A Jazz Horn Wins the Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competiton

It seems only fitting that a singer named Jazzmeia Horn would take home top honors at the second annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Horn, along with four other finalists, performed last night at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Vaughan’s hometown, with the goal of becoming the next Divine One.

As I read the newspaper coverage of Horn’s performance, I was struck by the parallels between Vaughan and Horn, a student at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan and winner of last year’s Rising Star Award. Journalist Ronni Reich described how Horn “worked her voice into spirals as she described the dizzy ‘spinning around’ of love in ‘You Go to My Head,’” and “mined her voice for new colors, with some explosive top notes, a siren wail and occasional deliberate rawness” on “East of the Sun,” the bebop standard composed by Dizzy Gillespie and first recorded by Vaughan back in 1944. Even the long white gown worn by Horn reminded me of the youthful often white-gown-clad Vaughan just starting out in the Earl Hines Band.

So I took a listen, and Jazzmeia Horn is impressive. Her stage presence is undeniable. She oozes charisma and confidence. And her voice is agile and spontaneous, yet still in complete control. Here’s her performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown” from the 2012 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.

Jazzmeia Horn singing "Sweet Georgia Brown" on October 21, 2012, for The Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.

And here she sings a vibrant, swinging rendition of “I Remember You.”  

Jazzmeia Horn, "I Remember You"

Horn does not have the sheer power or range of Vaughan’s voice, nor does she have the same luxurious, melting butter quality of Vaughan’s voice (few do). But Horn delights in using her voice as an instrument – as Vaughan so often did.

In this interview, she sings “Shulie A Bop,” Vaughan’s iconic set piece from the 1950s, while explaining that she finds Vaughan’s singing liberating: “Whenever I think like Sarah and I think the way that Sarah would phrase the tune, I become more open and more loose. It feels like I am in outer space or something.”

She’s clearly smitten with Vaughan, and Betty Carter, too. But there is more than imitation going on here. An underlying musicianship and creativity informs Horn’s singing, and she is on the cusp of developing her own distinct, very unique voice. I, for one, would love to hear her sing more ballads, and I can’t wait to see footage of her winning performance from last night.