Tia Fuller: Stepping Forward Decisively
It was as a senior in high school, after she did a feature solo with the school band on "I Hear a Rhapsody," that she had a revelation that playing saxophone professionally was a distinct possibility. She was listening to jazz CDs, not only of Coltrane and Parker, which were too complex at first, but music by Eric Marienthal and Vincent Herring. The Wynton Marsalis album, Black Codes from the Underground (Columbia, 1985) and Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else (Blue Note, 1958) were also early listening influences.
Around the age of 18, she was gigging with the family band, "which was very cool. We still play a lot together when I'm home. We played clubs in the Denver metropolitan area and private parties and things like that. I was gigging around at the age of 18, my freshman year in college (Spelman College in Atlanta). When I'd come home I'd gig or I'd be sitting in five to seven nights a week. I'd go to local jazz clubs. The same thing in college. I was sitting in a lot. Trying to learn the music and the history. Learning repertoire. Practicing. Sitting in whenever I could and playing whenever I could."
She adds, "It was mainly jazz, because from 18 to 21 I was really trying to focus on just jazz. I would take some other jobs, but I was kind of hesitant because I wanted to stay focus on the history and learning how to improvise. Learning jazz theory."
In Atlanta, drummer Terreon Gully a mentor, as well as her teacher, Joe Jennings. The latter "really took me under his wing and taught me a lot about jazz theory and saxophone. Those were the two main individuals. Then all of the Atlanta-based musicians when I was in school. They really did help. They embraced me and took me under their wings. Get out and play and learn as much as possible."
Fuller yearned for New York City and its jazz scene. It was a goal. But after graduating from Spelman, she had a full scholarship to get a master's degree, so she moved forward to the University of Colorado, Boulder.
"Education was highly stressed in my family because both of my parents are retired administrators in the public school district," explains Fuller. "Even before that, my mom always instilled that whenever you start something you finish it ... That carried me on throughout school. I saw a lot of my friends not finishing, for whatever reason. For me that wasn't an option. On top of my parents both being educators, I knew that if I started something, I want it completed. I knew that, both with under-grad and graduate school, I was going to knock it outstraight through. I didn't want to take any time off, for one. I also enjoyed school. It gave me an opportunity to hone my craft."
There as another benefit to graduate school, she admits. "I was able to hone my craft for teaching, doing clinics and workshops. That's when I really started teaching at the university level. Directing a big band and combos and teaching jazz improv as a TA (teaching assistant) at the University of Colorado, Boulder." Today, she lectures and teaches ensembles and master classes at institutions around the country and enjoys that aspect of her vocation.
Upon receiving her master's degree, she finally moved to New York. She jokes, "I took a little detour (grad school), but I'm glad I did, because it all worked out."
She arrived there, settling across the Hudson River in New Jersey, on September 9, 2001. Two days before the tragic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
After the attack, the economy of the Big Apple, and the spirit in some sense, went into a slump. While the city was resilient enough in the face of the tragedy, people were going out less. Night clubs were staggered, musicians complained. Some say it has never quite fully returned to pre-9/11 form. For Fuller, she was in the teeth of it in the months of late 2001. But she was undaunted.
"That actually encouraged me and motivated me to really hustle," she says. "I was working within a week. I remember my first gig was at a fish fry in south Jersey. It was a big band gig at a fish fry. From there I got a gig playing every Tuesday night playing at a poetry jam. They had a live band. A funk band. And playing every Sunday at church. Doing some weddings with different bands. Also, I was still remaining a part of the jazz scene. I'd go and sit in about five nights a week in New York so I could remain visible. It's been nine years now and led up to this, which has been really amazing."
Musicians like Ralph Peterson, Jimmy Heath, Jon Faddis, T.S. Monk, Don Braden, Don Byron, Brad Leali, Javon Jackson and longtime friend Jones helped her budding career and she found opportunities with them and through them. She did big bands gigs with Faddis, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Charli Persip and others. "It's been a lot of different people," helping along the way, she notes.