Music is in her marrow. Her parents and siblings all perform it, and her paternal grandfather played with the legendary vocal group, The Ink Spots. She’s been conscious of it as long as she’s had a conscience. It is the conduit through which she lives her life’s purpose - “to be a light for others.”
Encountering GRAMMY-nominated composer and saxophonist Tia Fuller as she rehearses her band for a Carnegie Hall City Wide concert offers a glimpse of her many selves. She's a beast on her horn, a confident and competent leader, an encouraging educator and a self-professed girly-girl who loves a fly 'do, a press-on nail and a calf-poppin' stiletto. Her beautiful tone on the alto, a pied piper's call, directs me to the small rehearsal space where Mark Whitfield, Jr. scorches on the drums and bassist Endea Owens, new to the group, holds her own. There's an easy, familial rapport between Tia and Mark and a welcoming vibe toward both Endea and me. As Tia switches to the soprano saxophone, they launch into "Delight," an original composition – inspired by a scripture from the Book of Psalms – that is featured on Diamond Cut, the album that earned her the GRAMMY nod. It's a lovely, melodic tune grounded by a funky bassline and riveting solo by Dave Holland on the recording. In rehearsal, Tia gives Endea latitude: "You don't have to play as rhythmically with us; you can fingerpaint around – add color." And with that, they find their groove.
Although she recorded Diamond Cut with just bass, drums, and guitar – barring Sam Yahel's soulful turn on the Hammond organ for a couple of tunes – this iteration of her quartet, sans guitar, features her gifted pianist sister, Shamie Fuller-Royston. Arriving at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse for soundcheck later than the others, Shamie sits at the piano and nimbly plays "Crowns of Grey," another original tune from the album. It is Tia's mellifluous alto ode to their musician parents Fred and Elthopia Fuller, and Shamie plays it for the first time as if she's known it all her life. Her rendering all but erases thoughts of Adam Rogers' Jim Hall-inflected guitar on the recording – no easy feat as his was an exquisite contribution. Despite Tia's nomination in a category of jazz greats, she humbly says of her sister, "There's never been any competition. She's always been better. I always looked up to her.” Their bond is palpable. “We had a staircase that looked into the living room, where the piano sat. And in high school and college, she would be rehearsing with her group. I remember sitting there thinking, I wanna do that. I was always just so inspired."
And now, she seeks to inspire through her music, her teaching, the loving way she moves through the world being “a light for others.” During a few densely packed days in New York City, the Boston resident shares her story with THE TROVE.
After the rehearsal, she bids the band farewell, and warm hugs abound, "I'm a hugger, I touch," she declares. We head out into the bustle of Times Square. With no time for a meal before Ubering uptown to her guest DJ spot at Columbia University's WKCR radio, she stops at a vending truck for a favorite: soft-serve ice cream. After genially expressing sticker shock, she enjoys the frozen treat en route. Hers is a generous spirit, expansive, something she attributes to having grown up in "abundance," she says, in Aurora, Colorado, a Denver suburb. "The mountains and the openness and the weather, every season is beautiful. Even the winters aren't as brutal as they are here because it's so dry." And she believes the high altitude strengthened her lungs for vigorous play. Although she appreciates the dynamic, creative energy of New York, she is grateful for her laid-back upbringing, in tune with the natural environment. "My dad was an outdoorsy person. We'd ride bikes, play tennis, go skiing;” enjoying an active lifestyle out in nature. “That laid a solid groundwork for me as far as a broadened perspective," she says. Raised by artist/educator parents in the "arts-oriented" state provided the incubator for Tia, her elder sister Shamie and younger brother Ashton's creativity to flourish. The family even performed together in various combinations as Fuller Sound.
"Not only is my mom, a vocalist, but she was an English and drama teacher. She would bring my sister and me with her students to the Denver Center of Performing Arts to see plays, or we would go to the museum. She was adamant about exposing us to different opportunities so we could choose our path. We weren't forced to do anything, but we were exposed to music, dance, and art. She was also the one who initiated the recording for ‘Fuller Sound.’ My mom has always inspired us to reach for academic excellence and maintain a spiritual basis in all that we do.” My dad was a little more myopic – music, of course, and P.E." [physical education] Her father was a craftsman, she says: "He built a lot of the stuff in our house – our swing set, the bar in our basement and the wood paneling around our hot tub. I would always be like his sous-chef, his assistant."
