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The 12th Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition Announces Top Five Finalists

originally published: 10/12/2023

The 12th Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition Announces Top Five Finalists

(NEWARK, NJ) -- As part of NJPAC's TD James Moody Jazz Festival (November 3-19), the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) has announced the top five finalists of the 12th Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Pulled from a record 280+ submissions representing 37 countries, these gifted young contestants from around the world represent the next generation of great jazz singers. The top five finalists are: Daryann Dean (Los Angeles, CA), Bianca Love (New Orleans, LA), Tyreek McDole (St. Cloud, FL), Ekep Nkwelle (Washington, DC), and Emma Smith (London, UK).

The finalists will compete on Sunday, November 19, 2023, on the iconic NJPAC stage in front of a live audience and before a distinguished panel of judges, including: acclaimed female vocalists Jane Monheit, Madeleine Peyroux, and Lizz Wright; NJPAC’s Jazz Advisor and multi-Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride; and three-time Grammy Award-winning producer and executive vice president of Mack Avenue Records Al Pryor. Hosted by WBGO Radio’s Pat Prescott, this special event will also include performance by G. Thomas Allen, winner of the 2021 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.

The first-prize winner of The SASSY Awards will receive a $5,000 cash award, second-place $1,500, and third-place $500. The winner will perform alongside past winners and special guests at the Sarah Vaughan Centennial Concert Hosted by Dee Dee Bridgewater on April 19-20, 2024, at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, also known as “The SASSY Awards”, is open to singers over the age of 18, of all genders and nationalities, from anywhere in the world, and not signed by a major label. Entrants are judged on vocal quality, musicality, technique, performance, individuality, artistic interpretation, and ability to swing. What has become one of the top annual vocal competitions in jazz, The SASSY Awards offers outstanding jazz singers a one-of-a-kind platform for embarking on a career in the music business—and offers audience members a chance to discover the jazz stars of tomorrow. Past winners include Cyrille Aimée, Jazzmeia Horn, Ashleigh Smith, Arianna Neikrug, Deelee Dubé, Quiana Lynell, Laurin Talese, Samara Joy (Grammy winner for Best New Artist 2023), Gabrielle Cavassa and Tawanda Suessbrich-Joaquim, G. Thomas Allen, and Lucía Gutiérrez Rebolloso.

The competition recalls the humble beginnings of legendary jazz singer/NEA Jazz Master Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) who, back in 1942, was a Newark teenager and winner of an amateur singing contest at the Apollo Theater. That memorable night helped launch the lifework of one of the most successful, influential jazz vocalists in the history of American music. NJPAC has a long history of preserving and celebrating Sarah Vaughan’s music and impact. In 1999, NJPAC officially proclaimed the street in front of it as “Sarah Vaughan Way.” In addition to The SASSY Awards, NJPAC hosts several celebrations in the 2023-24 season honoring the centennial of Vaughan’s birth. Earlier this year, NJPAC paid tribute to “The Divine One” at its Women@NJPAC Spotlight Gala. In 2024, NJPAC partners with Jazz at Lincoln Center for Centennial Concert series (April 19-20), and more events to be announced soon.

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Darynn Dean is a dynamic vocalist, captivating performer and composer. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she earned a master’s degree in music from the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz at UCLA. Dean’s most notable performances include singing at the Hollywood Bowl, Walt Disney Concert Hall and The Kennedy Center. Awards and honors include being named the 2015 YoungArts Foundation National Gold Medal Level Finalist, NAACP ACT-SO’s National Gold Medalist and the 2015 Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award Grand Prize Finalist. She was also a participant in Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Residency at The Kennedy Center and a fellow of Dee Dee Bridgewater’s The Woodshed Network. Her documentary All About Love: Jazz + Gender chronicled her creation of the first “All-Women’s Cross Big Band.” 

