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Shirazette Tinnin: Artistry in Motion

Shirazette Tinnin: Artistry in Motion

Courtesy Jeff Dunn


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I think institutionally, we forget sometimes that things need to be organic.
—Shirazette Tinnin
The Detroit Jazz Festival is the world's largest free jazz festival, attended annually by more than 300,000 patrons in Hart Plaza. The 42nd edition of the festival in 2021 was to be a return to its outdoor digs on the Detroit River Walk, but just two weeks before the event, held annually over Labor Day weekend, the Delta variant of Covid-19 forced organizers to transition to an all virtual festival. Musicians would be brought to the Renaiisance Marriott in Detroit, to perform consecutive sets on three soundstages. Only a few media members would attend the sets live.

Drummer/composer Shirazette Tinnin arrived in Detroit early on Friday, with two performances with festival Artist-In-Residence Dee Dee Bridgewater on her docket. She would perform with Bridgewater's Woodshed Network on Friday, and her all-women big band on the festival's final day on Monday. In between, she would fly back to New York, where she currently resides, to play a gig in the city. Such are the circumstances in life for Tinnin, whose ability to play within several genres has given her an increasingly in-demand profile.

The first musical encounter for members of the media attending live, and the virtual audience viewing the broadcast, was Bridgewater's Woodshed Network. Created as a program for Women In Jazz to provide educational and professional support with the aim of accelerating careers through mentorship and community interaction, The Woodshed Network seeks to create an environment in the music that transitions the culture to one of inclusion, that embraces, celebrates and supports women who contribute, and will continue to contribute to the music. Tinin was in Detroit as a mentor in the program, with the added benefit of performing with each ensemble.

As the first notes were played, Tinin's strong playing became the centerpiece of immediate attention for the small gathering of media members assembled to cover the event. She played with great strength and flair, with a noticeable look of confidence and contentment. A brief look into her background revealed an honorable and unique path to artistry and her status as a professional, both as a performing artist and educator.

Raised in North Carolina, Tinin is the daughter of musical parents. Her father was a gospel singer, and her mother a trombonist. Their daughter was drawn to percussion early on, toting athletic aspirations on the basketball court as well. She found the disciplines similar, the dedication to craft, the repetition of fundamentals. Twixt two worlds, she would ultimately choose music, eventually attending Appalachian State University to begin her studies. She would as well play basketball there, making the team as a walk-on. That persistence and focus would serve her well in more challenging times down the road. While the demands of her schedule would require her to drop basketball, her passion for physical fitness would endure and become an integral part of her professional life.

After a brief stint in New York, Tinnin moved back to North Carolina and engaged the vibrant live music scene in Winston-Salem. Her time there would aid in diversifying her skill set as a drummer, and as a professional musician in general.

"I stayed on the scene in North Carolina, and traveled in different genres from Winston-Salem to Durham to North Carolina State University, where I did a lot of off-Broadway music—playing wedding gigs and standards in the hotels in Winston-Salem, playing with artists coming in for the Black Theatre Festival definitely helped to shape me and prepare me for what to expect in New York. I thought I would move directly back to New York. I didn't know I would go to Chicago first," she recalls.

The detour to Chicago was to pursue an opportunity to study at Northern Illinois University, and make her presence felt on the Chicago jazz scene. Her time in New York allowed her to see the stark differences in the music between the two cities. She could hear the Windy City's deep connection to the blues, prompted historically by the migration of Black workers from the delta country in the deep south to the industrial north. As a southern woman, there was a faint sense of familiarity she couldn't quite put a finger on. It had to do with the intensity of the music. Somehow, Chicago's brand of swing bore southern traits, very different from the sheer ferocity of the music in New York.

"This feels like a fast south," she thought. "Why do I feel like I'm in North Carolina, but everyone is just moving a little faster? When I played in Chicago, it was way laid back. When I started playing in New York, all of the other drummers around me were more intense and on top. The Chicago scene was probably the best thing I could have done. The way that Chicago swings compared to New York, is really different. I feel the Chicago swing is still more heavily based on the blues," she explains.

Of course, all of these life experiences and immersions into different musical environments are relevant in the growth of one's artistry, in how the artist internalizes them in a soulful manner and expresses them as tangible art. Tinnin's four years in Chicago were transcendent in her understanding of the music, and prepared her for the many musical cross-currents she would soon encounter. One major divergence was time spent performing with flutist Nicole Mitchell and her Black Earth Ensemble. Mitchell's removal of harmonic constraints was liberating for Tinnin. She was standing on solid musical ground, with time spent rooted in the blues, and now soaring freely with the likes of Mitchell. Her skills on the drum set were becoming more musical and her composing skills were beginning to emerge as well.

While in Chicago, she received a certification in personal training, with the goal of connecting musicians with fitness of body and spirit. That alleged duality between music and athletics she carried to App State became a singular entity, with Tinnin engaging in both disciplines to the benefit of each other. "I wanted musicians to understand their bodies and take care of themselves," she says. The sheer physicality of playing the drum set speaks to the need for fitness of body and spirit. Tinnin's approach is relentlessly, physically articulate. Merging her love of athletics and music into a functioning partnership has added a dimension to her artistry that is ever present and engagingly original.

