance to sit down with her for a quick interview, where I asked how she felt about being given her flowers while she can still smell them. “Sometimes it makes me nervous,” she said, “because why is so much happening right now [when] I’m going to be here and do more work?” She’s taking each accolade in with gratitude and acknowledgment that the work, especially for women musicians, continues.
Among the other notable jazz awards: Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album went to Steven Feifke, Bijon Watson, and the Generation Gap Orchestra for their self-titled effort; Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Capella was claimed by John Beasley for “Scrapple from the Apple”; and Best Latin Jazz Album went to Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra for Fandango at the Wall in New York.
As usual, jazz artists also grabbed significant wins outside the jazz field. Best Contemporary Instrumental Album went to Snarky Puppy for Empire Central. Terence Blanchard landed Best Opera Recording for Fire Shut Up In My Bones (the first opera composed by an African American to be mounted at The Met). And Best R&B Album went to Robert Glasper for Black Radio III — meaning his Black Radio project has a perfect track record at the Grammys, with previous wins for Best R&B Album, Best R&B Song, and Best Traditional R&B performance. (He now has a total of five awards.)
Leaving the Premiere Ceremony, I grabbed a quick bite to fuel up for the next leg of the evening, the big awards show at Crypto Arena. Once the show began, I anxiously awaited as countless performances and awards were given (admittedly fading a bit from exhaustion), for the nominees for Best New Artist to roll around. I quickly went live on Instagram as last year’s winner in the category, Olivia Rodrigo, cozied up to the mic to announce this year’s roster of nominees. I waited with bated breath as the list was rattled off.
Joy took the stage clad in red, and as she humbly accepted her award, she mentioned how grateful she was to have gotten to this point by “just being myself.” She has always been nothing but true to who she is at her core: a lover of jazz and admirer of the great women vocalists that have paved her path.
Much like esperanza spalding, whose Best New Artist win a decade ago caused widespread upset outside the jazz community, Joy’s anointing prompts the general public not to count jazz out. Aaron Myers, vocalist and Governor of the Washington D.C. Grammy chapter, put it this way: “Samara Joy winning Best New Artist is the rising tide that will lift all ships in jazz at this moment. Her win just greatly helped the genre!” Taking the temperature of other jazz artists at the official Grammy afterparty, I found a similar consensus: that the Recording Academy “got it right this year.”