Bianca Love, a seasoned artist, graces the world stage with her vocals, trumpet and guitar prowess. Hailing from New Orleans, her musical journey began with influences spanning Charlie Parker, blues, soul and the traditional sounds of her hometown. Love’s deep appreciation for the Black American music tradition shapes her artistic identity. She debuted in 2018 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Jesse McBride and The Next Generation, and has shared stages and recorded with revered artists in cities including Mumbai, Kolkata, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. Collaborations with musicians such as Maurice Brown, Marcus Gilmore, Ben Williams, Takahiro Izumikawa, Lawrence Fields, Michael Ode, Joe Blaxx, Kermit Ruffins, and others have enriched her musical tapestry.

A native of St. Cloud, Florida, Tyreek McDole captivates audiences with his velvety voice and polished delivery. Since his singing career began at 18, he’s been compared to legends such as Andy Bey, Johnny Hartman and the illustrious Joe Williams. McDole made his vocal debut at the acclaimed Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition where he won the Outstanding Vocalist Award. Since then, McDole has graced the stage with some of the best in the business including NEA Jazz Master Gary Bartz, Rodney Whitaker, Theo Croker, Nicholas Payton, Ted Nash, Russell Hall, Jonathan Michel, Eric Reed, Carl Allen and many others. A graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, McDole plays in venues and performance spaces across the U.S. and remains a sought-after vocalist in New York City.

Ekep Nkwelle is a Cameroonian-American jazz vocalist living in New York City (originally from Washington, DC). She has trained at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Howard University and The Juilliard School, and worked alongside jazz masters such as Russell Malone, Cyrus Chestnut and Peter Washington. She was also featured at Radio City Music Hall with renowned classical pianist Lang Lang in a collaboration with Disney. She has performed at Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center and Newport and Montclair Jazz Festivals, but most notably, she was featured in 2022 on NPR’s Tiny Desk singing her arrangement of Geri Allen’s “Timeless Portraits and Dreams.” Nkwelle is one of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s rising stars, and with her artistry, she strives to display her passion for music all over the world.

With extensive performing experience in the world’s leading jazz clubs and collaborations with the likes of Michael Bublé, Quincy Jones and His Orchestra, Jeff Goldblum, Bobby McFerrin and Seal, London-based Emma Smith has created a reputation as a powerful and expressive artist on the global jazz scene. Last year marked the release of Meshuga Baby, her first solo album in 10 years. The album has been received with critical acclaim, racking up millions of streams since its release, receiving multiple award nominations and global radio support. The album title is a nod to Smith’s proud Jewish heritage. Inspired by the likes of Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard, Barbra Streisand, Anita O’Day and Oscar Peterson, Smith is a fresh and swinging jazz voice who sparks joy among the masses.

TD Bank, America’s Most Convenient Bank®, is one of the largest banks in the U.S., providing over 10 million customers with a full range of retail, small business and commercial banking products and services at more than 1,100 convenient locations throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Metro D.C., the Carolinas and Florida. In addition, TD Auto Finance, a division of TD Bank, N.A., offers vehicle financing and dealer commercial services. TD Bank and its subsidiaries also offer customized private banking and wealth management services through TD Wealth®. TD Bank is headquartered in Cherry Hill, N.J. To learn more, visit Find TD Bank on Facebook at and on Twitter at and TD Bank, America’s Most Convenient Bank®, is a member of TD Bank Group and a subsidiary of The Toronto-Dominion Bank of Toronto, Canada, a top 10 financial services company in North America. The Toronto-Dominion Bank trades on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges under the ticker symbol “TD”.

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), located in downtown Newark, N.J., is America’s most diverse performing arts center, and the artistic, cultural, educational and civic center of New Jersey – where great performances and events enhance and transform lives every day. NJPAC brings diverse communities together, providing access to all and showcasing the state’s and the world’s best artists while acting as a leading catalyst in the revitalization of its home city. Through its extensive Arts Education programs, NJPAC is shaping the next generation of artists and arts enthusiasts. NJPAC has served more than 11 million visitors (including more than two million students and families) since opening its doors in 1997, and nurtures meaningful and lasting relationships with each of its constituents.

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