We arrive on the Columbia campus and gain entree to the station's vast holdings of jazz recordings on vinyl. Tia oohs and ahhs over the analog delights, but ultimately, she came prepared with her digital playlist, twenty-plus songs that speak to the arc of her life in music. She'd planned to start with jazz and blues vocalist, Ernestine Anderson, an influence, but decides to "warm up the airwaves with this melody and Sarah's voice," she says of the divine Ms. Vaughn's "Misty." “My mother loved her.” She follows up with her bassist father's favorite, "Someday My Prince Will Come," by Ron Carter. "Hear him glide in on those notes?" she asks, smiling. Next up, "Black Codes" from Wynton Marsalis. "Tain set it up!" she exclaims, on Jeff “Tain” Watts’ drumming. "Ron Carter is on bass here as well," she says of the 1985 recording, feeling "quite nostalgic" as "Shamie played this over and over."
She'd go on to play an eclectic mix of tunes from musicians who've inspired her from "Circulo Vicioso," a showcase of Shamie Royston's piano virtuosity to Sonny Rollins' swinging solo on 1957's "Blues for Philly Joe." She enjoys the "cross-pollination of jazz and hip-hop" on Q-Tip's "Do U DIg You?" with Gary Thomas and Kurt Rosenwinkel. And there’s one of the first recordings of her "big sister/mentor" Geri Allen's "Unconditional Love," and her friend and producer Terri Lyne Carrington's reworking of the Ellington composition, "A Little Max." She "absolutely adores" gospel artist Doobie Powell's "Rain," and of course, pays homage to inspiration Cannonball Adderley with the first of his tunes she learned: "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "Autumn Leaves." A predominant theme suffuses her thinking: expansiveness and possibility. She intones lyrics from Robert Glasper's supergroup, August Greene, "Driving through the city with the top down. We ain't got no ceiling to our thoughts now …it's a beautiful ride." The WKCR DJ thanks her enthusiastically for her time, and she is genuinely grateful for the opportunity to share her musical thoughts before finally grabbing dinner and a cocktail at Havana Central.
At the next day's soundcheck, Tia detects her microphone is "sounding a little wet," and moves to the center of the house to listen. Having graciously communicated her needs, including moving the piano inward, the team at Harlem Stage quickly accommodates her requests. That night, amid the masonry interior of the historic 1890's gatehouse with its warm acoustics, Tia & Co. turn up and turn in a fiery, yet intimate set, everyone’s chops on full display.
With a narrow window of uninterrupted time to speak the following day, we sit down in her hotel suite. Her thoughtful conversation punctuated by the occasional trill of her flute as she readies herself for a studio session. A friend had called and asked her to play on a recording, She says, "Usually, I can pick up my flute, and everything's there embouchure-wise, but I went to my high C, and it was like breaking." So she plays. "Lemme warm this puppy up, my baby; well, my stepchild," she laughs.
As an endorsing artist for Yanagisawa saxophones and Vandoren reeds, and a former saxophonist in Beyoncé's all-female band, she is best known for the instrument. But the reality is she's played several since she was a toddler. She studied classical piano from age three to thirteen and is thankful to have had piano as her foundational instrument. "Though it has always been a belaboring one for me, it's helpful, I write on it," but she adds laughing, "I flunked the introductory book about four times from [ages] three to seven. Bless Miss Purse's heart. She was so patient. Now, Tia, you have to practice." By fourth grade, she'd also learned recorder, and then flute, but at age nine, she had a prescient moment recorded for posterity on videotape by her dad. As she twirled around in her chair at the kitchen counter, he asked her, "What do you want to do?" She looked directly into the camera and answered with great clarity, not what she wanted to do but what she would do, a declarative statement. "I'm going to play the saxophone," she said sassily. "I don't know what that was, but I think somewhere inside it was resonating saxophone, saxophone, saxophone." It would be a couple of years before she played it. She'd taken well to the fingering of the flute, and when her grandfather handed her another woodwind instrument, one that could be "loud," she became "obsessed," she recalls. "It allowed me to express my voice," perfect for the young girl whose father encouraged her to "never shrink." So enamored was she that she wore saxophone jewelry nearly exclusively.
