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Inside the prestigious Sarah Vaughan competition for vocalists

William Gottlieb
Wikimedia Commons
Vocalist Sarah Vaughan performing in 1946.

In 1942, jazz singer Sarah Vaughan got her start by winning an amateur contest at the famous Harlem performance hall, the Apollo Theater. Vaughan went on to a career that placed her as one of the top two jazz vocalists of all time, along with Ella Fitzgerald.

Carl Griffin, a co-producer of the annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, started his career as a go-go dancer and club DJ in the 1960s.

Griffin’s eye and ear for emerging talent led him hold to multiple positions in the recording industry. He was a VP for Motown Records, and the senior VP of artist and repertoire for GRP Records and N2K Records, signing vocalists Diana Krall and Jane Monheit, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and drummer T.S. Monk.

Griffin has produced gospel music showcases, country music talent shows and educational jazz concerts. He can pretty much do anything related to music presentation, from booking the acts to stage managing to acting as Master of Ceremonies.

About 12 years ago, Griffin met with Larry Rosen of GRP Records and John Schreiber, the president and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. They planned the first Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition.

Sarah Vaughan And Her Trio Live At The North Sea Jazz Festival • 12-07-1981 • World of Jazz

Each year, applicants submit audio or video recordings of themselves singing three songs.

Griffin's job as co-producer involves organizing the talent selected as contestants. He schedules a rehearsal, first with a pianist and musical director, then a full rehearsal with the band. Griffin provides a bit of coaching during the rehearsals as well.

“I try to tweak it in a way where it's not just the content, it's a show,” Griffin explained in an interview with KNKX. “And they have to be cognizant of that. So I try to just make little changes in the arrangements of what they're doing, to make it a better performance for them.”

A panel of adjudicators will rate the contestants on criteria that includes vocal quality, intonation, ability to swing, individuality, and improvisation. The 2022 judges are violinist Regina Carter, bassist Christian McBride, drummer/producer T. S. Monk, radio host Pat Prescott and composer/bandleader Maria Schneider.

Sarah Vaughan, known as “Sassy” to her bandmates and friends, had a way of getting deep into the meaning of a song. She also improvised with her voice, the same way the jazz musicians she worked with improvised with their instruments.

“She taught me that, you know, every lyric, every line is important,” said Griffin. “And this is what I try to get these young, talented artists to understand: you can't just get up and sing the song. You have to impress upon the audience that what you're saying, what you're singing means something to you in order for it to mean something to the audience.”

Past winners of the competition include Samara Joy, Quiana Lynell, Jazzmeia Horn and Cyrille Aimee.

Initially open only to female vocalists, the competition just recently allowed male vocalists to apply. Last year’s winner was G. Thomas Allen, who was a Grammy nominee in 2020 for Best Gospel Album.

Applications and vocal submissions are due by 5 p.m. Eastern Time on September 6, 2022.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.