Sammy Jackson: Niagara's JUNO Winning Jazz Singer
The passing of the torch in Canada’s jazz scene may have gone unnoticed to most Canadians recently, given the preoccupation people have had with COVID, wildfires, Afghanistan and the snap election call. For one Niagara resident, however, it was certainly big news. That person is St. Catharines jazz singer SAMMY JACKSON, 2021 recipient of the JUNO Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year – an acknowledgement that could signal an unofficial passing of the torch considering Jackson won out over such Canadian jazz stalwarts as Diana Krall, Matt Dusk, Laila Biali and Sophie Day. Whatever it
means in the grand scheme of things, the JUNO Award was definitely validation for the amazing vocal work and song writing Jackson delivered on her award-winning sophomore EP, WITH YOU. Jackson took some time to chat with GoBeWeekly about her recent win.
Q: What was your initial reaction upon hearing you had won the JUNO?
SAMMY: My initial reaction was just being surprised overall because I was in such great company. There was Laila Biali, Diana Krall, Matt Dusk and Sophie Day. Those are all really established vocalists. I felt like i was the underdog in a sense. It was really shocking overall.
Q: To be the best you have to beat the best, and Diana Krall is some good
competition with those 3 Grammys and 8 Junos. That’s some weighty company. Where do you keep your JUNO? Have you slept with it even once time?
SAMMY: (laughing) My JUNO is in my little practice studio in my basement. I’m still trying to find something to sit it on on the wall because it’s really heavy. I think I’ll need some reinforcements before I put it up there.
Q: It’s been five years since you released your debut, Take Me Back. That’s a significant time period. People can grow and change in five years. What changes did you see in yourself over those five years and how did they impact your mindset coming into the recording of With You?
SAMMY: I think in terms of how my mindset kind of changed, for this album I really wanted to try and create something that would have a cohesive sound overall. With my last album, it was my first project and was kind of just a collection of songs that I had written at the time. For this album I had specific themes and ideas that I wanted to write about and sing about. In terms sonically, I was really thankful to have been able to cowrite with another songwriter. Having another voice really helped to elevate the project.
Q: There does seem to be a maturation of your vocal styling since the first album. Do the songs on this album represent a vocal direction you have consciously chosen for your music?
SAMMY: I think so. It’s hard to say. I go back and forth all the time. Growing up I was heavily influence by R&B and POP. Jazz is something that came later in my life when I entered university from high school. That’s kind of when I discovered jazz. Jazz is kind of new to me, but the R&B and pop influences are heavily engrained. You can hear it in the delivery of my singing. Its kind of the direction I’m going to but it’s always evolving. Every time I write I hear new ideas.
Q: How did you discover jazz coming out of high school?
SAMMY: If I’m being honest, when I finished high school I knew I wanted to study music at a post secondary level. And when you’re going to university the options are not every diverse. It’s either classical or jazz. And so I prepared for both because I wanted to study that regardless. But I felt with jazz it was a bit closer to what I was interested in vocally and technique wise. That’s kind of the route i went to. Going into the program I wasn’t as seasoned as my peers. My peers knew a lot more than I did. I just really tried to work hard and catch up and learns as much as I could.
Q: When you say “I like jazz” it’s like saying “I like ice cream.” There’s kind of a few different flavours available. Now that your eyes have been opened to the genre are you amazed at the sheer volume of jazz vocal styles out there?
SAMMY: Yes definitely. I’m super grateful for the diversity as well. I felt going into my studies I had one idea of what jazz was. I felt like when I got into school I was exposed to so many different styles. A lot of time jazz can be straight ahead jazz or bebop, but you can also have the neo soul like Robert Glasper kind of vibe. A lot of R&B artists will touch on jazz. Jazz is such a huge genre and there are many things that can be called jazz so I like the variety.
Q: There’s definitely some heartache in the songs on With You. Do find it easier to write coming from a place of happiness or sadness?
SAMMY: I think sadness. I feel that’s kind of common maybe. For me writing is somewhat therapeutic where I just touch on experiences. Sometimes it’s just a basic idea of what I went through and I kind of elaborate on it and make it a little more dramatic than it really is.
Q: At what age did you start finding your voice? Were you a theatre kid, or just someone singing in a shower?
SAMMY: It’s interesting. I wasn’t a theatre kid. I just sang at home basically. I grew up in Toronto. When I was young being able to afford lessons wasn’t really feasible. I just really practiced. My dad would help me here and there. And it wasn’t until Grade 12 when I really started taking lessons. I really got most of my training in school, trying to pick it up by ear and trying to mimic people’s tones and melismas.
Q: How did your training at University of Toronto help? What insight did that give you into your own vocal development?
SAMMY: The core of the program was based on learning the music. Really learning about jazz. You specialize on your instrument of course. My teachers really helped me to stylistically learn how to sing in the genre. How you would approach R&B or pop is different than how you would approach jazz. So really learning how to approach it in an appropriate way that is of the genre. In terms of voice, there are a lot of courses on the classic side that helped with my technique as did my private lessons. The approach in the jazz program was really on style and how to sing.
Q: Is singing now your fulltime career?
SAMMY: I was teaching for a while. When I finished university, I started teaching. This summer I made the decision to go full force as a musician. That’s kind of where I’m at at this time.
Q: Did COVID throw a wrench in those plans in terms of live performance and promotion?
SAMMY: Definitely. It was really hard. When I released my EP I was able to do a CD release show but shortly after that everything went into lockdown. So there was no tour. I was mostly excited about that aspect, doing a tour and going to different cities, but that didn’t happen. It’s been hard but now that things are opening up I’m getting a few more performances.
Q: Diana Krall has certainly shown us that it’s possible to make a great living as a female jazz singer in Canada. What’s your own five year plan in a perfect world?
SAMMY: It would be great to have my music in as many ears as possible. Just to have many people connecting and listening to my music. That’s the overall goal.
Learn more, find tour dates, and purchase Sammy’s music at https://www.sammyjackson.com/.
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