Saxophonist Tia Fuller is soaring to new high notes with a Grammy nomination for her latest album, Diamond Cut, which was released in May.
“I’ve been thanking God and really just giving thanks for just being considered in the category among legends and people that I grew up listening to,” the 42-year-old musician, composer and Berklee College of Music professor says in the weeks leading up to the Grammys on Feb. 10, when she’ll learn if her fifth album as bandleader will outshine the competition in the jazz instrumental album category. “I’m still pinching myself.”
Fuller previously performed at the Grammys—in 2008, she was a member of Beyoncé’s touring band—but this marks the first nomination for her riff on jazz, which she describes as post-bop and tinged with R&B, Latin and gospel. And though she’s still celebrating her personal victory, she knows the nod from the Recording Academy reaches beyond herself. Since the first awards were handed out in 1959, just a handful of female bandleaders have been recognized in the category, and Terri Lyne Carrington is the only one to win. The Medford-born jazz drummer and fellow Berklee professor—who snagged the trophy in 2013 for Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue—coincidentally produced Fuller’s latest release. Says Fuller: “Her playing with so many people and being another woman of color out there, she’s always been on the forefront in my brain about what I want my life to look like and what I could accomplish.”
At this milestone, Fuller reflects on her musical start in Colorado, where she was raised by a bassist father and a vocalist mother who founded the jazz band Fuller Sound. She started playing the flute at age 9, but the saxophone soon struck a chord after her grandfather hauled a sax out of the basement and gave it to her while she was in middle school.
“I remember playing the low B-flat, which is the lowest note on the instrument, and how the sound just reverberated throughout my house,” Fuller says. When playing the flute, half the air escapes the instrument, whereas for the sax, the output of breath is basically the output of sound. The music is even more of an extension of the musician. “I felt how empowering it was,” she says.
After that first B-flat, Fuller studied music in college and grad school and played in New York clubs with acts like Ellington Big Band and T.S. Monk. In 2006, she earned a spot on Beyoncé’s touring band, Suga Mama. As part of the 10-person outfit—all world-class female musicians—she slayed stadiums across the globe for five years.
“I knew I was there for a purpose beyond just being her saxophonist,” Fuller says. During 8- to 12-hour rehearsals, she’d notice how the megastar led her band and business, how she interacted with her crew and how she created a narrative-driven performance. Fuller realized she could improvise on themes from the pop and R&B worlds to create more conceptual and visual journeys during her own shows. “I think as artists—especially improvisational artists—we’re constantly trying to seek beyond what we’ve already done,” Fuller says. When another offer to go on the road with Beyoncé came after her 2013 Super Bowl performance, Fuller decided to change her tune. She accepted an offer to teach at Berklee.
These days, Fuller is the professional sharing her wisdom. “If there’s a challenging piece of music that a student is having problems with, I use that as a tool to etch deeper into their character and show how they can empower themselves,” she says. Her students might be stuck on a certain passage, and when she senses their fear, her advice on music and life seems to blur into one. “Move forward in faith and not fear,” she says. “Whatever you do, it has to be in a faithful direction—without allowing fear to supersede that faithful direction, that empowering direction.”
Her latest direction includes work with the We Have Voice Collective, which she formed last year with 13 other musicians and artists to address sexism in the performing arts. With a code of conduct released in May and a series of roundtable discussions around the world, the collective hopes to create a new tone of zero-tolerance for sexual harassment in the industry.
“As women and as women of color, we’ve always been a part of and really defining this music,” she says. “But now, thankfully, we’re able to be more recognized. We have more platforms to be heard and for our words to be valued.” To that we say: Sing it loud.