Confession time: I’m low-key into awards shows. While I’m not into obsession territory (yet), I do find myself tuning in when they’re on. Maybe it’s the spectacle, the speeches, or the glamour of it all. Honestly, some of my curiosity is anticipating the snubs—let’s be real, award shows don’t always get it right (*checks notes and whispers, Beyoncé). But when they do…When you realize you’re watching history in the making? That keeps me coming back every time. So, when the 65th annual Grammy Awards rolled around and Samara Joy won Best New Artist, I had only two thoughts:
- Who is Samara Joy?
- How Soon Can I Listen?
Over a month later, I am still starting my days with this 22-year-old American jazz singer. Not only is her voice transportive, but it’s deeply soulful and rich, the kind of sound that warms something up in my spirit. (And in winter, that’s exactly what I needed.) In fact, I’ve played Samara Joy every morning since her Grammy win, so yeah, I think the Grammys got this one right.
But I didn’t exactly have a 22-year-old jazz singer on my bingo card for Best New Artist in the year 2023. Considering jazz reached peak popularity throughout the 1920s-40s, it was a surprise. When asked in the press room what it was about the genre that inspired her, Samara, holding her Grammy says, “What drew me to jazz was the authenticity of it.”
That’s the thing about jazz, isn’t it? Its authenticity resonates.
This simple truth means jazz grounds me in a way no other musical genre does. When everything can’t be expressed in words, jazz fills those spaces with sound. At the height of the pandemic, when I needed something to fill the silence that wasn’t news, something that could match my energy, jazz came through, ya’ll. And when I sit with the fact that it just happens to be one of the many musical genres created and shaped by Black Americans? Well, that’s tradition.
So yeah, you could say I’m in my jazz era. More specifically, I’m in my Black women in jazz era. Because while I was familiar names like Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday, the truth is, jazz—like so many other disciplines—has been dominated by males. I don’t need to search very hard for documentaries or books about men in jazz. When we talk about “The Greats,” it’s a given.
But what about the Black women whose contributions were excluded or trivialized? What about “Countess” Margaret Johnson (1919-1939) or Bettye Miller (1927-1977) , who were less well-known but paved the way considerably? What about Black women whose names we’ll never know or whose music was never recorded?
These are not easily answered questions. But after watching documentaries like Girls in the Band (2011) , something has become abundantly clear to me: Black women, in the face of death threats, rejection, and disappointments I can’t begin to know, have always been determined to gift us with their music.
Historically, Black women in jazz had to not only play well, but “look good” too—an example of the sexism that equated their talent to their perceived desirability. In fact, most were encouraged to play what were considered ‘feminine instruments’ like the harp, violin, or piano. If you did happen to be a brass instrumentalist, for instance, only the women were coached on how to smile while playing. (If anyone knows how to smile while playing a trumpet, I’d love to see that magic trick.)
So, when I learn of someone like Melba Liston (1926-1999) who saw the trombone and described it as “the most beautiful thing” she’d ever seen, I’m inspired by the Black women who carved their own space in jazz, smile or no smile. I’m also reminded of my first experience picking up a musical instrument in elementary school.
For me, the flute was that “most beautiful” instrument. Even though we were instructed to try out different instruments to get a feel for what we liked, I only wanted to play the flute. As I started playing, the band teacher watched me. Here is what I wish she’d said:
“Try it out for a bit and see.” or
“Here’s how you can hold it differently.”
Instead, here’s what she actually said:
“Your lips are too big. Let’s try something else.”
I ended up playing the piano.
Maybe if I’d grown up with stronger representation or role models like Lizzo, I would’ve stuck with the flute. There’s no way to know. I do know this wouldn’t be the last time I was told something about me was “too this” or “too that.” That’s the message women receive from day one. Adding intersections like Black, queer, or disabled, only further cloak us in the societal weight of “too much.”
This is what makes Samara Joy’s Grammy win even more poignant for me. Being “too much” is impossible when you’re a Black woman leading with authenticity and staying true to your purpose. March is Women’s History Month, but it’s also International Black Women in Jazz Month. So let this be a reminder to us all that, as the saying goes, a woman’s place is in the groove. And this month, you can find me celebrating all the Black women in jazz who made Samara Joy’s story possible.
Who are the Black women in music that have made an impact in your life?Leave a Comment