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Berklee alum set to headline jazz concert in Roxbury

Jacquinn Williams
Berklee alum set to headline jazz concert in Roxbury
Tuffus Zimbabwe will perform on Sunday at Highland Park in Roxbury. (Photo: Berklee College of Music)

Saturday Night Live keyboardist Tuffus Zimbabwe is headlining a free jazz concert in Highland Park on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 5 p.m. The former Roxbury resident’s performance is part of Berklee College of Music’s “Summer in the City” series that features more than 80 free outdoor events.

Zimbabwe is a Berklee alum who got a head start in music through Berklee’s “City Music” program in middle school. Since then he has been fully committed to his craft. He earned a full scholarship to Berklee and later attended grad school at NYU for a degree in jazz studies.

The highly educated yet humble Zimbabwe holds his friends and family dear to him and is really concerned about the environment. In addition to his love of music, he’s also a lover of language and sports.

He’s mentored students, taught piano at Piano Outreach of New York and held down a church job in Newark, N. J.

 Zimbabwe, who seems to never to turn down a gig, knows exactly what it means to hunger for and chase after a dream.

On a Monday morning, after a late night of rehearsal, Zimbabwe shared a little bit about his love of music and the significance of this homecoming concert.

Was moving to NY to pursue your dreams a difficult decision?

 At the time I was working in a band that was relocating to N.Y. and that gave me the drive to want to move as well. I also enrolled at NYU for their graduate program in jazz studies.

Why not try to make it in Boston?

I figured that I could always return to Boston if the N.Y. move didn’t work out. I also continued to travel back and forth to work with my Boston contacts.

Has your family always been supportive of your musical aspirations?

Yes, they have always been supportive. They started getting piano lessons for me at a young age. They helped me make lots of decisions that impacted my education as well as my career.

I read that you were a mentor for Berklee College of Music’s City Music Program. Is that something you were asked to do or did you volunteer?

It was part of my commitment as a scholarship student and was something that I wanted to do. Upon joining, my intentions were to share music and information that was shared with me when I was in the Berklee City Music and Mentoring Program.

Why do you think mentors are important?

Speaking for myself, I’ve had several mentors from all ages share their experiences, guidance and support. That gave me a strong foundation to approach many tasks with the right attitude and insight.

What motto/philosophy do you live by?

 I don’t have a set motto, but this seems to make sense: Live, learn and just keep moving.

If you could make an album with three musicians, living or dead who would those musicians be?

There are many musicians I’d like to work with and could fill up a full page of names. Some of the ones who have passed include Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross and Donny Hathaway.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you started playing in the SNL band?

Learning the repertoire and staying on top the hundreds of music arrangements. Also, just being prepared for SNL as well as for outside work and projects.

Do you have a favorite album or artist that informs your musical direction?

My favorite music is usually what I’m working on. For example, I’m playing piano in Trilogy Opera Company this summer and the music is Scott Joplin’s opera, “Tremonisha.” I do love Herbie Hancock’s “Inventions and Dimensions” album and some of the older Yellow Jackets albums. I pretty much listen to everything though.

Have you written for or started writing for other artists?

I have collaborated on a few songs, but this is an area that I’m looking to expand in. I write a lot of instrumental music and will play a few original compositions at the Jazz at the Fort show.

What’s the best part about returning home to do this concert?

 It’s always nice to do something in [the] neighborhood. This is my third time playing in bands in this park. One of the best parts about this show is putting together a band of musician friends and working out the arrangements. It’s a tremendous honor to have special guest vocalist and Boston area artist Danny ‘Sky High’ McClain perform. We first met sometime before our teen years at Grant AME Church in Roxbury near the South End. We both ended up together at Berklee College of Music.