The Un-Diva: Cécile McLorin Salvant

The heiress to Billie, Nina and Sarah is just happy to be here.

There’s an enormous picture of the singer Cécile McLorin Salvant above the entrance of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. She’s wearing her signature white-framed glasses, a short black dress and high heels. She looks like she’s in mid-song, gripping the microphone stand with both hands and tilting her head back with a big grin as if she’s just nailed a particularly difficult phrase.

That the city’s prestigious jazz venue would so prominently feature the 24-year-old singer—who grew up in Miami, the daughter of a French mother and a Haitian father—is telling. In a short period of time, Salvant has become a star, the likes of which the jazz world really hasn’t produced since Wynton Marsalis, who also happens to be Jazz at Lincoln Center’s managing and artistic director, made his debut in the 1980s. “Cécile is one of a kind,” Marsalis says.

Like the trumpeter, Salvant dazzles music critics with her artistry, her intellect and her canny choice of repertoire. Take “You Bring Out the Savage in Me,” recorded by the now largely forgotten African American singer-trumpeter Valaida Snow in the ’30s. Salvant sings it knowing full well that it will make some audience members squirm. “I’m singing, ‘Be my ape man,’” she says, laughing. “Like, what? That’s such a weird thing for a black woman to say today. I find that so interesting.”

Salvant already outsings just about anybody in the jazz world. Her willingness to delve into some of the less comfortable aspects of jazz history, to say nothing of her uncanny facility in challenging registers, sets her even further apart. Her second album, WomanChild, was nominated for a Grammy for best jazz vocal album. She lost to Gregory Porter, another rising star. There’s always next time: Salvant is wrapping up her upcoming album now. “I feel really lucky,” she says of her astonishing debut. “I’m still learning about this music. I still feel very much like a beginner.”