As a graduate student in New York City, South African vocalist Vuyo Sotashe juggled his music studies and an internship at Jazz at Lincoln Center with a steady stream of gigs and jam sessions. On Sundays, this meant performing at Stanton Social on the Lower East Side for brunching Manhattanites. One day, his co-workers found out.
Georgina Javor, JALC’s assistant director of programming, saw Sotashe as a quiet intern who never talked about his music. She figured attending the brunch would be nothing more than supporting a friend, but she can still remember his original arrangement of “Blackbird,” a tune she hasn’t heard him sing since.
“We were all kind of shocked,” she said. “Not that we didn’t know … but we didn’t really know.” JALC quickly placed Sotashe on a program that spring celebrating Billie Holiday’s centennial.
Sotashe will perform Dec. 10 at Symphony Hall with vocalist Veronica Swift as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s holiday concert. The holiday tour is something of an annual tradition for the big band. This year, the ensemble brings new arrangements of holiday tunes to Atlanta.
Though Sotashe, 28, has performed at JALC events regularly since that first show in 2015, this is his first time singing with the lauded 15-piece orchestra, which is helmed by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and features Georgia natives Chris Crenshaw and Marcus Printup.
“Being connected to Jazz at Lincoln Center really helps. It did a lot for me as a young artist in the city, as it has done for so many other people,” he said. But even with that association, making his path in the jazz world has taken a lot of hard work. “The cornerstones of what has built the jazz community in New York still remain — show up, be kind and be excellent at what you do, and take on as many opportunities as you can.”
Sotashe has a bright tenor that can easily spring from sonorous depths to the full-bodied top of his impressive range. He grounds his performances — whether singing love songs from “Porgy and Bess” or originals steeped in South African folk tradition — with an unerring rhythmic pulse.
Hear how Vuyo Sotashe sounds:
Sotashe grew up in a small village in the East Cape of South Africa listening to his mother sing Xhosa folk songs. Singing in church and in school choirs was part of daily life, but it wasn’t seen as the foundation of a career. Jazz didn’t exist for Sotashe until an older brother returned from boarding school with tapes of Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, along with a keyboard, and asked Sotashe to interpret the songs while he figured out the piano accompaniment. Sotashe had yet to learn English.
At 15, he saw his first live jazz performances in Cape Town and was immediately smitten with the music. With jazz in the back of his mind, Sotashe began studying business, eventually switching his focus at the University of Cape Town to dedicate himself to learning a new musical language.
“I had not had any formal training before that, so I had to do a lot of studying months before the entrance test and audition,” Sotashe said. “It was difficult in the beginning because I could do less than half of what most of the students did.”
After graduation, Sotashe moved to the New York City area in 2013 on a Fulbright scholarship and began entering jazz competitions as he pursued his master’s degree. He placed first in the vocal competition at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in Maryland. In 2015, Sotashe finished third in the Thelonious Monk Competition, a yearly contest that has helped many of today’s major jazz stars find the limelight.
Leonard Brown, director of special projects at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, sees the event as more of a showcase than a contest; artists don’t have to come in first in the competition to benefit from the exposure. He remembers Sotashe as a vocalist with an approach to singing that incorporated myriad influences.
“Whether he would have made it to the finals or not, everybody took notice,” Brown said.
After five years of performing in the city, Sotashe has amassed a significant resume. He’s been on a number of records as a featured vocalist, and he recently ended a run performing in The Public Theater’s “Black Light” show. And there’s more theater in his future. Sotashe has secured a commission from The Public to create an original work, and he will perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., this January in Kaneza Schaal’s “Cartography,” a play about immigration. In the midst of all that, he’ll record a debut album.
“Right now, I think it’s the right time to record an album of my own from the work that I’ve accumulated and some of the songs I’ve been writing over the years,” he said. “I just want it to be a marker in this process of growth, and that will include all of the things that I carry with me.”
His debut record will certainly mix the sounds of his upbringing with his life in New York, and Javor thinks this is exactly what makes him a fresh voice in today’s jazz landscape.
“The way he connects with audiences on an emotional level,” she said, “is something very rare and something I haven’t seen that much in my time as a presenter.”
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Vuyo Sotashe and Veronica Swift
7:30 p.m. Dec. 10. $39.50-$125.50. Atlanta Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.