By KAILA STRICKLAND
The fourth annual Sarah Vaughan SASSY Awards were held earlier this month at NJPAC in Newark, where five jazz vocalists competed for a $5,000 cash prize plus a record deal with independent label, Concord Music Group.
In the 1940s, Sarah “Sassy” Vaughan became the standard for jazz vocalists with her rich, expansive, well rounded and creamy melodies, outstanding stage presence, and the vocal range that led some to call her an opera singer.
Vaughan entered the Apollo Theater Amateur Night contest and won the prize of $10 with a weeklong steady gig at the Apollo. In the spring of 1943, she got her big break when the Apollo called her back to open for Ella Fitzgerald. Vaughan went on to establish a career in the recording industry that would continue to inspire generations of artists after her.
The Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, or, SASSY Awards, is a unique opportunity for women to compete, just as Vaughan did, for the chance to become a jazz superstar.
The event, hosted each year by WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM radio host Rhonda Hamilton, was held in the Victoria Theater on Nov. 15.
The five contestants were finalists from three preliminary rounds of auditions in which votes were cast online.
Emma Lee Aboukasm, educated in classical and jazz music at the University of Michigan, is an award-winning, Detroit-based recording artist, vocalist, pianist and composer who performed as Emmalee. Aboukasm hit the stage with her short pixie haircut and flowing gold dress be-bopping away. “I’m just ready,” said Aboukasm.
Lulu Fall, a classically trained jazz vocalist with a musical theater background, is a singer, songwriter and actor based in New York and independently released her debut EP “It’s Official” in 2009, and a collaborative EP, “Heal.” Fall appeared in a navy jumpsuit with short twisted red hair, snapping her fingers as she swung from note to note. “Getting this far is a feat in of itself,” said Fall.
Angela Hagenbach, from Kansas City, has performed at festivals and concert halls around the world and is the owner of AH Entertainment, Inc., Eden’s Gate Music and Amazon Records, which released her 1994 debut record, “Come Fly with Me.” Hagenbach stepped out in a black cocktail dress with glittering jewelry and wowed the audience with her low vibrato. “It makes it full circle for me because it was Sarah Vaughan’s music that made me want to pursue jazz,” said Hagenbach.
Nicole Zuraitis is a well traveled, award-winning, Brooklyn-based vocalist and pianist who self-released two albums, “Pariah Anthem” and “Spread the Word.” Zuraitis appeared in a flowing purple dress with equally flowing brown hair and soothed the crowd with her buttery vocals. “A lot of people that I respect have participated,” said Zuraitis.
Arianna Neikrug, a Los Angeles native, is a 22 year-old jazz, pop and R&B vocalist currently stationed in Miami. She recently won an outstanding soloist award in the college division of the Next Generation Jazz Festival. Neikrug appeared in a black ’50s-style cocktail dress and showcased some serious pitch control. “It feels phenomenal, it feels like I’m not lost in the world anymore,” said Neikrug.
During the 20-minute intermission the people in the audience, a varied cluster of jazz fans, talked among themselves the contestants, who they thought should win, and who they thought the judges might actually pick. Many in the crowd were faithful attendees who have come every year since Cyrille Aimee, who was one of the judges this year, was the first to win a SASSY Award in 2012.
The evening included a video tribute to Sarah Vaughan with clips of her spellbinding performances, such as one in 1958 live in Sweden where she starts with bluesy lyrics, “Sometimes I’m happy sometimes I’m blue.”
Neikrug was anything but blue when she won the 2015 SASSY Award. Smiling from ear to ear she beamed throughout the finale performance, a tribute medley to Vaughan, alongside the other contestants barely able to contain her excitement.
Second runner-up was Zuraitis, and first runner-up was Hagenbach, but Neikrug took home the largest of the three glossy red plaques, her first-place SASSY Award, and also gets a trip to Canada to perform in the 2016 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal on top of her $5,000 and Concord record deal.
Photo: Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie perform at the White House in 1977. (White House Photographer/Wikipedia.)