Miami's Cécile McLorin Salvant Is Jazz's Next Great Hope

UPDATE: Cécile McLorin Salvant's For One to Love has won the 2016 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice is a bittersweet lullaby: haunting and sweet. The 26-year-old jazz singer is known for her theatrical vocal flair. At a recent performance at Midtown Miami's Lagniappe, she gently coos, placating the audience into an intimate trance. As she flushes into the depths of her vocal range, Salvant’s despair seeps into the crowd. This moment is more than performance; it is Salvant’s truth.

Before the New York Times called her "the finest jazz singer to emerge in the last decade," the Pinecrest-born Salvant was singing at 7-years-old in Miami Choral Society. But it wasn’t until she moved to Aix-En-Provence, France, in 2011 after graduating from Coral Reef High School that Salvant found jazz.

“I wasn’t very aware of jazz when I was living in Miami. When I moved to France, I met this teacher who forced me into it,” says Salvant. “I think that there’s a certain appreciation for jazz that’s very special in France.”

Salvant calls Harlem home now but still tours frequently throughout France. She'll be back in Miami for a show at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center on April 2.

A mere five years after her debut self-titled album, Salvant already has two Grammy nominations under her belt, for best vocal jazz album, one for 2014's WomanChild and one for 2015's For One to Love.

“The first time I was nominated, I was completely floored. Now, it feels really wonderful because For One to Love is even more personal,” Salvant says. “We focused on what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it without being weighed down by obligations of business and, despite all of that, to have that recognition, I couldn’t be happier.”

Salvant’s bold authenticity deserves the recognition. Her music video for “Look at Me” is about as real as it gets. Shot in one take with no cuts, Salvant’s performance is entirely live. Salvant gazes directly at the viewer against a stark black backdrop. It feels like we’re looking at her through a magnifying glass, each note heavier than the last, dragging us into her emotional wave. 
“My main objective is to make it as personal as possible, to make it feel like it’s been a diary that I’m opening and sharing with people. Everything was chosen to feel autobiographical, to feel like these are scenes of my life, things that I have experienced. I needed to evacuate some of these feelings.”

The song is about the yearning felt when love is unrequited. Although the video is just over three minutes long, it feels like you’ve spent a lifetime with Salvant by the time it ends. Her raw emotion leaves the viewer just as vulnerable as Salvant made herself.

Aside from singing, Salvant also helped with the art direction for the new album’s videos and cover art. The entire package features a monochromatic color scheme, heightening the emotional stakes of Salvant’s longing.

“I thought it was really important for me to have a really big role in both the art direction of the album, album art, and also videos. I have very specific ideas of what I wanted,” says Salvant. “I really wanted to have a red background with a black silhouette dancing and to have the two videos complement each other. And, you know, not make it like those videos where it cuts every two seconds to another image. I wanted to make it about a good quality photograph as a foundation and have it be a moving photograph.” 
Like a true artist, Salvant is known for constantly reinventing classic jazz standards with her warmth. Going forward, she hopes to continue singing the songs she feels compelled to sing, that she finds a deep connection to. If you happen to be in NYC this Valentine’s Day, you can find her singing Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill," a cut Salvant has always “been dreaming of singing.”

But Sarah Vaughn’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” is still her favorite. Salvant grew up with Sarah Vaughn playing at home and credits her as a major inspiration to take advantage of the freedom jazz allows.

“That’s such a lovely song. I don’t know — it’s one of those things. It’s difficult to describe, to explain. It’s just a feeling. When I hear that song, there’s a warm feeling, a feeling like you’re home. And there’s so much joy in it — elation — and at the same, it’s so heartbreaking and moving. There’s a certain hopelessness, a certain vulnerability. It’s so rich.”

We could say the same about Salvant.

Cécile McLorin Salvant. 8 p.m. Saturday, April 2, at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Miami; 786-573-5316; Tickets cost $30 to $55 via
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Alexandra Martinez is an arts and culture writer based in Miami. She graduated from Columbia University in 2014 with a bachelor's in film studies. Find her at