She played in the band at Aurora Hills Middle School along with her lifelong friend Carissa Freeman. At Gateway High School they shared the same schedule: honors English, marching band, concert band, and jazz band. "I was playing quads in the drumline; she was playing snare. We both played flute in symphonic band." And both played saxophone in the jazz band; Carissa, tenor and Tia, alto. "So for me," she remembers, "that was the introduction to sisterhood outside of family and the importance of it. We would challenge each other for chairs. Sometimes I would be first chair and she second and vice versa." It made her realize the importance of having a peer "who is moving at your rate, and how you can help to sharpen each other."
At home, she had firsthand access to grown folks jamming when musicians came over to rehearse with her parents in the basement. "I passively listened to jazz as I was growing up because it was always pumping through the house. Any time I got in the car with my dad, it was jazz – all the time." She liked Guy, Jodeci, and Bell, Biv, Devoe. "When I tried to change it to the R&B station, my dad was like 'Get your hand off that dial!'" she laughs. "I took jazz for granted because it was around me all the time. I remember hearing 'Giant Steps' on the radio, Shamie and I would walk around the house talking 'bout, (she sing-speaks) ‘Life when we were kids was like play-ing gi-ant steps.’ I didn't start enjoying jazz until late in high school." Although a couple of albums from her middle school days do stand out: the Marsalis's Black Codes from the Underground (Wynton) and The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Branford). "And of course," she says, "Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil was a little later."
She participated in jazz camps throughout her childhood and recalls that initially, she "didn't get Bird." She first attended Mile High Jazz Camp when she was "eleven and still trying to play piano, still trying to learn chords." Presented with Charlie Parker's bebop classic, "Scrapple from the Apple," she became discouraged. "I was like what is this? I felt like I couldn't keep up."
There was a general resurgence of interest in Charlie Parker during her high school years when she switched to saxophone. "The students at the jazz camp would practice the Omnibook. 'My Little Suede Shoes,' I love that tune, it's one of the first I learned; then 'Now's the Time.' It wasn't until about a decade later when I moved to Jersey City and alto player Jesse Davis moved right below me and gave me lessons that I got it. He broke it down (drops her voice into its lowest register) 'Listen to this Tia; listen to his phrasing, how it's holding onto the note; and the vibrato.' It was at that point that I fell in love with Bird."
She plays a flute run before continuing; it sparkles like her blingy Adidas slides. "I became consciously aware of Cannonball Adderley in high school; checked out his Something Else album. I took to him because there was a soul element in his playing that I didn't hear in Bird's." She reminisces about performing in a high school pageant and her influences. "In retrospect, I think back on some of the albums I had, some smooth jazz. I remember listening to Grover Washington Jr. and Eric Marienthal and Dave Sanborn. I checked out a little bit of Candy Dulfer, and it's just interesting that I started from there. Probably because I heard all the straight-ahead stuff in my house. I'm just now realizing that actually, so thank you."
College was a given, but where? "Once again, all of the epiphanies came in the kitchen chair," she says. "My dad put up a TV in the kitchen, and we'd watch A Different World. I'm swiveling around in that chair, and I'm looking up, and I thought I want to go to a school like that." Watching the campus life of the students of fictional "Hillman" on the show exposed her to the idea of attending a school where people who looked like her were in the majority. It made her want the HBCU experience.
Like her sister before her, Tia had a laudable academic record and knew the odds were in her favor to get a full-ride scholarship as an in-state student at the University of Denver. With her sights set elsewhere, she didn't apply. She pinned her hopes on the historically Black women's college, Spelman in Atlanta to have the embrace of Black sisterhood in a school that offered a jazz program. "When I got into Spelman, that was the next phase of awareness for me of the importance and the power of being a black woman. And when I got there, everybody there was the valedictorian and the fly girl in her school. Everybody's smart; everybody's beautiful; everybody's talented. Oh, you bringing it like that? Again it's that idea that iron sharpens iron. And it's wonderful, some of my best friends are people I met at Spelman."
Her time at Spelman was invaluable for the experience of sisterhood, she says, but also for the uplift from "strong Black men who were honoring Black women." Scholar and author Dr. Daniel Black was a mentor and remains her spiritual advisor. She joined his campus group, Ndugu-Nzinga Rites of Passage. His powerful novel of the Middle Passage, The Coming influences the substantive track of the same name on Diamond Cut.
