Bay Area African American Women in Music: Jazz singer Tiffany Austin Shifts Career into High Gear



Singer Tiffany Austin was on cloud nine last Friday.


National Public Radio had just broadcast a rave review by critic Kevin Whitehead on its popular “Fresh Air” program of her debut CD, “Nothing but Soul,” which Austin released independently in June.


Whitehead characterized the album as “a convincing calling card,” adding, “She’s got that flexible voice, excellent pitch and rhythm, and she can weave her own line around a melody and still let you hear the original behind it.”


Austin graduated from UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law in 2012 but didn’t take the bar exam, having instead decided to pursue a full-time career as a jazz singer.


She has performed over the years in her native Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, and in the Bay Area at the SFJAZZ Center, Yoshi’s, the Red Polly Art House, the Sound Room and Café Stritch. Last year, Austin performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City with choreographer Nicole Klaymoon’s Embodiment Project.


She recently appeared at New York’s Whynot Jazz Room for two nights backed by drummer Tommy Campbell’s trio, followed by one afternoon as a member of Campbell’s Vocal-Eyes group at the prestigious Blue Note.


The singer and Campbell first connected a decade ago while both were living in Tokyo.


“I met him on a gig,” she recalled at her Berkeley apartment. “I scatted. It was my first time ever improvising on stage, and it was terrible. Everybody knew, and he walked up to me and said, ‘You want some improvisation lessons?’ I said, ‘Yes, please.’”


Austin performs locally with her own group and with bands led by saxophonist Howard Wiley and bassist Marcus Shelby. Since receiving her artist’s residency last year at the Red Polly Art House in San Francisco, she has been developing a Creole music project.


The project was inspired by memories of her grandmother, who spoke Creole French, and recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s by Louisiana Creole accordionist Amede Ardoin, whose innovative style had a profound impact on the growth of both Cajun and zydeco musical styles.


“I was really interested in the Harlem Renaissance,” Austin explained. “A lot of people focus on Harlem, but I wanted to know what was happening all over Black America. I started looking for what was happening in Louisiana at the time – New Orleans versus rural – and that’s how I came upon Amede Ardoin.”


“His story was so compelling, and when I listened to the music, it didn’t resemble anything I’d heard before,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that such an influential artist’s name wasn’t more prevalent in musical circles.”


Austin will perform a set of jazz and Creole music on Friday, Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the Presidio Officers’ Club, 50 Moraga Ave. in San Francisco, as part of a free concert sponsored by the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music.



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