Towards the end of her tenure in Chicago, Tinnin was presented with an opportunity that, very much like her time with Mitchell, would take her out of her comfort zone, and challenge her both in terms of technical skill and artistic achievement. It would prompt her return to New York, and add yet another creative impulse to her playing. She was asked to join the groundbreaking Afro-Peruvian Sextet of trumpeter/composer, Gabriel Alegria. This time, instead of the challenge being more based on harmonic structure, or lack thereof, Tinnin would have to become intimate with the rhythms of Black Coastal Peru, on the music's traditional instrument— the cajon.

"I had to learn all the rhythms of the Afro-Peruvian genre on cajon, then transfer the rhythms from cajon to drum set, take Hugo Alcazar's approach to playing Afro-Peruvian drum set, and then learn how to play cajon and drum set at the same time," she recalls.

At both ends of the band's spectrum of sound, the "jazz" in the fusion of Alegria's concept begins with the leader's approach on trumpet, and on the bottom end, now featuring Tinnin's approach to jazz drumming which is heavily influenced by the blues. That being said, both are disciplines rooted in the African diaspora, and Tinnin's immersion into the sextet added depth dimensionally to her sound.

Her disciplines as well include classical percussion studies that have contributed to her becoming the complete, in-demand musician she is. A healthy balance between institutional learning and the traditional paying of dues on the bandstand has guided Tinnin's path forward.

"To study classical, to create that structural discipline, is important, but the African tradition has discipline as well. It's a matter of approach. I do believe studying classical percussion made my ability to play the drum set cleaner, with more texture, understanding, and dexterity. I think institutionally, we forget sometimes that things need to be organic, and they do need to happen in one's own time," she says.

Tinnin's return to NYC was accompanied by an upswing in her career. Aside from her work with Alegria, she was gigging regularly with Tia Fuller and Allan Harris. She landed a gig playing on the popular The Meredith Vieira Show, on NBC. She released her first album, receiving rave reviews across the board. Humility: Purity of My Soul (Hot Tone Music, 2014), includes original compositions, and equally compelling takes on Wayne Shorter's "Passion Dance," and the Eddie Harris penned Miles Davis classic, "Freedom Jazz Dance." Her visibility was now colored by credibility. Her composing skills reflected her approach as a drummer dynamically, with understated intricacy followed by explosive bursts. From her diversity of experience and profound talent, an original sound began to emerge.

Yet some darkness accompanied that light, with the news that her father was suffering from throat cancer, creating great stress for her family both financially and emotionally. Tinnin was making frequent trips back to North Carolina to take care of her parents, generally two or three times a month. Trying to balance those responsibilities with those of a career as a performer and educator became increasingly more difficult. The situation began to take its toll on her relationship with her brother, upping the stress level considerably for her.

Tinnin began writing "The Cards That Life Can Deal," and "Chaos" during this time in 2016, finishing them after her father's death in 2017. The two pieces would be integral in a recording session with a new band, her Sonic WallPaper Fusion Band. In the middle of that session, her mother was diagnosed with kidney disease. Sadly, she passed in 2019, shortly before the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic shut down the performing arts for the better part of two years.

Tinnin completed Volume One: The Cards That Life Can Deal (SheBeatsToo, 2020), and released it during the shutdown in 2020. Her original music is about her life, putting her in a place of vulnerability emotionally where most artists would not dare to reside. She used distraught phone messages from her mother as interludes connecting her poignant lyrics. Vocalists Shayna Small and Charenee Wade provide a vivid portrayal of Tinnin's challenges with her family within her compositions ``Drowning," "Chaos" and "Past Tense." While her first release is definitively a jazz record, the music she envisions for her Sonic WallPaper Fusion Band is harder edged, blending elements of hip-hop, funk and r&b. The title track that speaks to her relationship with her father, is centered on the emotions of love and remembrance, yet never enters the arena of sadness, instead exuding a strength of spirit that is integral to character and artistry.

Tinnin cites her mentors, her "angels," for providing her with the support necessary to not only make it through her difficult familial times, but through the profound difficulties of being a professional musician in New York in general. Mentors like Alegria, Bridgewater, Mitchell, Harris and Mimi Jones, of whom Tinnin remarks, "She's always been like a big sister." They have greatly impacted her approach as a bandleader, and inspired her to give back to the music by becoming a mentor herself.

"I feel that mentoring has helped me to grow, because it gives me a psychological perspective of how to interact with different people who are all trying to learn the same music. It helps me to fill in gaps, because it's impossible to know everything. I will never stop, I have mentors who are still mentoring me. By being a mentor, you have to be exposed and vulnerable to let somebody in, to know what you know," she explains.

Those "did you know" moments she experiences, when her students dig into something even deeper than she required, are the most rewarding moments. It gives clear indication of the curiosity and passion required to create great music. Its function is generationally essential to the growth of the genre. She is mindful of her first teachers, including her first drum teacher, Greg Harvey. Tinnin's mother paid him by feeding him. "He saw something in me, I didn't see in myself," she recalls fondly.

