Vail Jazz Alumni: Tia Fuller, graduate of the inaugural Workshop class, lives to be a light for others

By Sarah Valente Special to the Daily
Tia Fuller attended the first Vail Jazz Workshop class 25 years ago. She has carried lessons learned here in Vail with her as she continues her award-winning career.
Special to the Daily

Recording artist, composer, band leader, touring performer, award winner, full-time professor — how does Grammy-nominated Tia Fuller manage it all?

To paraphrase her lecture, The Journey to Success, she does so with crystallized vision, warrior-like persistence and angelic optimism.

“I learned early on how important having a vision is,” said Fuller, who attended the first Vail Jazz Workshop class 25 years ago. “Things come up in life and we get distracted. Crystallized vision is the directive and narrative that keeps us focused and moving forward.”

As a high school senior in the Denver suburb of Aurora, she practiced two and three hours a day on her alto saxophone and had set her sights on a career in jazz. Raised in a household of educators and musicians, she dreamed of learning from and playing with some of the most respected names in the field. She experienced just that at the Vail Jazz Workshop in 1996.

“The Workshop gave me the opportunity to learn from masters such as John and Jeff Clayton, and to hang with Roy Hargrove, Kareem Reggins and Ron Blake at the Labor Day Jazz Party,” she explained in an interview with Vail Jazz board member JoAnn Hickey.

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That summer in Vail, she realized that a career in jazz music was really possible.

“All of the goals that I set for myself at that time have all come to fruition, in abundance,” Fuller said.

She credits the Vail Jazz Workshop and the Vail Jazz Party for allowing her “to see the trajectory of my life.”

Fuller’s achievements are many, diverse and impressive. She has toured and recorded with Beyoncé’s all-woman band and is only the second woman in 60 years to land a Grammy nomination for best jazz album, her 2018 release “Diamond Cut.” Fuller was named the Best Alto Saxophonist of 2018 by JazzTimes, landed DownBeat Magazine’s International Critics Poll “Rising Star” nod two years in a row, and has graced the covers of numerous music magazines, including DownBeat in October 2018. In addition to touring, recording and giving master classes at workshops and festivals, Fuller in 2013 became a full-time professor in the ensembles department at the esteemed Berklee School of Music in Boston. Her students benefit from her melding of academic rigor, real-world experience and generous collaborative spirit.

The Vail Jazz Workshop accepts the dozen most promising high school musicians and pairs them with six professional jazz practitioners for a week of intense instruction. More than just music is learned. The pros impart what to expect if the young men and women enter the music life and reflect on their own experiences, including missteps. Because of the COVID-19 virus, this year’s Vail Jazz Workshop will take place digitally in August.

Looking back on the lessons she learned as part of the first-ever Vail Jazz Workshop class, “John and Jeff Clayton did a great job of explaining life skills and how music is really a manifestation of a life and your overall character,” she said. “There is one lesson I specifically learned from John regarding sacrifice. He talked about the importance of practicing; sometimes he would not take gigs because he knew he needed time to practice. That made such an impact on me. It’s not just about gigs. It’s not about money. It’s about the commitment you make to an art form and to excellence. To seek excellence is to sacrifice. I keep this lesson with me always.”

As a woman musician of color, Fuller would like to see more women in jazz education, both as teachers and students, including as part of the Vail Jazz Workshop. That said, she cherishes the culture of the Vail Jazz community, which she describes as “very rich, extremely strong and genuine.”

She likens it to family.

“Many of my Berklee students as well as musicians with whom I’ve collaborated are graduates of the Vail Jazz Workshop. It’s a common ground that we can all stand upon. It’s a sort of empowerment.”

It might seem as if Fuller’s mission in life is to set the bar high as a role model for today’s young musicians. She sees things a bit differently.

“I think all of us are here for a purpose. One of my main purposes is to be a light for others,” she said.

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