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2019 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition Finalists Announced

originally published: 10/15/2019

2019 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition Finalists Announced

(NEWARK, NJ) -- Now in its eighth year at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, also known as the SASSY Awards in a nod to Vaughan's nickname, announced the five jazz singers who will perform for the top prize honor on Sunday, November 24 at 3:00pm in NJPAC's Victoria Theater.  The 2019 finalists are Vivian Sessoms (Jersey City, New Jersey), Viktorija Gečytė (Paris, France), Samara McLendon (Bronx, New York), Daniela Spalletta (Mazzarino, Italy), and Christine Fawson (New Mexico).

On a Wednesday night in 1942, Newark teenager Sarah Vaughan went to the Apollo Theater to compete in an amateur singing contest. It was the chance to win $10 and a weeklong engagement performing on the Apollo stage. Instead, Vaughan's win launched a career and forever changed the art of jazz vocal music.  This international jazz vocal competition honors the talent of its namesake by giving one outstanding performer a platform to embark on a career in the music business. The competition was established in 2012 by NJPAC and legendary jazz music visionary Larry Rosen.

The five finalists will perform before a panel of judges on the final day of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival (November 9-24) at NJPAC. The grand prize winner will receive a $5,000 cash prize plus a performance slot at the 2020 Newport Jazz Festival.

The competition has become a platform for a single outstanding jazz singer to gain widespread recognition in the music industry. Past winners include Cyrille Aimée, Jazzmeia Horn (winner of the 2015 Thelonious Monk Competition), Ashleigh Smith, Arianna Neikrug, Deelee Dubé, Quiana Lynell, and last year's winner, Laurin Talese, who performed at the 2019 Newport Jazz Festival as part of her triumphant win in last year's competition.

The panel of judges include multi-Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride, Grammy- and Tony Award-winning jazz giant Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocalist Jane Monheit, WBGO weekend host Monifa Brown, and award-winning producer Matt Pierson. The competition is hosted by WBGO's morning show host, Gary Walker.

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Since May, vocalists from more than 30 different countries submitted nearly 600 song submissions through the competition website. The judges narrowed down the contestants to a Top 40, and then a Top 15; then, the filed was cut down to the final five vocalists. Contestants were judged on vocal quality, musicality, technique, performance, individuality, artistic interpretation, and the ability to swing.

NJPAC has partnered with TD Bank, the festival's title sponsor. For the 8th consecutive year, TD Bank's generous support and commitment to the arts has helped build the TD James Moody Jazz Festival into one of the most noteworthy jazz festivals in North America.

New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) is located at One Center Street in Newark, New Jersey.

Meet the Finalists

Born in Sicily, singer, composer, arranger, and lyricist, Daniela Spalletta is considered one of Italy’s premier jazz singers. Her debut album, D/Birth, with her own compositions and arrangements, garnered excellent reviews and multiple awards in her native country. She has won many international jazz awards, among which the Multiculturita Europe Contest, Premio Claudio Abbado, Premio Nazionale delle Arti, and the Lucca Jazz Donna Award. In 2015 she won a full-tuition scholarship to study for a Masters in Contemporary Performing Arts at the Berklee College of Music in Valencia. She performed in many festivals in Europe, including Atelier Musicale, Jazz al Piccolo, Umbria Jazz, Rendez Vous De L’Erdre, Crema Jazz Art Festival, Casa del Jazz, Django World Music Festival, Vittoria Jazz Festival, and the BeatOnto Jazz Festival. She teaches vocal jazz at several music conservatories in Italy.

Born and raised in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, Samara McLendon is a rising star. Although new to the jazz scene, she has managed to perform at many great jazz rooms such as Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, Mezzrow, and the infamous Blue Note in New York City with seasoned professionals including Pasquale Grasso, Jon Faddis, and NEA Jazz Master Dr. Barry Harris. She has also held a position as a vocal teaching assistant for JAZZ HOUSE KiDS summer program She is currently a junior in the prestigious Jazz Studies program within SUNY Purchase. Still staying true to her roots, Samara remains a volunteer in the music department at her home church of World Changers Church New York on the Grand Concourse. Having a passionate love for jazz music, she hopes to use its uniting force as a catalyst for change in the years to come.

