‘Music is what I am’: Columbia adjunct wins international jazz competition

By Jordan Perkins, Staff Reporter

Vivian Jones

Jazz musician G. Thomas Allen said his venture into music began in the Black church as a child where he sang solos and was a choir member, learning skills such as harmonizing and improvising.

“For me, that experience of the Black church really set the tone to how I’ve been able to soar in different genres,” Allen said. “You can’t think of jazz without thinking about gospel.”

Allen, an adjunct faculty member in the Music Department, won the 10th annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz competition, also called The SASSY Awards, on Nov. 14 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey. Allen said he was excited to even be a finalist and that he was grateful.

“I was just taken aback seeing a standing ovation,” Allen said. “It almost felt like I was doing a show and not a competition.”

The SASSY Awards is named after legendary jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, often nicknamed “Sassy,” who was a Newark native. The competition was started in collaboration with her estate as a way to honor Vaughan and her beginnings as a talent show winner at the Apollo Theater.

In the final competition, Allen performed songs “Good Morning Heartache” by Billie Holiday and “Misty” by Sarah Vaughan, a song he calls one of his favorite ballads.

David Rodriguez, vice president of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, said he was happy to have the competition in person again after last year’s remote competition.

The competition had five finalists from the United States and abroad. They performed in front of a panel of five judges at the Victoria Theater in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The event was hosted by jazz musician Christian McBride and featured a performance by Dianne Reeves.

Allen released his self-titled jazz album in July 2020, reaching No. 1 on the iTunes Jazz Chart. He also has performed music in the gospel genre and recorded a Grammy-nominated album with gospel artist Ricky Dillard, called “Choirmaster.”

As an undergraduate student at Morgan State University, Allen studied classical music and vocal performance where he was a countertenor. Allen said while working on an aria by George Frideric Handel for one of his classes, he became frustrated because he felt he was not progressing at the pace he wanted to, and asked his professor about doing a jazz vocal performance instead.

Allen said he recalls telling his music professor, Marilyn Thompson, that he felt more culturally connected to jazz.

“I wasn’t really connecting to the music when I was studying Handel, but I was doing it from a proficiency standpoint,” Allen said.

Thompson let him pursue a jazz vocal performance under the condition that he found a fitting song to his unique voice because a countertenor has a rare presence in the jazz space.

In his search for songs to perform, Allen said he came across Vaughan’s performance of “Misty,” and instantly felt connected with her music and the way she approached different musical elements in performances. Since then, Allen said Vaughan has been a great influence for him in jazz.

Allen said discovering Vaughan’s music long ago to now being in the jazz competition named after her has been a full-circle moment.

“I would’ve never known 20 years later that I would be honoring her legacy,” Allen said.

Typhanie Coller, coordinator of Vocal Studies at Columbia, said Allen is a great resource of knowledge to students, and his versatility in different genres makes him a creative master.

“Allen as a countertenor has an originality to his creative expression,” Coller said. “Having this unique range really provides our students’ inspiration to discover that originality within themselves, and I am grateful he is a part of our vocal studies staff and faculty.”

Allen said music has always played a large role in his life, an impact which he said will continue.

“Music is what I am,” Allen said.