Samara Oster '13 cuts loose with jazz

by Minji Kim

Samara Oster '13, a jazz and musical theater vocalist, will perform at the 40 Years of Jazz at Harvard concert on April 9. She will sing Myra, composed by Benny Carter in 2001 and arranged by Allen Feinstein '84, and commissioned by the Office for the Arts in honor of Myra Mayman, the founding director of the OFA.

What have you been listening to in your iPod?

My iPod is a random assortment of really good jazz playlists. I’m really into Oscar Peterson right now and Modern Jazz Quartet. And then a big compilation of musical theater tunes, and random top-40 songs. It’s a really weird grab bag. I’ve just downloaded a cheesy top-40 song called Pricetag, and I’ve been getting into Bruno Mars music. I also listen to the In the Heights soundtrack.

Who are your favorite musical artists?

As far as jazz goes, I love Jane Monheit. She’s my all-time favorite jazz singer. Curtis Stigers, as well. For the modern stuff, just whatever is on the radio. I really love Vampire Weekend.

If you could eat with anyone, who would it be with?

It’s definitely going to be someone from the musical theater world. It’s someone I’ve already eaten with actually—Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer for In the Heights -- fantastic performer, composer, just a very creative person, Tony winner. I was lucky enough to eat with him at Grafton Street last year with one of my professors. It was a big lunch, so I would love to just sit down with him and chat.

What would you chat with him about?

He has a really interesting background, having come from Wesleyan and started in a liberal arts career and moved very quickly away from that. He picked his creative team as he went. A lot of people he works with now are from college. So I’d just like to talk to him about the experience of going from a liberal arts school, which I can kind of relate to, and then moving to the Great White Way, and what’s that like, how he did it, how long it took.

How did you get into singing and a musical career?

I started singing in a chorus when I was in 2nd grade. We had a musical at the end of every year. I loved musical theater. Adored it. I decided after a while that "Wow, maybe I’m good at this," and I got a voice teacher in 5th grade to see what would happen. We would do musicaI theater, some pop songs, and then she introduced me to jazz and scatting. I’ve never scatted before in my life, and I have these recordings of me in 6th grade trying to scat. I joined my high-school jazz band as a vocalist, and we had phenomenal opportunities. We got to perform at Ryles Jazz Club, tons of places around Boston with really well known musicians. In high school, I was working really intensely on my jazz singing and my musical theater singing at the same time. And I was always told I couldn’t do both, that jazz would mess up my musical theater technique, and that musical theater style would mess up my jazz—the approach to the songs, the way you shape your vowels, and the style are very different. I was told I had to give up one or the other, but I never would. I’ve always wanted to do both. I managed to find voice teachers who actually encouraged me to do both. I came here, got in touch with Tom Everett even before I got into Harvard. And he’s been wonderful and so welcoming to me, as has the entire Jazz Band. To just come and participate and sing with them in their big concerts is such a great opportunity and experience.

Have you performed in New York?

I got a job towards the end of this past summer. It was an Equity reading of a new musical called Pan that will hopefully go to Broadway. It was a phenomenal experience because I was working with the producers of In the Heights and Avenue Q. It was a Tony-winning group of actors and creative team. I got a taste of everything, and it made me want it even more.

Do you think you’d take time off?

Yes, definitely. I’ve had to drop all of my other extracurriculars because this commitment means being able to get a phone call from your agent and say "Yea, I’ll be in New York tomorrow, or in a week." It’s hard to do that while doing a show here or being actively involved in a club here, and it’s been a full-time commitment. Just last week, I was doing day trips to New York every single day of the week. I get all my work done on the buses and planes.

How does a jazz singer establish an identity or signature?

I don’t think I’ve fully determined [my personal signature] yet. With all the greats, you can tell what is which person’s style, but I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet. It’s an active process of trying things out, seeing where everything take you, meeting different artists, and hearing what each of them has to say, and letting them rub off on you, to help you figure out what you can take from each of these different people to create your own identity as a performer.

What will you be wearing the night of the 40 Years of Jazz concert?

I haven’t decided yet. Probably a black dress, with a pair of pumps or boots. Something funky. I like it a edgy, but I always love dark colors.

What are you especially looking forward to at the concert?

They’re playing of such wonderful jazz greats. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m only singing one song, so I get to sit back and enjoy it.

What about jazz music drives you?

Jazz is incredibly freeing. I think with the environment that I am in here and was in at high school -- going to prep school -- it’s so nice to have an opportunity to just let loose and to be given the outline for something, and then have the freedom to do whatever you want in between. It’s a great bonding experience, too. I come in here on occasion and work with the Jazz Band. It’s so nice to feel like you’re bonding with someone over music because you can do whatever you want—you can noodle or improvise with someone else. It’s just great. It’s a stress release. It’s experimental. It’s exciting. Something new always comes of it. It’s a one-time experience, so you know it's never going to be the same. It’s really refreshing, especially in this school environment.

[Caption: Samara Oster '13. PHOTO: Minji Kim '11]