And were it not for saxophonist Joe Jennings, founder of the Jazz Studies program at Spelman, Tia might not have stayed beyond her freshman year. "I knew it wasn't going to be like a Berklee or Manhattan School of Music, a conservatory, but it wasn't the jazz program I had envisioned. It was very small, a jazz ensemble functioning under the umbrella of Mr. J.," she says. "At the time, I was under the traditional mindset. I needed to be able to play in a big band, to play in a combo, and have other musicians around me who were really going toward it. I was planning to transfer to Howard." “Mr. J.” recognized her potential and encouraged her to stay the course at Spelman. In retrospect, she’s glad she did: "It forced me to create my own conservatory in the community." She'd already performed professionally (playing Charlie Parker's “Donna Lee”) when she became old enough to sit in with her dad at Colorado jazz clubs. "So I had to be deliberate about my approach in placing myself amongst other professional musicians. I'd go sit in on sessions, and they became my teachers." She remembers that Joe Jennings was never one to give full stop praise because there was always room for improvement. "He would always tell me 'You're coming along, Tia.' He was a grounding force," she says. On Diamond Cut, she honors him and other "Joes" seminal in her development: Lovano and Henderson, with the tune, "Joe’n Around," which takes inspiration from each.
When Ray Charles utilized the talents of students from Atlanta's HBCU consortium on arrival with his big band, Tia was lead alto chair. "I think I was the only one from Spelman," she recalls of the concert performed at Morehouse's chapel. "He lit it up!" she exclaims. "I didn't get the chance to talk to him, though. I was so young and so scared." In 1998, she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Music and a plan to "go straight to New York." The "crystallized vision" that she often speaks of was to plunge headlong into her performance career. But a friend of her father, the jazz studies director at the University of Colorado at Boulder had an offer. "Tia, I can get you a T.A. [teaching assistant] position, and you can go there for free and get your master's.” When she told her parents that she'd rather go to New York, her mother replied, "We're done paying for school, you better go get that free master's." Tia laughs and says, "I am so thankful I did. I was already in the practice of going to school. It was just another two years; I knocked it out." At twenty-five, she attained a Master of Music in Jazz Pedagogy and Performance, Summa Cum Laude, as the first graduate of the newly implemented program. It put her in "a different tier" for masterclasses, lectures, and clinics, which she's facilitated worldwide.
She then took a year off to practice and play with the family band, Fuller Sound in Colorado before making her way east. On September 9, 2001, she moved to Jersey City, NJ, across the Hudson River from where attacks on the World Trade Center would claim the lives of thousands only two days later. In the somber time thereafter, work slowed for musicians, and it forced Tia to step up her hustle. She got her first gig within two weeks, playing in a big band – at a fish fry in South Jersey. She played whenever and wherever from wedding bands to a weekly church gig. She taught reading, computers, and math at a private Catholic school. Fellow Coloradan saxophonist Brad Leali, then playing in the Count Basie Orchestra spread the word about the dexterous newcomer adept on the alto and soprano as well as the flute. She began performing and recording with jazz luminaries from the great Jimmy Heath to the late Nancy Wilson and in various ensembles with Jon Faddis, Wycliffe Gordon, Christian McBride, T.S. Monk, Ralph Peterson, Jr., Rufus Reid, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
She formed an all-female quartet composed of her then-roommate, Rachel Eckroch on piano, Miriam Sullivan (now known as Mimi Jones) on bass, and Kim Thompson on drums. The sax-drum combo brought comparisons: Thompson, the Jeff "Tain" Watts to Tia's Kenny Garrett. Miki Hayama would replace Eckroch, and eventually, Shamie Royston would replace Hayama.
In 2004, with support from her parents, Tia self-produced her first album, Pillar of Strength, featuring trumpeter Sean Jones. Jones, with whom she played sax and flute, recorded the first song she’d ever written, “Eternal Journey,” the title track to his debut album. Hearing her, his record company, Mack Avenue Music Group, signed her in 2006. As she was preparing to record with the label, she caught wind of auditions for Suga Mama, the all-female touring band that Beyoncé was putting together.
