Photo: Jerris Madison
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Tia Fuller On Growth, Artistic Vision & Leading By Example
Jazz saxophonist Tia Fuller recently earned her first GRAMMY nod for her fifth LP, Diamond Cut, becoming the second-ever female solo artist to be nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. Growing up in a musically inclined household, music, especially jazz, runs through her veins, and her vision of playing sax was set at a young age.
Realizing that vision has taken Fuller many places. From touring with Beyoncé as part of her all-female backing band to teaching at the prestigious Berklee College of Music to recording as a successful solo artist and touring as the bandleader, Fuller has an inspiring story.
We recently spoke to Fuller to learn more about her journey, what she learned from working Queen Bey (hint: it's a lot more than just how to perform in heels), and at what age she knew she wanted to be a musician. She also shared how emotional the GRAMMY nomination felt, how she sees her role as a female in jazz music, and the powerful meaning behind the title Diamond Cut.
How did you hear the news of your first GRAMMY nomination? What was your initial reaction?
Oh, goodness. I heard about it from my publicist on the morning that the results were out. I was lying in bed, checking my phone, and she had said, "Congratulations." And I thought, congratulations for what? And then she screenshotted my category [Best Jazz Instrumental Album], and I just started crying. It was one of the most emotional moments ever for me.
I called Terri [Lyne Carrington, who produced Diamond Cut] right after I found out and I was crying so hard that she couldn't even understand me. I finally I told her, and she was like, "Oh gosh, I thought somebody had died. That's amazing!"
Shortly after that, I saw one of my best friends who teaches with me at the Berklee. She's like a sister of mine; her name is Mimi Jones. She asked if I was okay, so I told her and she said, "See Tia, I told you!" And then she started crying; we were just celebrating and praising God. After that, it was an influx of emails and text messages saying congratulations for the rest of the day, which was really amazing.
Any time I think about it, I start tearing up and realize it's really a combination of my whole trajectory as a musician, from the very beginning of when I started playing and all of my goals that I set. It's truly a blessing.
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It has taken me 24 hrs to fully process and continually praise, as I have been in complete shock! “Diamond Cut” has been nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for the 61st Grammy Awards.Thank you, so much to everyone for your texts, phone calls and abundant love and energy. Special thanks to Terri Lyne Carrington for producing this record and always pushing me. Mack Avenue Records, my family and MArgo Davis, I couldn’t have done this without you ! #Grammys2019 #Diamondcut #MackAvenueRecords
What made you want to pursue becoming a jazz musician?
My parents are musicians, my dad is a professional bass player and my mom is a singer. My sister is a great pianist who worked with me my last couple albums. I come from a family of musicians so I was surrounded by music my whole life. I am thankful because growing up I was so exposed to jazz in particular.
I've taken ownership over being, and not proving who I am, or trying to prove who I am; allowing myself to be in the process and embracing every aspect of being a woman, an educator, a musician, a woman of color in the male-dominated world.
Have there been major moments that validated your path as an artist?
There's many more moments, but [one] notable one is the Beyoncé gig. If that week had played out any other way I wouldn't have been able to audition for her band. To make a long story short, I was preparing to go into the studio to record my first album with my record label that had just signed me, Mack Avenue Records. Earlier that week I was coming from rehearsal for the recording, and I went to the audition for Beyoncé band. It was a long line outside of Sony's studios, so I cut the line because it would've been an eight-hour line and I had to get back to my studio. I played Beyoncé's "Work It Out" for the audition.
The next day, I went into the studio to record my album, over three days. On that Friday evening, my last day in the studio recording, I got a call back from Beyoncé's people saying I made the first callbacks. I was able to go to the second call backs on Saturday and then the third call backs.
If they would have called any other day that week I would've not been able to be able to go, because being in the studio would've taken precedent. So I kept seeing these small blessings as to how I was able to do both. And that to me was a very clear indication that this is what I was supposed to be doing.
What was the biggest thing you learned from working and touring with Beyoncé and that amazing experience as a whole?
Well besides being able to walk in heels on stage? [Laughs.]
It was really empowering to see her function as a woman, a woman of color, as a leader, as a bandleader; seeing how she worked with her staff of 50 to 60 people—outside of the band—who traveled with her. I saw how she would always turn no's and into yeses, as far as being able to really walk fervently with her vision for her show, and for her life.
