NJPAC Honors Sarah Vaughan with Annual Jazz Vocal Competition

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

Five finalists from across the country prep backstage for the performance that could change their lives: the final round of NJPAC’s annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition or The Sassy Awards.

“I’m good. I’m ready for it,” says Emma Lee Aboukasm with a sigh. “I’m ready.”

Over 70 years ago, Newark native Sarah Vaughan took the stage for Amateur Night at the Apollo. Her win that day changed the course of her life. She went on to a prolific career, becoming a Grammy Hall-of-Famer and an NEA Jazz Master. So contestants in this year’s competition in Vaughan’s honor, are hopeful for a little bit of ‘The Divine One’s’ luck.

“It makes it full circle for me because Sarah Vaughan–her music–is what made me decide to pursue jazz,” says finalist Angela Hagenbach.

In addition to Hagenbach (who’s in town from Kansas City), this year’s final five include: recent University of Miami graduate Arianna Neikrug, current college sophomore from Detroit Aboukasm, opera-trained singer out of Brooklyn Nicole Zuraitis, and Lulu Fall, an actress/singer in from Boston where she’s rehearsing for a show.

“Getting this far is a feat in and of itself,” says Fall.

“A lot of people I respect have participated in it and have won it,” Zuraitis says.

“It feels phenomenal,” explains Neikrug of making it into the finals. “It feels like I’m not lost in the world anymore.”

It’s said Sarah Vaughan brought home $10 from her win at the Apollo. Tonight’s prize is a little different. The winner will bring home $5,000. They’ll also get a spot at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and an offer for a recording contract with Concord Music Group.

“For me, to win the Concord Record deal is the biggest sell for me,” says Zuraitis. “It would be life-changing.”

NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber co-founded the event. “People notice the Sarah Vaughan Jazz Vocal Competition,” he says. “They know who the winners are. Helps get bookings, helps raise your presence in the jazz universe, it’s a really important thing.”

Submissions were whittled down from a pool of about a thousand, to five finalists, three, and then one.

“And our Sassy Award winner…is Arianna Neikrug!”

“I guess my career starts now! This is where it all begins,” says an excited Neikrug.

The excitement of winning hasn’t waned for last year’s winner, Ashleigh Smith from Georgia. She just finished recording her album with Concord Music Group. It drops next year.