Celebrity Connection: Tuffus Zimbabwe
The acclaimed Saturday Night Live pianist revisits his Southern roots leading up to his local performances.
Story by Leslie T. Snadowsky + Photos by Donnie Dixon
On Saturdays he plays piano with the Saturday Night Live house band on national TV, but from Sunday, Feb. 5, through Tuesday, Feb. 7, pianist, composer and educator Tuffus Zimbabwe will be performing on Hilton Head.
In addition to earning his bachelor’s degree at Berklee College of Music and his master’s of music degree from New York University, Zimbabwe’s rich musical education is rooted in his family tree. His great-grandparents lived in Charleston and founded the Jenkins Orphanage in 1891 and the renowned Jenkins Orphanage Band. His great-uncle is credited as a major innovator and influencer of the Charleston jazz style.
Zimbabwe will bring the swinging sounds of the lively historical Charleston dance era to local audiences this February, peppering the gumbo with jazz, blues and Gullah-Geechee-influenced music.
[LOCAL Life]: Tuffus, as a keyboardist with a high-profile gig, performing weekly with the Saturday Night Live house band, you have such an interesting family story deeply rooted in South Carolina history. Tell us a little about your family’s legacy and what you’ve done to keep its historic musical contributions alive.
[Tuffus Zimbabwe]: The parents of my grandmother, Mildred Jenkins, and her older brother, Edmund Thornton Jenkins, were the Rev. Daniel Joseph Jenkins and Lena James, who started an orphanage that would become internationally renowned. The Jenkins Orphanage Band was responsible for helping create and spread the “Charleston” music and dance style during the early 1900s.
My great-uncle, Edmund Thornton Jenkins, was a musical genius and composer. He was great on many instruments, including clarinet, saxophone, piano and violin. I’ve restored Edmund’s music catalog and have had derivative works performed with orchestras and festivals such as Spoleto, Colour of Music, the Charleston Symphony, the Albany Symphony Orchestra in Albany, Georgia, and the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra.
Maestro Kellen Gray conducted Edmund T. Jenkins’ “Rhapsodic Overture” with the Spoleto Orchestra and Charleston Symphony in 2022, and both were a success. I’m thankful Maestro Gray has shared the opportunity with me to present Edmund Jenkins’ music with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.
Edmund’s orchestral compositions, “Rhapsodic Overture” and “Charlestonia Folk Rhapsody,” will be a great experience for the audience members.
[LL]: Soon you’ll be performing on Hilton Head celebrating Gullah-Geechee-influenced music and focusing on the musical history of the Jenkins Orphanage and its famous band. This unique Lowcountry program, called “WeTown: Gullah Traditions in the Holy City,” will be performed on Sunday, Feb. 5, at 4 p.m., and Monday, Feb. 6, at 7:30 p.m., at First Presbyterian Church. You arranged several sections and will be playing piano. How has the Gullah-Geechee culture been a musical inspiration to your music, and you personally?
[TZ]: It has been an enlightening journey in pan-African culture and self-discovery. I remember as a youth coming from Boston to Charleston for family reunions and hearing stories. To study and perform the music of my family is a blessing.
Edmund Thornton Jenkins’ composition, “Charlestonia Folk Rhapsody,” illustrates the beauty of Gullah culture through folk songs, where he takes the listener on an exciting melodic and orchestral development of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “I Got a Whole Lot of Nothing.”
“Rhapsodic Overture” is a dazzling piece filled with colorful harmonies, fresh orchestral textures, beautiful melodies, rhythmic mastery and features sections in an Afro-6/8 feel with 3-over-2 polyrhythms.
[LL]: On Tuesday, Feb. 7, you’ll be performing a private concer at SoundWaves, Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra’s new island headquarters. What are you looking forward to performing there?
[TZ]: I’m looking forward to sharing instrumental selections from Edmund’s operetta “Afram,” “Charleston Revue,” and some of his other jazz-style pieces, as well as performing some of my own compositions. I will be playing on piano as part of a quartet featuring Mark Sterbank on saxophone, Kevin Hamilton on bass and Edwin G. Hamilton on drums.
[LL]: You’re also the pianist and assistant musical director for Trilogy: an Opera Company – a nonprofit out of Newark, N.J., that focuses on the works of Black composers and subject matter relative to the Black experience. It’s also committed to making performances available and accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. What’s it like bringing musical performances to under-served audiences? What have you learned?
[TZ]: Trilogy Opera has been a great experience. The operas go in-depth behind many important Black historical figures and events, both tragic and triumphant. Some of the shows we have done include operas on Paul Robeson, Fannie Lou Hamer and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
I like the fact that Trilogy does a number of opera performances free to the public that are educational and entertaining.
[LL]: Let’s get back to your great-uncle Edmund Thornton Jenkins. He’s considered the earliest major innovator and influencer of the Charleston jazz style of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and in Paris. Wow – that’s a lot to live up to! You actually restored, edited and arranged his music from handwritten manuscripts into printed score. What’s the most interesting thing you learned about Edmund? Do you think you share similar musical styles/ talents/ inspirations, and is there a contemporary musician out there that you can compare to Edmund?
[TZ]: Edmund was amazing to me in that he played many instruments at a high level including clarinet, alto sax, piano and violin. I believe his ability to play “every instrument” gave him great insight into writing for orchestra.
Stylistically Edmund could write in any of the styles from the 1920s and before. His mastery of styles plus his own original sound led him to create music ahead of its time, as will be demonstrated by Maestro Kellen Gray and the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.
I’m a composer as well and have written hundreds of pieces of music in a variety of styles. Edmund has helped shape the path I’m on as a composer and arranger and challenges me to continue to grow.
There are several successful professional musicians who are multi-instrumentalists, arrangers and composers. And that is a very valuable skill set to possess.
[LL]: In an age where a single TikTok music video can make you a rock star overnight, do you advise aspiring musicians to pursue classical training? Or do you think in today’s musical landscape it’s not a prerequisite?
[TZ]: Yes, aspiring musicians should learn what’s available to them and try to go as far as they can. I took piano lessons as a youth and later played piano in church and studied at Berklee College of Music’s after-school programs. Sight-reading, technique, theory and ear training are good early building blocks. Listening and learning different styles is good exposure and helps build versatility to work in different musical settings.
[LL]: It sounds like you won’t have much time for sightseeing, but do you have any favorite Hilton Head restaurants, stores or beaches you can tell us about? Or are you more of a Charleston fan?
[TZ]: My wife, son and I enjoy visiting Charleston and Kiawah Island. We have wanted to come to Hilton Head for a while so I’m excited to visit. And I look forward to building a musical connection with Hilton Head Island.
See the shows
WeTown: Gullah Traditions in the Holy City
When: 4 p.m., Feb. 5; 7:30 p.m., Feb. 6
Where: First Presbyterian Church, HHI
Tickets: $25-$70, hhso.org
Tuffus Zimbabwe with Mark Sterbank, Kevin Hamilton and Edwin G. Hamilton
When: 5:15 p.m., Feb. 7
Where: SoundWaves, HHI
Tickets: Private performance