Approximately 5000 women sought a coveted spot in the band; the line of hopefuls snaked around the building at Sony Studios. Tia wrestled with making a consciously “pop” presentation of "Work it Out" to Beyoncé's creative team but ultimately decided to be true to herself. And her authenticity prevailed – she received a callback for the second round of auditions. As providence would have it, the timing allowed her to go. She'd just wrapped up three days of studio sessions for her Mack Avenue debut recording, Healing Space. The talent pool narrowed to some sixty women who were put through the paces – hours of learning the song “Déjà Vu” by ear, the choreography, and, in different combos, playing cohesively as a band. Though Queen Bey wasn't present for most of this second round, it just so happened that she arrived shortly before Tia’s performance.
When the names of the women who’d made it to the next round were announced, Tia’s was not among them. But then she had a "Look at God" moment: creative director Kim Burse came back and said, "Tia Fuller? Beyoncé asked for you specifically.” She made the cut, and eventually, the band. For the next four years, she trotted the globe as a featured sax soloist in the "well-oiled machine" that was Beyoncé's touring company. Among the highlights were playing in the Obama White House and performing in Addis Ababa during Ethiopia's millennial celebrations in 2007.
Tia calls her time on tour "transformational." A masterclass on executing a production at the highest level. She observed Beyoncé comprehensively, marveling over her empowered leadership, clarity of vision, unassailable work ethic, and remarkable ability to alchemize "No" into "Yes." Not to mention, how to dance in heels. "It's endless what I learned from her." She says the pop icon is "unapologetic in her presentation." All aspects, from dazzling sets to lighting that centers and flatters her, to her hair, makeup, and wardrobe. "She dresses for the stage to wow her audience; not look like them," Tia says. Bey's star-making stage presence emboldened Tia to stop dulling her shine with menswear to fit in with the boys. Go glam or go home.
Between tours, she promoted Healing Space, let the jazz community know she was available for gigs and continued to create new compositions. The year 2010 brought the end of the Suga Mama stint and the release of her second Mack Avenue recording, Decisive Steps, followed by Angelic Warrior in 2012.
Tia remembers excitedly watching Terri Lyne Carrington on the Arsenio Hall Show in the late eighties: "I was like, man, this is a sister who's playing! It was a dream to meet her all those years later." (when Carrington came to a Beyoncé concert) "And now to work with her; I mean, that’s my girl!" She is proud to have participated in both the Mosaic Project and Money Jungle tours, as well as Dianne Reeves’ Beautiful Life tour. She is ever grateful to the GRAMMY winner for coming aboard to produce Diamond Cut and help steer her to new heights, working with masters.
Among the other remarkable women in Tia's orbit is dear friend, Esperanza Spalding. She worked with the "visionary and intelligent Espy" as assistant musical director of her Radio Music Society tour starting in 2012.
Leading into 2013 was a time both fraught with challenge and wrought with blessings as Tia navigated family health issues and "prayed for stability." In January, she received two phone calls within 24 hours, forcing her to make a hard choice. Resume her place in Suga Mama for a year-long tour (including a Super Bowl half time performance in New Orleans) or join the faculty of the Berklee College of Music. She would not let her ego win. She’d enjoyed the cache of touring with Beyoncé for years; it was now time to “step into her purpose.”
She hadn't intended to follow the path of her educator parents, yet a sax lesson she gave during grad school "turned on the light switch" regarding teaching. So when one of the foremost music schools in the country offered her a professorship in the Ensembles Department, it seemed a natural progression in her evolution. She began with a weekly New York-Boston commute to Berklee's campus, but has since sunk roots, and bought a Beantown home. She brings both academic and real-world experiential rigor to bear in the classroom and absolute devotion to her students who like trumpeter, Arnetta Johnson, (Berklee Class of 2016) benefit from her collaborative spirit. Tia's a steadfast proponent of visualization. A visiting clinician from her grad school days inspired an exercise she does with students today. She has her students map out where they want to be in ten years, encouraging them to envision exactly what they want it to look like. Having a crystallized vision when she did the exercise in her twenties helped her manifest within ten years, she says, "about 98 percent of what I wrote down.”
