Live from N.Y.: A struggling Berklee grad gets his big break

Boston Globe, October 4, 2010

NEW YORK – Viewers of last weekend’s season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” who blinked at the wrong moment as the camera panned across the set might not have spotted the newest member in the house band. But there he was, a slender figure at the keyboard, dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail: Roxbury’s Tuffus Zimbabwe, now filling one of TV’s hottest seats.

Until a few weeks ago, Zimbabwe, 28, had been hustling to make ends meet by accompanying church choirs, teaching after-school programs, and playing miscellaneous gigs across a swath of the Tri-State area from Newark, to Jamaica, Queens. But now, as a member of one of TV’s most prominent bands, the Berklee College of Music graduate suddenly has a measure of security most musicians his age would envy. Steady work. A union job. Benefits. And the prestige of playing in the footsteps of greats such as Michael Brecker and David Sanborn.

A couple of nights before the premiere, Zimbabwe was taking it all in, somewhere between bemused and baffled at the swift turn of events – the unexpected invitation to audition came only last month – and at the sudden rush of attention, especially from his hometown.

“It’s kind of surreal,” he said over a caipirinha in a quiet Brazilian restaurant in Tribeca. He sounded embarrassed at the whole situation. “When your time calls, you’ve got to go. I didn’t imagine myself in this position. I know many other awesome, amazing keyboardists. I just happen to be very fortunate and blessed to get this.”

Zimbabwe beat 28 other candidates for the job. His audition consisted of a session with the SNL band director – saxophonist and onetime Tower of Power member Lenny Pickett – at NBC headquarters in Rockefeller Plaza: sight reading, selections from the show’s repertoire, improvising, playing together, chatting.

“It was crazy just going up into the building,” he said. But the material was not a problem. “I can relate to the music. I write a lot of music. I’ve written a TV theme, a radio theme… . It was kind of up my alley.”

For his part, Pickett was looking for chops, of course, but something more. “It’s a long hang,” Pickett said of the typical show-season Saturday, when the musicians gather by 11 a.m. and do not leave until the wee hours the next morning. “You want to feel comfortable. It’s more than just playing ability; it’s the vibe.”

Pickett had heard of Zimbabwe through colleagues in the New York University music department, where Zimbabwe recently earned a master’s degree, studying with such jazz musicians as vibraphonist Stefon Harris and pianist Vijay Iyer.

But the roots of Zimbabwe’s path in music are in Boston – in his childhood classical training, in his time learning gospel accompanying the men’s choir at Grant AME church near Dudley Square, and in Berklee’s City Music Program, which has mentored middle school and high school students since 1991. In Zimbabwe’s case, the experience led to a full Berklee scholarship.

J. Curtis Warner, the executive director of City Music, which Berklee has since expanded into a national network, said he remembered a strikingly shy Zimbabwe visiting the program for the first time at age 14.

“He was clearly a different kind of kid,” Warner said. His soft-spokenness had some of the teachers worried. But, in fact, he was soaking up the learning and grew more expressive both on the piano and off.

When Zimbabwe was about 16, Warner heard him solo on ” ‘Round Midnight” and give it an unmistakably personal feel.

“There’s a number of kids, you watch them grow to a point where the light bulbs come on,” Warner said. “That’s when they cross over, they start utilizing the vocabulary inherent to the style, not just the theoretical material.”

At the end of the program, Zimbabwe’s teachers slated him for a college scholarship. There was a problem, however. He was home-schooled, and not through a program that the college recognized. He had to earn his GED and spent a year at Bunker Hill Community College before starting at Berklee.

Zimbabwe grew up in Roxbury’s Highland Park section. His father, a social studies teacher, took the name Jomo Zimbabwe in the 1970s; his mother teaches art. Musicians are in their ancestry, including a great-uncle, Edmund Jenkins, an African-American composer in the Harlem Renaissance. At home, said Jomo Zimbabwe, the sounds on the hi-fi ranged from R&B to reggae and African music.

Last Saturday, the elder Zimbabwe stayed up late to catch the show, only to get a minuscule glimpse of Tuffus and see his name in the credits roll fast up the screen. It is really during the warm-up and commercial breaks that the band stretches out.

“I guess I’ll have to go see it in person,” his father said.

Warner was proud, and a little cautious as well. “I gave him this advice: Don’t spend all your money,” he said. “Things happen that are out of your control.”

Zimbabwe’s plans, however, are as humble as his personality. “I’ve had the same gear and keyboards I’ve had for a while,” he said. “It would be nice to upgrade a bit.”

With a salary, he hopes to be able to re-form his Tuffus Zimbabwe Group, which he let disband in Boston.

In the afterglow of the first show – “it went great,” he said later – all these were distant concerns. Zimbabwe hung out chatting with the other musicians into the early hours. Then he waited for the first morning train out of Penn Station back to Newark. Two church gigs awaited.