The basic story behind drummer Rudy Royston’s first album sounds like that of many sidemen in jazz. He moved to the New York area. His talent got him into bands led by higher-profile artists like Bill Frisell, JD Allen, Ben Allison and Dave Douglas. And when it came time to document his own composing and arranging, he could rely on the network he had tapped into. Douglas issued Royston’s album 303 earlier this month on his own record label, Greenleaf Music.
But consider that Royston is 43, an age when similarly ambitious top-tier jazz musicians have often already waxed several recordings. In fact, he’s not even the first musician in his household to make a record under his own name.
In 2011, pianist Shamie Royston, his wife, recorded a trio date with Ivan Taylor on bass and Rudy on drums. The resulting album Portraits came out in 2012 with little fanfare, though it did catch the ear of the New York Times critic Ben Ratliff, who praised its maturity, calling it “a first album that probably would have been a second or third one 10 years ago.”
Since getting married, the Roystons dreamed about moving to a jazz hub like New York to pursue careers as performing musicians. Starting a family and nascent teaching careers were welcome distractions along the way. Now, 18 years and two children later, they’ve each issued their own debut recordings.
This One Time, At Band Camp
Rudy Royston and Shamie Fuller both grew up in the Denver, Colo., area in musically inclined families. Rudy’s father was the shipping manager for Rhythm Band Instruments, which manufactures percussion instruments like glockenspiels and tambourines for elementary schools. (“I just remember beating on stuff, early,” Rudy says.) Shamie’s parents were performing musicians Fred Fuller, a bassist, and Elthopia Fuller, a vocalist. Their Fuller Sound group later became a family band, with Shamie on piano, her sister Tia Fuller on saxophone and, eventually, Rudy on the drum chair.
They met in high school at the Telluride Jazz Camp — six hours away from Denver by car. He was a sophomore, she was a freshman.
“I was digging her when I first met her, but she wasn’t really into me,” Rudy says. “I had a long curl. I looked kind of shifty. But, you know, I thought she was beautiful. So I was into her, but she was like, ‘Yuck.’ So it took a while.”
They were friends throughout high school, Shamie recalls, and fell out of touch somewhat when Rudy went off to college at the University of Northern Colorado, north of the city. But after a year, he transferred back closer to home, and ran into Shamie’s mother on the street.
“I came and took her out to Village Inn,” Rudy says. “And the rest is history.”
Both Rudy and Shamie wound up studying music at the University of Denver, and played around town — sometimes together. In college, they were part of a group called Jaq Nouveau, which Rudy described as taking after Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller. It featured another future world-renowned talent in saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, a native of Boulder, Colo.
“Sometimes Rudy plays in Rudresh’s band, so we all kind of joke about it,” Shamie says. “‘We should get the band back together!'”
Rudy and Shamie shared a mentor in Denver trumpeter Ron Miles, one of the few Denver jazz musicians known widely outside the area. He’s had both musicians in his bands, too — he recruited Rudy barely out of his teens.
“Rudy, out of the group of musicians from here who have come up in my time, he’s the great one,” Miles says. “And it was pretty obvious early on that he was really something special.”
The couple got married not long after graduating college in their early 20s. Both recall setting their sights on trying to make it as performers in a bigger scene — somewhere outside of Denver.
“All the musicians who were coming to Denver from New York who I would hear just had this fire in them,” Rudy says. “I said, ‘Man, I really want to go to where that is.'”
At the same time, Denver had its appeal, too. Family was nearby; there were opportunities to own a house and start a family. And there was no dearth of gigs if the Roystons wanted them.
They each found stable jobs teaching in local schools — elementary, middle and high schools; general music classes and band-director opportunities. Though they had little experience teaching, the Roystons came to greatly enjoy working as music educators.
“[Shamie] actually taught my daughter’s honors band,” Ron Miles says. “It was a concert band — she was the director of that. And the kids just adored her, and the audience loved it. There was a really high-level musician who was enthusiastic and related to the students in a really beautiful way.”
But the passion to play on a bigger stage never left, either. So Rudy applied to a graduate music program at Rutgers University in New Jersey — Shamie had already acquired an M.A. in music composition — and with a 3-year-old son and a four-month-old daughter, the Roystons moved across the country in 2006.
“It’s funny,” Shamie says. “Everybody thought we were crazy because we both had our teaching jobs, we had our family and we had a nice house, and we’re like, ‘We’re moving.’ It was a big leap of faith, is what it was.”
These days, Rudy is seen as an A-list drummer. But when he was new to town, it wasn’t so easy. He recalled six to seven months of intense frustration, as he shuttled out to jam sessions in New York City before a network began to come together.
“I did some gigs that paid, like, 12 bucks,” he says. “I was like, ‘Really, man?’ I have two kids at home. This is not going to work.”
As Rudy’s career began to stabilize, Shamie was often the caretaker of their children. Of course, she was trying to juggle that responsibility with maintaining her own profile as a musician.
“Whenever I went out and played, I played like it was my last time playing and hoped that I would get a gig, or that someone would call me, you know?” she says. “I just tried to stay visible.”
Some relief came from her sister, saxophonist Tia Fuller, who had lived in New Jersey for years and had already begun to carve out her own career as a musician. Fuller happily admits to taking a share of babysitting gigs.
“Then [Shamie is] also taking her son to soccer practice three times a week, after she comes home from teaching a full day, and she’s also taking her daughter to gymnastics once a week,” Fuller says. “Just trying to find rides to get her children to school just for her to get to school on time. I don’t know how she does it, but she’s an extraordinary mother as well as musician.”
About a year after the Roystons moved east, the piano chair also opened up in Fuller’s quartet. Shamie Royston has held that seat for several years now.
“It’s a great time for us to spend time together, because when we’re home, we’re both usually working, or she’s running around with her children,” Fuller says. “And it’s rare that we really get to hang. So on the road, we’re able to hang a little bit — and play some great music.”
Laying Down Tracks
It took further determination for Shamie to lay the groundwork for her own album, Portraits. (She’s already working on another recording project and lining up her own gigs in 2014.) But she was driven to make her passion work with her family.
“I would go to work, then I would deal with the kids, and I would write for my own project, like 10, 11 o’clock at night every night,” she says. “Like, ‘I have to do this for myself.’ … I knew I had to make it work somehow.”
As for Rudy, the lessons of his upbringing aren’t far away. Titled 303 after Denver’s area code, he cites the particular lessons of Ron Miles’ melodies and compositional development as influences on his own songs.
“It’s not like there was a particular sound, like, ‘This is what it sounds like in Boulder,’ or ‘This is what it sounds like in Greeley,’ or nothing,” Rudy says. “It’s just the overall textures of the record and how things were working together when I was writing it. I thought, ‘Man, I think this stuff that I was writing was reminding me of home.'”
The Roystons say they aren’t formally collaborating as much as they did in Denver, though they still frequently bounce compositional ideas off each other. Perhaps it’s because they’re busy with their other collaborations, who are now 8 and 11 years old. Sometimes, they come along to the gigs, too.
“They think, like, you’re supposed to be in the green room at Carnegie Hall,” Rudy says, laughing. “It’s like, ‘No, you’re not supposed to be back here. … You’re just growing up around this, but this isn’t normal.'”