NYC’s Samara McLendon Wins 8th Sarah Vaughan International Competition

Runners-up for the jazz vocal contest are Italy's Daniela Spalletta and Lithuania's Viktorija Gečytė

Samara McLendon with her SASSY Award
Samara McLendon with her SASSY Award (photo courtesy of NJPAC)

On Sunday, Nov. 4, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC)’s Victoria Theater in Newark, N.J., Samara McLendon—born and raised in the Bronx and a junior in the jazz studies program at SUNY Purchase—took top honors in the 8th Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition (also known as the SASSY Awards).

Selected from more than 600 initial submissions, McLendon was one of five finalists who performed before a live audience and a judging panel consisting of bassist Christian McBride, vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jane Monheit, WBGO radio host Monifa Brown, and producer Matt Pierson.

For her first-prize win, McLendon (who has already performed with a number of respected jazz artists, including Pasquale Grasso, Jon Faddis, and NEA Jazz Master Dr. Barry Harris) receives a $5,000 cash award as well as a guaranteed performing slot at the 2020 Newport Jazz Festival.

The second-place winner of the competition was Daniela Spalletta. An acclaimed jazz singer and educator in her native Italy, she was awarded a $1,500 cash prize. Taking third place was Lithuanian-born, Paris-based Viktorija Gečytė, who received $500.

The competition, which is the climactic event of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival in Newark, is named after one of jazz’s greatest female vocalists, Sarah Vaughan, who grew up in Newark and who herself famously won an amateur singing contest in 1942 at New York’s Apollo Theater—a contest that helped launch her career. Past winners of the SASSY Awards include Cyrille Aimée, Jazzmeia Horn (also winner of the 2015 Thelonious Monk Competition), Ashleigh Smith, Arianna Neikrug, Deelee Dubé, Quiana Lynell, and last year’s winner, Laurin Talese.