With her debut jazz album, Nothing But Soul, Tiffany Austin ’12 has made good on a promise to her younger self. The Los Angeles native was 13 when she first heard Ella Fitzgerald’s “Night in Tunisia.” “In the song, there’s a break where Ella scats over the top. Listening to it, I lost my mind,” Austin says. “I thought, ‘Whatever that is, I want to do it.’ “
She started singing early on, graduated from Cal State-Northridge, and studied abroad in London. From there, Austin decided to travel east to Tokyo. She soon realized that while jobs there for nonbilingual English speakers were scarce, she could stay and perform. A visit that was meant to last a year turned into a 5½-year musical journey—and the start of her career as a jazz singer. In 2009, just before her LSAT score expired, she returned home to accept a scholarship to Berkeley Law. Austin set aside performing to study copyright law. “I thought the law was a great intellectual pursuit,” she says. “And I wanted to advocate for artists.”
But one year in, she also quietly enrolled in a degree program at the California Jazz Conservatory and began singing again. She earned her JD, but decided against taking the bar exam. “I thought I should just try to create,” Austin recalls. “I felt I lost so much when I’d stopped singing; I didn’t want to go through that a second time.”
It’s a decision the critics applaud: With four stars from DownBeat and coverage on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” Nothing But Soul is earning widespread attention. The album includes her take on songs by the late composer Hoagy Carmichael and pays homage to some of her musical idols—Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin.
In addition to performing songs from the album in the Bay Area, Austin has a residency at the Presidio of San Francisco through the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music—writing songs that bring the musical heritage of her maternal grandmother’s native Louisiana in conversation with her other jazz influences.
Although she’s trying to strike a balance between the business and the artistic sides of her life, “Right now,” she says, “the artistic part is winning.”