NEW YORK – Saxophonist Tia Fuller was crying in bed. And praising God.
She’d just received the news that she was nominated for her first-ever Grammy Award – but it’s not just any nomination: Her inclusion in the best jazz instrumental album category is a historic moment for women because they have rarely been nominated for the coveted award throughout the Grammys’ 61-year history.
And if Fuller wins, she becomes just the second woman to take home the prize.
“I feel really blessed. Anytime I think extensively about being in the category and (anything) Grammy-wise, I start tearing up,” said Fuller, this time smiling ear-to-ear. “It’s really a dream come true. I’m realizing that dreams can become reality and everything is tangible.”
Her nominated album, “Diamond Cut,” is a smooth and striking collection that has brought the skilled performer, who once played with Ray Charles during her college years and toured with Beyoncé, to the next level. The album, her fifth, was produced by another woman making critical waves in jazz, Terri Lyne Carrington. The drummer, who came to national prominence decades ago in “The Arsenio Hall Show” band, became the first female to win best jazz instrumental album at the 2014 Grammys.
Carrington describes the win as bittersweet because of the “many great female instrumentalists that weren’t nominated ever, so that was really disheartening.”
“It just shows that there’s a lot of work to do when it comes to gender equity in jazz and the music industry in general,” she added.
It’s one of the reasons Carrington, a three-time Grammy winner, is excited for Fuller’s success and has been a mentor to the artist.
“I feel like this record is showing her growth and her evolution,” Carrington said. “If nothing else, I believe that she’s really motivated to keep pushing herself and keep evolving into all that she can be.”
“Diamond Cut” is Fuller’s first album in six years. She’s been busy as a professor at the Berklee College of Music since 2013, and that decision to move to Boston to fulfill a lifetime dream came at a crossroads: In the same 24-hour period that Fuller was offered the teaching position, Beyoncé asked her to perform again with the band.
“That was the year I think they were doing the Super Bowl and she was going back out on tour,” said Fuller, who performed with Beyoncé from 2006 to 2010.
“While I was on tour with her, something came over me and spoke, ‘You have to move in faith and not fear. Don’t be afraid of what may not happen, or get attached to the artificial result of, ‘I’m playing with Beyoncé,’” she said. “So the reason why I ended up not going back is because I realized that it was time for me to move on.”
The 42-year-old, who was born and raised in Aurora, has followed in the footsteps of her parents, who are also musicians and educators. Fuller first started playing the piano at 3, then moved on to the flute. But once her grandfather handed her a saxophone, she was hooked.
“I was in the upper level of my parent’s house, like the loft. I just remember how it reverberated throughout the house. I was like, ‘This is way better than flute, I can be loud.’”
Fuller has been making noise ever since and doesn’t plan on slowing down. She wants to be a voice for women in jazz, especially instrumentalists, who don’t get as much credit as the men.
“I’m representative of all of these women out here that are grinding. Terri (Lyne Carrington) served as that for me prior to me even knowing who she was. Seeing her on Arsenio Hall’s show, and then of course hearing her name on the scene, watching her on different TV shows. That was an unspoken, internal narrative that spoke to me, ‘She’s doing it, you can do it,’” she said. “For me, I don’t think it’s necessarily a historical thing, but hopefully I’m a beacon of light for not only other women, but men, too. And also changing this inadvertent narrative, the male, patriarchal perspective in the jazz world, actually in the musical world. (Women) have always had just as much influence over the music.”
Her career – and success – has not come without challenges: “I’ve dealt with sexism, inadvertent sexism, sometimes racism – sometimes a combination of both.”
She recalls coming to New York in the early 2000s to build buzz as a performer, going from jazz club to jazz club to share her music and sound with listeners. “There was a long line of people, of course I’m the only woman up there, so I go onstage and I’m about to play and somebody just cuts me off and starts playing. That was like my first year. That was the first and last time that happened.”
She’s also faced people assuming she’s dating a successful musician to justify her seat at the table, or “even club owners trying to hit on you, not taking you as serious.”
But Fuller has preserved, and she’s using her role as a teacher to help change the narrative in jazz, and in music.
“I was directing a band full of young men. I’m like, ‘What is your job and what is your role in this whole thing?’ You can’t just sit back passively,” she said. “Accountability to me is key for not only women to hold men accountable, but for men to hold their brothers accountable.”
In 2017, along with Carrington and 12 other female artists, Fuller developed We Have Voice, a collective that has created a code of conduct that performing arts venues, jazz festivals, schools and others have adopted. The goal, she said, is “to bring the level of consciousness up.”
“I think slowly but surely we’re doing the work, and there is some shift happening,” she said. “I especially see it with my students and the younger generation. That’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. I’m seeing the pain, psychological, physical, emotional pain that it’s caused with women and sometimes men, too.”