Tuffus Zimbabwe '05 Joins <i>Saturday Night Live</i>

By 
Brenda Pike
October 1, 2010
Tuffus Zimbabwe '05
Zimbabwe plays with the SNL band on September 25.
Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC
Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC

Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. millions of people across the country tune in to Saturday Night Live, but Berklee alumnus Tuffus Zimbabwe '05 isn't one of them. He's onstage, a keyboardist in the show's 10-piece house band.

For the band, the show starts at 11:00 p.m., as they perform for the studio audience. The viewers at home get just a taste of music going into and coming out of commercials, but it adds up to a lot of playing—15 to 20 songs per show.  In addition to the weekly rehearsals (three hours the morning of), as the new guy, Zimbabwe practices by himself during the week to familiarize himself with the more than 100 songs in the repertoire. The band's also on call Wednesday through Friday in case their services are needed for a musical sketch.

It's a great steady gig, one that the music business/film scoring major has waited more than a year for. Since his graduation from NYU's master's program, Zimbabwe has been cobbling together jobs directing church youth groups at Mount Zion Baptist Church of Newark, teaching afterschool programs with Piano Outreach of New York, and gigging with former classmates and professors, such as Ron Reid's Sunsteel Sextet. It's all work that he's passionate about, but it makes for an uncertain schedule. "I applied to every job on Craigslist: all the teaching jobs, afterschool stuff, gigs, choirs . . . " said Zimbabwe. "I was barely scraping by."

The Roxbury native began attending music classes with Berklee's City Music program in middle school, and earned a full scholarship to the college through the program. "My ensemble teacher, Winston Maccow, was great," says Zimbabwe. "He put me in the position to interact with other musicians and helped me develop as an ensemble player." These skills helped prepare him for gigs like SNL, where he's stepping into an already established ensemble—some members of which have been playing together for 20 years.

Zimbabwe mentored the next generation of City Music students while enrolled at Berklee and taught in the program after he graduated. During this time, he also worked as an accompanist in Berklee's Voice Department, sometimes playing eight new songs alongside student singers per day. "That was a huge part of my development, because I got to work on different aspects of my playing: communicating with vocalists and accompanying them, and learning a lot of repertoire," says Zimbabwe. "I was very fortunate to have a couple great mentors: Larry Watson, Jerome Kyles, Janice Pendarvis . . .  I was getting paid to accompany them, but I was constantly learning, as well."

In 2007 Zimbabwe moved to New York with a band of fellow Berklee alumni, J4DA, gigging with them at night and taking classes at NYU during the day. When the rest of the band moved to L.A., Zimbabwe decided to finish his master's degree. It's a decision that led him to his current position. SNL band director and saxophonist Lenny Pickett is a faculty member at NYU's Steinhardt School, and Zimbabwe was referred to him by the director of the Jazz Studies, David Schroeder. Pickett himself actually called to invite Zimbabwe to audition.

The kids at the Mount Zion youth group were eager to watch Zimbabwe's first show on September 25. They think the gig's really glamorous—and Zimbabwe is hoping to meet guests like Katy Perry and Kanye West—but he's mostly looking forward to getting to know the talented musicians in the band. "It's exactly where I want to be right now," Zimbabwe says. "There's a lot of room to grow."