I observed how meticulously she put her shows together and how her shows were seamless. The way that she created the set list was extraordinary. It had everything in it genre-wise, music for an actual audience. These are all things that now I consider, and it's enhanced my process as far as creating set list for my band of 10. She showed me how consistency leaves room for spontaneity; everybody knows what they're supposed to do within the framework of the template set up for the show and how things are supposed to move in this show. It works even though I'm playing a different genre of music.
Diamond Cut is the first solo album you've put out in six years, since 2012's Angelic Warrior. As you mentioned, you've also taken on the role as a professor at Berklee—how have you grown or changed as a recording artist and as a musician over this time period?
Oh goodness, there's definitely been some growth. I've taken ownership over being, and not proving who I am, or trying to prove who I am; allowing myself to be in the process and embracing every aspect of being a woman, an educator, a musician, a woman of color in the male-dominated world.
Early on a lot of interwoven issues were brought to the forefront when I was out there playing, when I was really just trying to focus on the music. A lot of people would come up and say, "Oh, well maybe you need to smile when you're playing on stage." Or someone goes, "Why don't you come over here and help with this and that," but they're not saying anything to the other musicians.
I think that I have evolved, especially in the past six years, that I have been able to really come into the fullness and oneness of what I have to offer and am not trying to prove myself, instead allowing myself to be who I am and and celebrate that and in every aspect.
I read that the title for Diamond Cut is a metaphor for the time you've spent developing yourself and your artistic craft. Can you speak to that a little bit more?
I was looking for a title for some time and diamonds just kept coming to me in the process. The first reason for using diamonds in the title is celebrating legends of the community. That's why I included Jack DeJohnette, the legendary drummer, and Dave Holland on bass, celebrating our diamonds in the community.
The second reason, which is more personal to me, came from when I started reading up on diamonds. There are three things I realized. The first thing is that when a diamond is embedded in the earth's surface, it knows that it's a diamond upon extraction even though it's enclosed in ore. Once the diamond starts to rise to the earth's surface it has to endure an extreme amount of pressure and high temperatures to get to the earth's surface.
That relates specifically to my life as far as I know that I got put on this earth for a purpose. And like I said before, I took ownership, knowing that I'm a diamond but that I definitely had work to do. I still am doing the work, all the formulating and then all of the things that I've had to in order to rise to the top. Now the third part is really the catch, the term “diamond cut” doesn't pertain to the size or the shape of the diamond, but it pertains to how much light is reflected in the diamond; that's where the brilliance of the diamond lies.
What does a GRAMMY nomination for Diamond Cut mean to you personally and your artistic journey?
Oh my goodness. Wow. [Pauses] Emotional. It allowed me to see that all is possible.
No matter how it looks upon the inception of the diamond, you'll go through good times, and you'll go through bad times, and it's important to maintain a crystallized vision of your purpose because everything is possible in life. And it may not happen when you think it's supposed to happen, but to know that in the midst of my life, I realized that everything had its place and I'm walking in my purpose, being a light for others, and it's been reiterated. Whether it be on stage, whether it be in the classroom, whether it be for your family, it's you who is opening up opportunities for others and you who is letting them see that it is possible.
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As I reflect on 2018, I am thankful for God’s many blessings, guidance, angels, wisdom, challenges and lessons learned. In 2019, lets all continue be prayerful, thankful, humble, diligent and maintaining a crystallized vision for our purpose and pouring light into others, while further “etching into our greatness.. our diamondness.” Knowing that, extreme amount of pressure and temperature is what it takes to rise, inbecoming ‘Diamond Cut’ ...to reflect light and love! Happy New Year everyone!!#godisgood #2019 #diamondcut #newyear #newwisdom#perseverance #momsfurcoat #61stgrammys
In my category, in the 61-year history of the GRAMMYs, I think I'm the second woman to be nominated, after Terri Lyne Carrington was nominated and won in 2014. So me being there is making a statement, now for women it's an equal playing ground. We're showing our presence, we're out here, and we have always been out here. In the history of music, specifically jazz, we've been pioneering this music, and now we are more so being seen. So this is giving me the opportunity to be a vessel for women, for other young women who are out there and now were saying, "See, we're doing it."