Tiffany Austin's Soul-Steeped Jazz Celebrates Black Resilience

Bay Area jazz vocalist Tiffany Austin celebrates the release of her new album, 'Unbroken,' on June 29 at the Stanford Jazz Festival.  (Bill Reitzel)

Redolent of church pews and juke joints, protest rallies and swanky night clubs, Tiffany Austin’s voice situates her firmly within the expansive embrace of African-American culture and musical tradition. But as a jazz singer coming up in the Bay Area scene, she sometimes finds herself pushing back against traditionalists who think that she should divest her sound of its soul-steeped DNA—that her melismatic flourishes don’t belong in jazz settings.

Austin was just starting to study jazz vocals as a creative outlet while pursuing a degree from the UC Berkeley School of Law in 2009 when she first felt shade from some of her teachers about “unsophisticated R&B singers,” she recalls. “I was told ‘You’re not feeling the music,’ and there was all this anti-soul, anti-blues stuff in the air.”

She answered that critique with her star-making 2015 debut album Nothing But Soul, which earned rapturous reviews in both jazz-centric publications (Downbeat) and wide-focus cultural outlets (NPR’s Fresh Air).

With the curdling political climate around the 2016 presidential election, Austin decided she needed to make a larger statement to counter an environment that increasingly seemed to denigrate, erase, distort or appropriate black expression. Rather than bringing a laser focus to the jazz tradition, she refracted a rainbow of African-American music with her June album, Unbroken, a project blazing with blues, swing, bebop, spirituals, R&B and her own Louisiana Creole heritage.

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“I wanted to present the idea that the African-American spirit remains unbroken—that with all the things we go through, we’re still here, creating joyfully, creating great art and great music,” says Austin, who plays her first Bay Area album release date on June 29 at the Stanford Jazz Festival with her septet. The ensemble features tenor saxophonist Teodross Avery, a young-lion star of the 1990s who’s returned to playing full time after earning a PhD in jazz studies from the University of Southern California.

The album release celebration moves to Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center on July 5 and the SFJazz Center on Aug. 11, when Unbroken co-producer, arranger and trombonist Mitch Butler and New York drum maestro Carl Allen join Austin on stage.

Co-produced by Grammy winner Richard Seidel, Unbroken opens with two Austin originals that speak to how violent suppression of black accomplishment can lead to emotional scars. Her song “Blues Creole” distills the murky story of pioneering Louisiana Creole accordionist-vocalist Amédé Ardoin, who was allegedly killed in 1942 for interacting with a white woman at a dance. The disquieting and outraged “Greenwood” connects Watts and Ferguson to the infamous 1921 pogrom that wiped out Tulsa, Oklahoma’s prosperous “Black Wall Street” neighborhood.

Austin's songs are impressive works fully brought to life by her superlative accompanists, a band built on a sleek and high-octane rhythm section with pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen. Allen says he's relished delving into Austin’s repertoire, which extends far beyond American Songbook standards.

“She’s a real musician. She’s soulful and she’s got a concept that’s very cool and courageous," says Allen. "And I was wonderfully surprised by how much studying she had done, not only the music she wanted to present, but where it was coming from and the roots.”

Righteous anger is only one hue in Austin’s vivid emotional palette. Putting a personal stamp on the jazz canon, she turns Ornette Coleman’s early free-bop invocation “The Blessing” into an ode to gratitude. She evokes the ineffable divine spirit with her wordless vocals on Coltrane’s “Resolution” from A Love Supreme. She often talks about her music as “freedom songs,” a trope that manifests in all its glory with a striking version of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”

Another high point is Austin's galvanizing duet with Whitaker on the civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes On the Prize.” But no piece better encapsulates her seamless tapestry of the sacred and secular than her rendition of the folk/gospel classic “Ain’t No Grave,” which ascends to a sanctified, pew-shaking scat solo.

“That’s the album’s centerpiece for me,” says Austin, who sees her music as honoring the struggles that made her path possible. “I can’t even think about what folks went through, brought here under the worst conditions and facing continued discrimination. And I’m standing here with a law degree and can say today, 'I’m going to write a song.' That’s a testament to how powerful the spirits of the ancestors are.”

In many ways, a brilliant cadre of black artists Austin connected with after moving to the Bay Area shaped her musical vision. A Los Angeles native from a musically inclined family (her older brother John Austin IV is the popular underground rapper Ras Kass), Austin spent several years singing R&B and soul in Japan before the UC Berkeley School of Law made her a scholarship offer she couldn’t refuse.

After the grueling first year of law school, feeling bereft without music in her life, she sought out opportunities to perform and quickly came into the orbit of bassist Marcus Shelby, a composer and bandleader with a deep catalog of ambitious projects exploring various facets of African-American history, culture and politics. Through Shelby, she connected with saxophonist Howard Wiley, another deeply rooted artist whose music encompasses Saturday night revelry and Sunday morning worship.

Wiley played a crucial role shepherding Austin’s debut album Nothing But Soul, a project focusing on the songs of pianist and composer Hoagy Carmichael. In looking to develop her own approach to the tradition, Austin also gained invaluable insight watching veteran vocal masters Faye Carol (who mentored both Shelby and Wiley) and Kenny Washington, whom many peers consider the world’s finest male jazz singer.

“Their styles are so different, but what they bring is a real connection to the history and culture of the music,” Austin says. “I remember the first time I saw Faye Carol, I was so inspired by the joy that she brings when she sings. She brings you to your knees and to your feet, all at the same time.”

From Washington she gleaned a similar kind of authority, the “kind of feeling you get in church, but people aren’t scatting in church, at least not the church I go to,” Austin says. “Kenny just puts his heart out there. He’s such a musical being, you can’t take your eyes off of him.”

Absorbing lessons from the Bay Area’s best, Austin is becoming a national figure in her own right: an artist with a musical message as topical as an unsettling headline and as timeless as an Ella Fitzgerald ballad.

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The Tiffany Austin Septet perform at the Stanford Jazz Festival on June 29. Details here.

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