Saxophonist, bandleader, educator, and creator Tia Fuller sat down with The Revivalist to discuss where the music has been taking her this past year as well as where she sees it going in the new year. Check out below as she discusses her role in teaching the younger generations, her tenure as part of Beyonce’s band, and some projects in the works for 2012.
In your own words, who is Tia Fuller?
Tia Fuller is someone that is an individual. She is highly-spirited, definitely passionate, and extremely goal-oriented.
You’ve accomplished a lot in your career thus far. Highlighting this is the opportunity to tour with Beyonce. How was that different from your previous experiences touring as a solo artist?
My role was very different in Beyonce’s band. I was in a horn section as opposed to facilitating everything as a leader. As a result I got a chance to see how Beyonce functions as a band leader, and as a businesswoman and also as an artist. I was able to see just how she conducted rehearsals and how she spoke to her team of people that worked with her. All of that was extremely advantageous in that I am able to incorporate a lot of the things I learned being on tour with her, such as creating a nice smooth set list and building a presentation around your performance, and as a jazz artist, not just standing there and playing but actually informing the audience about the music that you plan to play and what went behind it and creating a seamlessness to the presentation to where the audience is not only entertained but engaged.
An interesting aspect of this tour is that Beyonce chose an all-female band, highlighted by the horn section in which you participated. Why do we not see more prominent female horn players? Are they being overlooked or do they really not exist?
I think that it’s a combination of the two. Sometimes I think that we’re overlooked, although I do think it’s getting better. And then, also I feel that there isn’t an overabundance of women playing these unconventional instruments, outside of the piano and drums. Just looking at the New York scene right now, I can name probably about 20-30 instrumentalists that are on the scene. So I think it’s an active combination of giving opportunities to women, and then also from a very early age, encouraging women to explore. Young men are naturally, instinctively outside playing in dirt, climbing, up trees and falling down. And that’s accepted and supported. But young little girls are usually inside helping their mothers cook or playing with Barbie dolls. I think from a social perspective, this feeds into what our presence is in music. It feeds all the way back from childhood. I think if more people encouraged young women to play and to be spontaneous and improvise, and to climb up those trees, I think that it would really feed into the musicianship and women would be doing the same things in music and in jazz.
You mentioned getting young women involved and pushing boundaries. Tying into that, while you have this career as a performer, what made you decide to take on this role as an educator?
I feel that it’s really important to give back. Both of my parents are retired teachers and administrators in the Denver public school system. And so education was largely valued in my family as well as musicianship, because they were both musicians as well. I think as a result of growing up in a musical and heavily educational environment that actually led into what I feel my obligation is now. As much as I didn’t want to necessarily teach when in high school. I told myself back then, “I don’t want to teach!” It wasn’t until grad school and I was a TA at University of Colorado at Boulder and I started leading big bands and teaching combos and private lessons, that I had that urge. It was a great feeling to see the “light bulb” come on with students. To be able to affect an individual student to that capacity really touched me deeply. So to answer your question, I guess it’s been a combination of my family, of my early experiences teaching, and just feeling an innate connection to all of that.
Many young artists are leaning towards R&B, hip-hop, and many other “current” sounds. How did you come to work with the medium of jazz?
It’s the exposure that I had in my household, initially. Because my dad is a bass player and my mom is a vocalist, well before I started playing myself, I remember hearing them rehearsing in the basement of our house. Once I started playing the saxophone, it was like “Yeah…you can do this. You can be a jazz musician,” because the influence was all around. From there, I tried to take it to the next level. I studied and went to jazz camps in high school and then went to college and really tried to take it more into my own hands to be an actual performer.
A lot of the discussions over the last few years have been about the revitalization of jazz, particularly with a collective of up-and-coming artists. Where do you see jazz right now and where do you see it going?
I definitely think it has a potential. This is actually one of the many reasons I was blessed with the opportunity to tour with Beyonce. My affiliation with her, being a jazz artist, not only allows me to gain experience into the pop and R&B world and bring that into the jazz world, but to also bring jazz to her. And as a result, she actually, upon my recommendation, sang Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Ornithology.” The sole element of her being able to put out this major DVD and present Ella, as well as these other great vocalists…hopefully this will place an imprint on her already large audience and they’ll go and say “Oh let me see who Ella Fitzgerald is. Let me see who Sarah Vaughan is.” And even more so, integration is where jazz is going, because a lot of other pop & R&B artists are using jazz musicians in their sets and that only expands the audience. From a jazz musician’s standpoint, I think that there are so many different venues, especially with social media now, that jazz is in a very elevated state.
Outside of your own work, who are you listening to these days?
I actually just turned off John Coltrane’s “Dear Old Stockholm” with Roy Haynes. And then I’ve been on this Jill Scott kick lately, particularly the new album. So I’ve been listening to a lot of that. And I’ve been listening to a little bit of John Patitucci, as well. Those three have been my playlist over the past few weeks.
So, if you only had one album you could ever listen to, what would it be?
Wow. This is the hardest question in the world. I have two in mind. Miles Davis, Seven Steps to Heaven. “So Near, So Far,” that song in particular I can listen to endlessly and not get tired of it. So I would have to say Seven Steps to Heaven. Also, Kim Burrell’s Everlasting Life is another one. I’ve been living with that album for probably the last eight years. Now, on the soul tip, Dwele’s Sketches of a Man. I’m sorry. I couldn’t give you just one. I had to go with my three sort of different “islands.”
Just to wrap things up, where do you see yourself personally going? What’s the next step?
Next year, I have a few things on the radar. I’ll actually be going back into the studio in January for my next recording. I may be on tour with Esperanza Spalding and doing some things with Terri Lyne Carrington, as well. In the future, I want to eventually work with an orchestra, making orchestral arrangements of my original compositions. And even a little bit further into the future, expanding the educational component, I’d like to open some sort of school in the form of a non-profit organization that is primarily centered in the inner cities wherever the arts are lacking. That’s really important to me.
Interview by Paul Pennington