It’s 10.30 on a Thursday night in New York. The weather outside is frightful: below freezing, in fact. I am squeezed into a shared table at the Blue Note Jazz Club, an institution. I have to negotiate with a tyrannical maître d’ to get a stage view. Someone at my table orders a shrimp cocktail; the table behind me drinking Martinis. It all screams Old New York, the New York that doesn’t care about you because it knows you’re about to have a very good time. I am having a very good time.

A band of seven young men are playing on stage: light hands on a piano, strong notes from a tenor sax. A young woman in a pink dress cries “together soon”, hitting notes that feel impossible with ease, teasing them, dropping low and deep, then fluttering up. “U-huh!” someone yells from the audience. “Yes, girl!” says another. The performance feels like canonical jazz. Timeless. In one song, she’s Betty Carter. In another, Sarah Vaughan. Old New York.

Joy wears Theory cotton crepe dress, £395. Manolo Blahnik suede Maysale shoes, £627. Grown Brilliance white-gold and diamond stud earrings, £1,017
Joy wears Theory cotton crepe dress, £395. Manolo Blahnik suede Maysale shoes, £627. Grown Brilliance white-gold and diamond stud earrings, £1,017 © Katsu Naito

But this singer is not old at all. She is decisively Of This Moment. Samara Joy has more than 1.3mn followers across her social platforms. She’s been called a prodigy who’s “bringing jazz to Gen Z”, with a voice compared to various liquid substances: melty, silky, buttery, creamy, syrupy, smooth. (It’s all true.) Joy has already won three Grammys – one earlier this month, for Best Jazz Performance for her song “Tight”, and two last year, most notably as 2023’s best new artist, one of few jazz performers ever to do so. She joins the ranks of Olivia Rodrigo, Megan Thee Stallion and Billie Eilish. Almost every winner of best new artist is now a household name.

“I just turned 24 years old,” she tells the audience, and we exhale in unison, and she laughs. “Really getting up there.” She tells us her story between songs, of being born and raised in the Bronx to a family of musicians, of touring the world over the past few years (“The mountains in Switzerland are real! OK!”). She performs an original composition for the first time, with lyrics she wrote, and it’s clear this makes her nervous. She exudes half confidence, half “who, me?”. The audience falls in love.

Joy’s musical background is gospel: her father, a vocalist and bass player, toured with Andraé Crouch. Her grandparents co-founded The Savettes. As a child, “we were singing in harmony on the spot, picking up melodies really quickly. [Music was] just everywhere,” she tells me in the stark light of the next day. She didn’t fall in love with jazz until college, on the jazz studies programme at SUNY Purchase, a state university 30 miles north of New York. College taught her to train her voice, and jazz was the perfect fit: “With jazz, I felt like I didn’t necessarily have to conform to this box.” She could take Lalah Hathaway’s depth, and Sarah Vaughan’s vibrato, and gospel, too. “It could all be part of who I am.”

The Blue Note Jazz Club in New York
The Blue Note Jazz Club in New York © Katsu Naito

In 2020, Joy posted a video of herself singing Ella Fitzgerald’s “Take Love Easy” on Facebook. It went viral, caught the attention of record labels and, in the years that followed, a lot happened, fast: a record label, two albums, the 2023 Grammys, a Christmas EP, international touring and two more nominations for 2024.

At the Blue Note, I sat across from a man who used to play music with her father. He said she would join him and sing background occasionally, when she was around 14. He remembered her voice as singular then, and was glad to see her succeeding now. “Tell her,” he said, “that for us old-timers, she makes us feel that the future is bright.”

She flinches when I say “singular”, so I ask how that sort of compliment feels. She says grateful. She hopes to be doing this for generations to come. Then she pauses. “The music industry is one that can be tedious to be part of and involved with. But I’m glad to be giving any semblance of hope to anybody who loves music.”

Joy wears Alexander McQueen cotton trench coat with cocoon sleeves, £3,500. Jimmy Choo patent-leather Love 100 shoes, £595
Joy wears Alexander McQueen cotton trench coat with cocoon sleeves, £3,500. Jimmy Choo patent-leather Love 100 shoes, £595 © Katsu Naito

Does she feel pressure as one of the few young jazz performers to break into the mainstream? The genre has gone from omnipresent in the 20th century to almost niche. “Yes, I’ve been labelled as a Gen-Z TikTok star, ‘from TikTok to Grammys’,” she says. “I try not to feel a responsibility to that title. My responsibility is first and foremost making sure that I’m making music I like and am proud to share with people. If the focus becomes ‘I have to do something to stay relevant and important to young audiences’, that’s draining. Before you know it, you hate what you’re doing.” This year, she says, the pressure comes from the spotlight. Now’s the time to put out another album. Do more touring, more original writing. She sighs. “I’m like, ‘Do I want to be in the spotlight? Do I want to keep doing this?’”

She cites Miles Davis as “a timeless example” of having a long, varied career, one she seems to crave, without ever losing his unmistakable sound. He started playing straight-ahead jazz, then grew into the musician he wanted to be. “He had such a full career. And I don’t know if it was focused on making sure that he was hip and out there, as much as it was, this is what I want to do, this is my decision as an artist, and what kind of musician I want to be. If you hear him when he was older, the sound is still there. It’s still very much his identity. That’s how it should be.”

As she figures out how to stay true to her young self, to forge the career she wants, to follow in the footsteps of Lauryn Hill, Adele, Alicia Keys, Sam Smith and the other best new artists before her – or to not – I ask what helps her choose when to say yes or no. She thinks for a second, then says decisively: “Is it going to help me grow?”

Talent, Samara Joy. Hair, Kevin Jackson. Make-up, Taylar Thompson. Photographer’s assistant, Taj Reed. Stylist’s assistants, Jessica Marciniak and Chardonnay Taylor. Production, Lisa Weatherby at Minititle. Special thanks to Eric and the staff at Blue Note, New York

Lilah Raptopoulos interviews Samara Joy in the next episode of the FT Weekend podcast Life and Art, which she hosts. Visit or search Life and Art wherever you listen

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