Two days before 9/11, a young jazz saxophonist named Tia Fuller moved from her native Colorado to Jersey City, N.J., a few miles from Manhattan, ready to make her mark. Then the local economy collapsed along with the Twin Towers. But she pressed on, landing a gig at a fish fry that very weekend. Soon she was in the funk band at a poetry slam, and before long, she was touring the world with R&B superstar Beyoncé.
Before returning to Europe with Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding, Fuller will visit Madison for a residency Oct. 10-13. While here, she'll kick off the Isthmus Jazz Series with a free concert on Oct. 12 and lead a series of school and community events presented by the Madison Music Collective.
The 36-year-old musician knows she's come a long way, and she doesn't plan on stopping.
"I just feel really blessed and fortunate to have the experiences I've had," she says. "If I die tomorrow, I think I will be completely content with what I have done with my life up to this point, with the exception of having children. That's not to say that I'm not going to grow from this point on, but from a professional standpoint, I'm definitely very pleased with the direction of my career."
She should be. Right after her Madison trip, Fuller will celebrate Angelic Warrior, a new album of original material, at a party in New York City.
Fuller's parents - father Fred, a bassist, and mother Elthopia, a vocalist - filled her childhood with music. Both were educator-administrators for Denver's public school system. Fuller has dedicated Angelic Warrior to them.
"Having had two educators in my family placed focus and value on education and the beauty of teaching," she says. "That passion has definitely transferred to me and my sisters."
This passion propelled Fuller toward higher education. She earned a bachelor's degree in music from Spelman College in 1998 and a master's degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2000. Some say she's the hottest former teaching assistant in the music biz.
Formal music training also shaped her career path.
Fuller's parents started her on classical piano at age 3. She took up flute at age 9 and added saxophone to her instrumental arsenal so she could join her middle school jazz band. She still remembers the first note she played on sax: a lower B flat.
"I just remember the resonance and the power that it had, and I knew that was the instrument of my choice," she says.
But the first song she attempted wasn't by Stan Getz or John Coltrane. It was by the Beastie Boys.
After soloing on the jazz standard "I Hear a Rhapsody" with her high school band, Fuller realized she could have a career as a saxophonist. Soon she was gigging with her family band, Fuller Sound.
During her first year at Spelman, she transcribed her first solo: Cannonball Adderley's run in "Stars Fell on Alabama." Then she tackled Coltrane's "Giant Steps," one of the songs her father played around the house when she was a girl.
Fuller encourages young players to learn by transcribing.
"I tell a lot of my students that learning transcription is equivalent to going to a different country and being among the people who speak that language," she says. "Learning that language in its entirety, learning about phrasing, different aspects of soloing, learning about sound and harmony, learning about punctuating everything, and articulation."
And the benefits are more than intellectual, she explains: "It gives you muscle memory, so that when you're learning a new song, you have a certain command of the language under your belt."
Adderley and Coltrane are two of her biggest influences. "Then, once I could really understand what was being played, Charlie Parker," she adds. "But it took me until my early- to mid-20s to decipher what he was doing."
Music is still a family affair as well. Big sister Shamie Royston, also a musician and educator, will join Fuller on piano in Madison.
"There's nothing like being on the bandstand and on the road with family," says Fuller. "We've played together for so long in so many different environments. To see how we've all grown individually and collectively, it's really, really amazing, very beautiful. I feel really blessed."
Fuller says recording as a duo with Royston is on her bucket list. She already has a focus in mind: new arrangements of gospel tunes.
Despite Coltrane's role in her artistic development, there's no relation between his great work and the title of her 2010 album, Decisive Steps. Its name comes from "Life Brings," a bonus digital track that features a tap dancer and the inspirational chorus "Live your life in faith, not fear/Abundant life in this new year/Pursuit of dreams, decisive steps/Will bring you to your victory yet."
It's the song of her life.
"I was on tour with Beyoncé, sitting in the back of the tour bus trying to balance her gig and booking my own gigs, and I remember feeling like I had to stay in the Beyoncé gig in order to just survive," she says. "But I was compelled to take decisive steps forward and continue to develop my own career. That's where that thought and concept came from - moving on and facing that fear with decisive steps. It's really an affirmation for me to move on and take another step for my career."
