The Saturday Night Live pianist with Charleston jazz roots — his great grandfather is the legendary Rev. Daniel Joseph Jenkins, founder of Jenkins Orphanage and world-famous Jenkins Orphanage Band — Tuffus Zimbabwe is back in the Lowcountry for a special performance this week. While he and the mayor perform and tell stories together, they’ll be raising money for the Jenkins Institute for Children (3923 Azalea Drive), serving Charleston area youth and families since 1891. IllVibeTheTribe’s AsiahMae recently had a chance to catch up with the musician over the phone to discuss his upcoming performance at the Charleston Library Society.
City Paper: I saw that you were in Charleston last year and you played with Mayor Tecklenburg and Quentin Baxter, and now you’re back again. What makes this time, if anything, feel different for you?
Tuffus Zimbabwe: I’ve done this three out of the past four years so it’s kind of a mini tradition. I think the biggest difference is that I’ll be playing solo piano this year. I won’t be using my band; I’ll be playing more of my original music. I think last year I focused more on the music of my grand uncle Edmund Thornton Jenkins, and I’m still going to play some of his bigger piano pieces but this year I’m going to focus more on playing my original music so people can hear more of what I do.
CP: With you performing on SNL and with your own band and now you’re doing more of your solo things, are each of those something different for you, as far as your artistry goes? Do you dabble in other genres in each one or gain something different?
TZ: At SNL I’m a component in a large band — it’s an 11-piece band, so we’re given arrangements to play and with a group, there’s three of us so what we do and play will change depending on what’s required for the show that week. With my music, I have a lot more control over the music and the decisions that go into putting the work together. I’ve taken some time off from working in a band and focused on just trying to write music and rearranging some of my uncle’s larger piano pieces to perform in the concert with many of his works, some time in the near future.
CP: Because you’re from such a musical family did you always assume that you would be a musician or was there something else that you thought like, ‘Oh, I could maybe do this for a living too?’
TZ: Well my parents put me in piano just before my fifth birthday, and at 12 I got my first job playing piano once a month at a local church. In my mid-to-late teens I attended an afterschool program at Berklee College of Music and I had started picking up gigs around Boston, and that’s the first time I can remember thinking about having a career in anything. I liked sports and things growing up but I just always knew that I was better at music.
CP: Coming from a family so submerged in music, was it hard to carve out your own lane and name separate from theirs?
TZ: My father’s mother — my grandmother — was a vocalist and she passed away just before I was born, and her brother Edmund Thorton Jenkins had passed away before my father was even born, so that was never really any pressure for me to go into music or to be anything. My parents just put me into situations to thrive, and I’ve used that to carve out my own way by being around like-minded creatives who helped cultivate my interests. As far as making a living in music, I just learned from every experience, bad or good, and used that to make me better. I learned that just being on time and prepared and obviously being focused and calm under pressure can go a long way. It’s not really about being the best and living up to anything, it’s more about being the best for the job you were given.
CP: Now, that’s something I wish people would say more often. Last question, can you give me three words to describe your personal sound?
TZ: Let’s see — I’ll go with melodies, colors, grooves.
CP: Melodies, colors, grooves? I like that!