Tinnin is now teaching at the Berklee College of Music in Boston two days a week, as well as her usual teaching load in New York. She has intentions to focus on her own music and band in the months that are to come as the country climbs out of the social abyss caused by the pandemic. Her status as an educator and as a bandleader, enables her ability to work towards gender justice in jazz, the art form's biggest challenge. Supporting female instrumentalists is the single most direct way to influence the sound of jazz in the twenty-first century, as the jazz community comes to terms with the history of misogyny that has plagued the music industry, including its most indigenous art form. A musical form cannot be whole if it denies justice to half the population.

When responding to a query of what jazz would sound like without patriarchy, Tinnin thoughtfully responded, "I've had comments that people say I play like a man. In some ways, I think the music may be more aggressive if we didn't have a patriarchy. Sometimes women aren't allowed to be considered aggressive in this industry, and if they are, then it's almost too much. I also think music might have more subtleties, more openness for nuances, a different approach that might have a wider range of genres."

Tinnin, along with prominent female artists Terri Lyne Carrington, Cindy Blackman, Sheila E and many others, have paved the way for female drummers, composers and bandleaders. Yet while she believes things are moving forward in the proper direction, Tinnin is alarmed at the lack of awareness her male students have of modern female drummers.

"I have a student, very well versed, he's a freshman. He had so much information about eight or ten male drummers, but when I asked him if he listened to any woman drummers, he only knew of Cindy Blackman. I gave him homework. I told him, this has to stop, and it has to stop with you. Even when we start breaking the cycle, we constantly have teachings that are trying to put back in what was broken for a reason. It saddens me, because it's not his fault. He's had a teacher for a few years before studying with me in college —how is it that this teacher never thought it was important to expose him to other women musicians? He asked me if there was a woman drummer comparable to Buddy Rich," she recalls.

Tinnin's students include those fortunate enough to be able to afford, or who are on scholarship at a school like Berklee, as well as those like her who couldn't afford lessons before going to college. She has a keen understanding of what she can accomplish with the students both in the classroom, and outside of institutional influence on the bandstand.

"I have students that have five different private teachers that aren't in college yet—then I have students that are like me, that couldn't afford lessons until they got to college. I didn't have a teacher working with me every day, but what I did have was natural ability. Institutional and oral are both important. For example if I hadn't learned to transcribe, which was really hard for me at first, I wouldn't have gotten the gig at NBC. If you don't have both, you're never going to survive the real world of being a performer," she says.

Tinnin's performances in Detroit with Bridgewater were emblematic of that broad-based skill set she has worked tirelessly to achieve. There were definite swashes of blue, polyrhythms and symphonic cymbal work. There was a thickness to her swing that bore resemblance to her time in Chicago. She exuded a confident and joyful vibe that just plain stood out.

Monday's performance featured Bridgewater's all female big band, with Tinnin smack dab in the middle of a plethora of skilled, strong female counterparts. At times she powerfully pushed the band forward, prodding the wide variety of skilled soloists in the band, and fine vocalists working with the whirlwind of energy that is Bridgewater, or as the band members referred to her, "Mama Dee Dee." Saxophonists Nicole Glover and Sharel Cassity, pianist Sequoia Snyder, bassist/composer Amina Scott and vocalist Kennedy were among the band's messengers, whose message was a harbinger of the female future of jazz. For her part as a mentor, and as a performer, Tinnin was center stage between the forces of those that have been integral in her career as teachers and mentors, and those who are generously receiving the same from her. Bridgewater's role as Artist-In-Residence in Detroit acted as a catalyst, bringing together an assemblage of female musicians who would be the most vivid image of the festival's 2021 edition.

"I got involved with Dee Dee almost three years ago. She asked me to come in through the health portion for musicians. I actually killed two birds with one stone, because I could also play with the band. She also had me as a mentor, and she ended up loving what I did so much with the health, playing and mentoring, that she asked me to come back. I've been a part of it ever since. She's really amazing. She loves my playing, she's so down to earth and honest, really precise and direct with what it is she's about. There's nothing hidden about Dee Dee or the Woodshed Network. It's basically, exactly what it's called. Young women are getting mentored to play and work things out in a woodshed. I'm just really happy to be a part of it, and hope to continue to be," she states with admiration and respect.

What should not get lost in the midst of all she contributes as an educator and mentor, is the immensity of her talents as a musician applying her skills to the drum set. She can summon polyrhythmic enumerations just as her main inspiration, Tony Williams, once did, using broad, powerful strokes combined with colorful, articulate cymbal work. The world rhythms she has gathered from playing with artists like Alegria add an entirely different dimension to her skill set as a jazz drummer.

Most importantly, Shirazette Tinnin, is one of the true bright lights illuminating modern jazz in this "new" century. She represents all that is true and just with this always rapidly evolving democracy of music. She carries in her wake, a jazz culture that looks and feels more like all of us.

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