Tia Fuller, fierce woman in jazz, takes shot at first Grammy

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E - MESFIN FEKADU

Sax­o­phon­ist Tia Fuller was cry­ing in bed. And prais­ing God.

She’d just re­ceived the news that she was nom­i­nated for her first-ever Grammy Award — but it’s not just any nom­i­na­tion: Her in­clu­sion in the best jazz in­stru­men­tal al­bum cat­e­gory is a his­toric mo­ment for women be­cause they have rarely been nom­i­nated for the cov­eted award through­out the Gram­mys’ 61-year his­tory.

And if Fuller wins, she be­comes just the sec­ond women to take home the prize.

“I feel re­ally blessed. Any time I think ex­ten­sively about be­ing in the cat­e­gory and (any­thing) Grammy-wise, I start tear­ing up,” said Fuller, this time smil­ing ear-to-ear with light tears of joy in her eyes.

“It’s re­ally a dream come true. I’m re­al­iz­ing that dreams can be­come re­al­ity and ev­ery­thing is tan­gi­ble.”

Her nom­i­nated al­bum, “Di­a­mond Cut,” is a smooth and strik­ing col­lec­tion that has brought the skilled per­former, who once played with Ray Charles dur­ing her col­lege years and toured with Bey­oncé, to the next level. The al­bum, her fifth, was pro­duced by an­other woman mak­ing crit­i­cal waves in jazz, Terri Lyne Car­ring­ton. The drum­mer, who came to na­tional promi­nence decades ago in “The Arse­nio Hall Show” band, be­came the first fe­male to win best jazz in­stru­men­tal al­bum at the 2014 Gram­mys.

Car­ring­ton de­scribes the win as bit­ter­sweet be­cause of the “many great fe­male in­stru­men­tal­ists that weren’t nom­i­nated ever, so that was re­ally dis­heart­en­ing.”

“It just shows that there’s a lot of work to do when it comes to gen­der eq­uity in jazz and the mu­sic in­dus­try in gen­eral,” she added.

It’s one of the rea­sons Car­ring­ton, a three-time Grammy win­ner, is ex­cited for Fuller’s suc­cess and has been a men­tor to the artist.

“I feel like this record is show­ing her growth and her evo­lu­tion,” Car­ring­ton said. “If noth­ing else, I be­lieve that she’s re­ally mo­ti­vated to keep push­ing her­self and keep evolv­ing into all that she can be.”

“Di­a­mond Cut” is Fuller’s first al­bum in six years. She’s been busy as a pro­fes­sor at the pres­ti­gious Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic since 2013, and that de­ci­sion to move to Bos­ton to ful­fil a life­time dream came at a cross­roads: In the same 24-hour pe­riod that Fuller was of­fered the teach­ing po­si­tion, Bey­oncé asked Fuller to per­form again with the band.

“That was the year I think they were do­ing the Su­per Bowl and she was go­ing back out on tour,” re­called Fuller, who per­formed with Bey­oncé from 2006 to 2010.

“While I was on tour with her some­thing came over me and spoke, ‘You have to move in faith and not fear. Don’t be afraid of what may not hap­pen, or get at­tached to the ar­ti­fi­cial re­sult of, ‘I’m play­ing with C,’” she said. “So the rea­son why that I ended up not go­ing back is be­cause I re­al­ized that it was time for me to move on.”

Fuller’s de­ci­sion was very Bey­oncé-like: “She’s al­ways press­ing for­ward. Al­ways grow­ing. Al­ways evolv­ing . ... I sat back and I just watched how she would never take ‘no’ for an an­swer. She would al­ways find a ‘yes.’ And that’s some­thing that now, I’ve in­cor­po­rated into me be­ing a leader, a band leader, a busi­ness­woman, a pro­fes­sor at Berklee, all of that.”

The 42-year-old, who was born and raised in Aurora, Colorado, has fol­lowed in the foot­steps of her par­ents, who are also mu­si­cians and ed­u­ca­tors. Fuller first started play­ing the pi­ano at three, then moved on to the flute. But once her grand­fa­ther handed her a sax­o­phone, she was hooked.

She wants to be a voice for women in jazz, es­pe­cially in­stru­men­tal­ists, who don’t get as much as credit as the men.

“I’m rep­re­sen­ta­tive of all of these women out here that are grind­ing. Terri (Lyne Car­ring­ton) served as that for me prior to me even know­ing who she was. See­ing her on Arse­nio Hall’s show, and then of course hear­ing her name on the scene, watch­ing her on dif­fer­ent TV shows. That was an un­spo­ken, in­ter­nal nar­ra­tive that spoke to me, ‘She’s do­ing it, you can do it,’” she said. “For me, I don’t think it’s nec­es­sar­ily a his­tor­i­cal thing, but hope­fully I’m a bea­con of light for not only other women, but men, too. And also chang­ing this in­ad­ver­tent nar­ra­tive, the male, pa­tri­ar­chal per­spec­tive in the jazz world, ac­tu­ally in the mu­si­cal world. (Women) have al­ways had just as much in­flu­ence over the mu­sic.”

Her ca­reer — and suc­cess — has not come with­out chal­lenges: “I’ve dealt with sex­ism, in­ad­ver­tent sex­ism, some­times racism — some­times a com­bi­na­tion of both.”

She re­calls com­ing to New York in the early 2000s to build buzz as a per­former, go­ing from jazz club to jazz club to share her mu­sic and sound with lis­ten­ers. “There was a long line of peo­ple, of course I’m the only woman up there, so I go on­stage and I’m about to play and some­body just cuts me off and starts play­ing. That was like my first year. That was the first and last time that hap­pened.”

But Fuller has pre­served, and she’s us­ing her role as a teacher to help change the nar­ra­tive in jazz, and in mu­sic.

“I was di­rect­ing a band full of young men. I’m like, ‘What is your job and what is your role in this whole thing?’ You can’t just sit back pas­sively,” she said. “Ac­count­abil­ity to me is key for not only women to hold men ac­count­able, but for men to hold their brothers ac­count­able.”

And in be­tween the teach­ing and play­ing — she’s been dress shop­ping for her big day at the Gram­mys, Feb. 10 in Los An­ge­les. “I ac­tu­ally reached out to one of Bey­oncé’s stylists and he re­sponded, so he’s go­ing to help and con­nect me with some of his de­sign­ers,” she said.


Sax­o­phon­ist Tia Fuller, who teaches at Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic and toured with Bey­once as part of her all-fe­male band, is nom­i­nated for her first Grammy in the best jazz in­stru­men­tal al­bum cat­e­gory.

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