A member of the brass faculty at Berklee College of Music for 14 years, Christine Fawson has also performed around the country as both a jazz vocalist and a trumpet player. A native of Northern California, she was a member of the vocal jazz group Syncopation and played trumpet with the DIVA Jazz Orchestra at venues including Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, and Lincoln Center. Christine also performed with the band as a vocal soloist, most recently at Lincoln Center in the 2016 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas tribute concert. Christine has released four albums as a leader; her most recent, Sings Jazz (2018), features her favorite tunes from the American Songbook. As a freelance trumpet player, Christine has worked with everyone from The Disney Corporation to Adele. Currently, she tours and produces music events in New Mexico. Christine placed third in the 2017 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.

Lithuanian-born, Paris-based Viktorija Gečytė began her performance career as a child actor on television. Later, she schooled herself in global jazz by hitchhiking to music festivals around her native country. At nineteen, thanks to a scholarship from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, ‘Vik’ moved to the US and dove into the New York area jazz scene, while earning her BA in mathematics and economics. After graduation, she settled in Paris and started performing internationally. Since 2008, Vik has been touring and recording with legendary, Jersey-born American bassist Gene Perla. Their second album together, featuring Edsel Gomez on piano and Adam Nussbaum on drums, will be coming out in early 2020 on P.M. Records. The past two summers, Vik was featured as a guest vocalist with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band at two open-air concerts in Germany.

Born and raised in Harlem, now a resident of Jersey City, Vivian Sessoms was born into a musical family. Her mother was session/jingle-singer, and her father was a flautist/percussionist for James Brown, among others. By the time she was nine, Vivian had begun doing television and radio voice-overs. With the help of casting agent Mikki Powell (“The Wiz”), she made the rounds of auditions for various Broadway shows, while receiving classical training in voice and piano. As a teen, Vivian began composing her own music. She performed with pianist/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and with his band performed, either live or in the studio, with artists including P. Diddy, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, Sinead O Connor, and Stevie Wonder. Today, with her musical partner Chris Parks, she is half the group Albright (named for her maternal grandmother), which has so far released two albums fusing jazz, pop and soul, Sunny One Day and Life.

Complete TD James Moody Jazz Festival Schedule

11/09 - Bobby Sanabria: Bethany Jazz Vespers (Free)

11/10 - Buddy Guy with Special Guest Mavis Staples

11/14 - Nimbus Dance and NJSO: Salute to Nina Simone and Nancy Wilson

11/14 - Chaka Khan with Special Guest Emmaline

11/15 - NJMEA All-State Jazz with Steve Turre

11/15 - After Midnight: The Music of the King Cole Trio w/ Clint Holmes, Catherine Russell & Billy Stritch

11/15 - Steps Ahead, Michael Franks, and Spyro Gyra

11/16 - The Roots with A Christian McBride Situation

11/21 - Lee Ritenour with Dave Grusin & Friends

11/22 - Christian Sands Presents the Erroll Garner 3 Piano Summit Ft. Helen Sung and Tadataka Unno

11/23 - Maurice Hines' Tappin’ Thru Life with the Diva Jazz Orchestra

11/24 - Dorthaan’s Place: Houston Person Quartet

11/24 - Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition: The SASSY Awards

About TD James Moody Jazz Festival

Co-produced by NJPAC and WBGO Jazz 88.3FM, the TD James Moody Jazz Festival was inaugurated in 2012 and named in recognition of the jazz saxophone virtuoso from Newark. NJPAC's annual celebration of "America's classical music" is a spree of more than two dozen concerts and related activities - over half of which are free to the community. Guided by Christian McBride, NJPAC's Jazz Advisor, the festival has presented artists such as The Manhattan Transfer, David Sanborn, Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, Al Jarreau, Dianne Reeves, Sérgio Mendes, Bill Charlap, Esperanza Spalding, Fantasia, Chris Botti, Pat Metheny, and the Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette trio, among many others.

TD James Moody Jazz Festival is intrinsic to Newark, a city renowned as the home and creative inspiration for jazz geniuses including Sarah Vaughan and pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, and institutions such as Savoy Records, the Rutgers-Newark Institute of Jazz Studies and WBGO Jazz 88.3FM. Among the festival's unique events are concerts and special attractions held off-campus throughout Newark.

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