The rest of Fuller's catalog - Pillar of Strength (2005) and Healing Space (2007) - shows the same relentlessly positive outlook.
"There has to be a certain element of spirituality that comes through the music for us to do this thing we call jazz," she says. "Our challenge is to maintain the balance of the technical and the spiritual, and have the technical serve as the vehicle for the spiritual to come through."
In late 2006, Beyoncé auditioned about 5,000 young women across the country for Sugar Mama, her 10-piece, all-female band. After two callbacks, Fuller won the alto sax slot. The Beyoncé Experience toured the world for eight months in 2007, then I Am... did the same two years later. Beyoncé and Fuller also hit the White House in 2009, to trade riffs on Anita Baker's "Sweet Love."
Fuller says touring with Beyoncé was a career highlight, but one she had to move beyond.
"A lot of the time people, inclusive of myself, with such a high-profile gig feel they have to keep on doing it because of the stability and visibility. But...something had to give. I felt I had sacrificed five years of my individual career, I had a whole 'nother side of my playing and career I wanted to continue to develop that had started before the Beyoncé tour. "
Beyoncé's heavily orchestrated presentation left little room for improvisation, but Fuller did her best to push the boundaries. On that first tour, she soloed on the slow ballad "Me, Myself and I." She played her part a little differently every night. Then the production crew told her to standardize. Her solution? Open and close the solo the same way each time, but keep 16 bars of improvisation in the middle.
"They became adjusted to it," she says.
Fuller may never be the mononymous superstar that Beyoncé has become, but she has applied the lessons learned on those tours.
"Beyoncé has a very clear vision, and I really learned a lot about communicating with the audience, bringing them in. And she showed me a lot about presentation, how to present yourself, how to hold your body so you show strength and the elements that you want to convey," says Fuller.
Fuller got so used to performing in three-inch heels that she's adopted the style in her own smaller-scale jazz gigs.
"[If] I don't have them on, it doesn't feel like a performance. It feels like a rehearsal," she says.
She has not, however, adopted another key element of the Beyoncé stage show: choreography.
"I'm not doing any," she says with a laugh. "At least not yet."
Being in Sugar Mama also showed Fuller the appeal of an all-female lineup, an approach she frequently adopts for her own performances. It comes down to biology, she says.
"To me, there is a definite internal connection that happens with women, whereas with men, the source of it is the same, but sometimes I feel it comes from a different place. [I'm] not saying [it's] better or worse, just different. It's just a different internal connection that happens, and I strongly believe it has something to do with our biological makeup and the whole process of reproduction and creating and nurturing."
Can audiences hear the difference when a band is all female?
"I know they can feel it," she says. "They feel that connection, that sensitivity. You feel that element of nurturing, that female energy as opposed to the male energy."
Madison won't get to feel this connection during the residency. The band Fuller's bringing is mixed-gender, with Mimi Jones on bass and Otis Brown III on drums.
Still, expect the events to be important, exciting and filled with great music - with the promise of more to come.
"As long as you stay true to yourself, all the work and all of the investments that you make eventually are going to come to fruition in the way that you wanted to in your career and your life," says Fuller.
An angelic warrior would believe no less.
Fuller will speak and perform at several public events during her Madison residency. Here are some highlights.
Boys and Girls Club's Allied Family Center, Oct. 10, 4 pm
Fuller will give a lecture on jazz and jam with local musicians Joey Banks (drums), Laurie Lang (bass) and Becca Grant (piano).
Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Oct. 11, 7 pm
Fuller will perform during an all-ages presentation entitled "Mind, Body and Spirit of the Saxophone and Jazz Improvisation."
UW Union South Sett, Oct. 12, 8 & 10 pm
Fuller will play two free concerts with her quartet.
Sheraton Hotel, Oct. 13, 10 am
Fuller will discuss women in jazz at a brunch featuring live music and videos. Visit madisonmusiccollective.org for details.