She remembers that her mother would share aphorisms extolling the virtues of "optimism and stick-to-it-iveness." Now she coins phrases and shares mantras with her students like, “Be proactive with your preparation to create smooth transitions.” She takes the "being a light" aspect of teaching very seriously. "I want to encourage and inspire and change the internal narratives we tell ourselves so we can keep moving in faith, not fear.” Yes, “keep working and honing your skills,” she says of technique. But she always balances that with humanity and compassion. “Also love yourself; affirm yourself."
"It was a goal to bring my experience of an A-list show like Beyoncé's to Berklee. And sure enough, the year that I decided to have the Beyoncé Ensemble was the 10th anniversary that we [the Suga Mama band] had been with her." The group reconvened as "The OGs” (the Original Beyoncé All-Female Band) to perform with Tia's ensemble students at Berklee. "It was the first time since our last concert together in 2010 that we were all together again. It was so extraordinary. We even used dancers from the Boston Conservatory. It was how I could give back to the community what was given to me from Beyoncé." That precedent-setting show established a trajectory for succeeding shows. There was the Bruno Mars Ensemble, complete with a smoke machine, a drumline, and choreography. “This year we did Micki Miller and Ariana Grande. Now, I’m inserting social justice pieces. It’s a massive undertaking, but my students do great work. They’re the programmers; they’re the arrangers. I have a whole management team and publicist who are students, and I’m just facilitating."
The GRAMMY Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album was first presented in 1959. In the 60 years since only one woman, Terri Lyne Carrington has won the celebrated prize, and that wasn’t until 2014. Poised to follow in the history-making footsteps of her fellow Berklee College of Music colleague and mentor, Tia was up for the same award in February for her Carrington-produced album.
Right there with her at the Staples Center were her father and sister and her supportive bestie, Margo Davis. "I always say 'everybody needs a Margo in their life.' She has sacrificed for me in so many different ways. She negotiated my deal for Diamond Cut.” Tia had a recent change in her team and was without a manager at the time. Margo stepped in with her business acumen, prepared and presented a proposal to Denny Stillwell, President of Mack Avenue.
Saxophone legend Wayne Shorter took home the golden gramophone on GRAMMY night, yet Tia felt honored to be nominated in the same category. She took the attention her historic nomination garnered to illuminate the wonderful contributions of unsung women in jazz and the woeful gender gap in music with an opinion piece for NBCNews.com. She also writes about the 14-member, intersectional feminist collective of performing artists, We Have Voice, which has developed a code of conduct for the performing arts and seeks to disrupt the patriarchal paradigm and integrate the industry. They are gratified that the Monterey Jazz Festival (in which Tia was a 2018 artist-in-residence) is now a fifty-fifty split, women to men.
Looking ahead, she plays a few more dates this summer with her Diamond Cut Band, including the stellar Friday lineup at the Newport Jazz Festival in August. She's planning a new recording with Trombone Shorty and her "OG" mate, drummer Nikki Glaspie. And she's hoping to squeeze in some vacation time. What does that look like? “A beach, definitely a beach; water. Not a bunch of excursions, that’s too much like work. Maybe snorkeling. And good wine." She laughs. "I asked my new trainer if we can build wine into my diet. He said, 'One glass.' I like cocktails too, the sweet ones, especially when I’m on vacation. A margarita, with a Grand Marnier topper!"
1. The Bible. A spirit-driven child of God, she delights in the Lord. Psalm 37:4 inspired “Delight,” a paean to her Christian faith.
2. Walking out of the gym after a good workout. Nurturing mind, body, and spirit is a life practice. On tour in Sundvall, Sweden, she hit the gym with her prayer and workout partner, sis Shamie.
3. Spiritual, self-help and business books and videos. Some of the titles that have made it to her bookshelf.
2. Body con dresses and high heels. Petite Tia loves a high-heeled shoe – especially with a sturdy platform – and favors dresses that accentuate her strong, fit body.
3. Ginger root/ginger tea, and 4. Soft-serve Vanilla Yogurt/Ice Cream. Double the yum.
7. Massages. With a schedule as intense as Tia’s is, downtime is at a premium, and self-care, a rejuvenating must.
8. Press-on nails. Again, the schedule. Press and go. Convenient.
10. My BBQ grill. She doesn’t eat red meat, but she loves to grill seafood and vegetables on her Dyna-Glo.