Sax Phenom Nubya Garcia Talks Tomorrow’s Warriors, Opening for Khruangbin, Gender & Racial Parity

Nubya Garcia is a saxophone phenom from London currently taking the U.S. by storm on tour with Khruangbin at prestigious venues like Radio City Music Hall and The Ryman. After getting knocked out by her set at D.C.’s Anthem, Pollstar caught up with the 30-year-old to find out what it’s been like on this unique tour, her upcoming NYC headlining show at Le Poisson Rouge, and how she found success despite the lack of DEI in the music business.

Giant Steps: London-based tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia is pictured performing at Radio City Music Hall, opening for Khruangbin, on March 9, 2022, in New York. Photo by Jackie Lee Young / Courtesy Nubya Garcia

Pollstar: LOVED your Anthem set in D.C., what was it like for you?
Nubya Garcia: I had an amazing time. It was an amazing audience and my first time in D.C. Everyone was so receptive and joyous and friendly and gave all their energy, which is exactly what I’d hoped for.

It seemed like you converted this young indie rock crowd there for Khruangbin into jazz fans, has this tour been like that?
It really has, you put it really well. This is my first tour opening for someone of Khruangbin’s level and stature and popularity you’re always like, “Oh, are people going to like what we do or not? What’s the vibe gonna be?” But every single place we’ve been to so far has been so receptive. Almost like they’ve known about my music before, which has been an amazing experience I didn’t expect. I’m very happy and grateful that people are into it.

How was playing Radio City Music Hall?
Radio City was really special. I have family and friends in the States and New York, when everyone found out it was like, “Oh my God, Radio City!” I’d never been until I stepped foot inside on this tour and then it hit me, like “Oh my God!” It was amazing. Someone on my team asked afterward, “Did you feel dwarfed by the stage? Were you nervous?” To be honest, I don’t think I was. I was like, “I want to do this, I want be here, and we’ve got 45 minutes to do what we do, so let’s just go for it.” It is an amazing, venue. Khruangbin’s show there was phenomenal.

There’s something interesting between your music and Khruangbin’s, which are not mainstream fare, which perhaps makes fans more open-minded?
We’re in a really interesting time that’s been building for a while, this breaking down of genres. As creators we are influenced by so many different things that happened before, but with the Internet it’s bigger and wider. More people are coming to the gigs who are very open and more receptive than expected. But also, I didn’t not expect it. I’m very excited to be on the road with them, they’re such an amazing band and lovely, lovely people. I’m never ever going to forget this.

Do you think the pandemic created a deeper appreciation for live shows?
Absolutely, I feel it on both sides. The same thing happened when we were on the road in November in Europe. You can’t replace hearing music live in front of you. It’s really special. This is a whole new experience playing these venues with this many people opening for Khruangbin, it’s an amazing introduction to American audiences.

And you’re about to do two nights at the historic Ryman in Nashville, what are your thoughts on playing there?
I can’t wait. We literally just hit Nashville and we play tomorrow. I’ve been hearing about it from my front of house engineer who lives in Nashville and who told us a lot about it, who’s played there, what it’s like and its history. I’m really excited to play a real music spot, check out the city and play to this audience.

You’re headlining NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge, is that your first headlining gig there?
We did Nu Blu the last time on a small jazz festival tour a few years ago, but this is my biggest headline. We did LPR for Winter Jazz Festival, but this will be amazing to go back for our gig.

New York, probably much like London, can be a pressure cooker for gigs, how will you approach it?
I’m feeling very chill at the moment, very grateful just to be able to play. These other pressures that are very real, I try and let go out of me until the end of the show because I don’t want it to affect the reason that I’m there. I just try and be a bit of a chill cookie about it.

Your band is insane; the keyboard player is ridiculous.
He’s incredible, right? He’s from Chicago, Jahari Stampley. We’ve literally only known each other for a week and a bit and it’s been a really amazing relationship between all of us, really special.

Who are the other members?
My drummer is Sam Jones and the bass player is Daniel Casimir, they’re from London both played with me for years.

Weren’t you part of Tomorrow’s Warriors in London?
Myself, Sam and Daniel came up through that and my keys player back home, Joe Armon Jones. Most of my friends in the music scene I met there. I always describe it as a youth center for music based at the Southbank Center or underneath the Royal Festival Hall.

There’s awesome rehearsal rooms and every Saturday we learned about jazz. We had different tutors from the generation before us, also visiting tutors from America would come. It started expanding to do other stuff like jam sessions or more focused groups. That’s the short version.

Who runs it?
Gary Crosby and Janine Irons, I think the 30th anniversary of Tomorrow’s Warriors was not so long ago because we did a huge concert for it in December. It’s a pillar of what we do.

And you’re from Camden?
I was born in Camden Town, lived there till I was 20, then moved to South East London around Deptford Lewisham for University. That’s where I met the people I still play with. I went to Trinity College of Music and was there for quite a while. Now I’m in East London but my family is still in Camden Town.

This Q&A will be included in our Women’s issue and I want to ask you what it’s been like for you coming up as a woman in jazz and touring?
My experience is that I had two universes. One at the Royal Academy of Music in the junior department that was very male heavy and I was kind of shy. My mum worked really hard to get me in there with bursaries and stuff so I didn’t want to waste the opportunity but I did feel out of place and that made me retreat quite a bit. I found Tomorrow’s Warriors when I was 17 and that had lots of women and people of color, black people specifically. I opened up and felt like, “Oh my God, there’s people my age that look like me that are doing what I’m doing.”

A Modern Jazz Quartet: Nubya Garcia with Sam Jones (drums), Daniel Casimer (double bass) and Jahari Stampley
(keyboards) at Radio City Music Hall on March 9, 2022.
Photo by Jackie Lee Young / Courtesy Nubya Garcia

My first ever band teacher was an amazing woman, Nicki Yeoh, I was 12. I’d only played saxophone for two years and she worked at my Saturday music center. Those two musical educations kept me going through my teens while doing other music courses that weren’t like that.

Tomorrow’s Warriors spent a lot of time, and still do, concentrating on building workshops and specific places to encourage women to play and have a space for them alongside their mixed groups. That was amazing to be a part of.

I was at the first session of Tomorrow’s Warrior’s Female Collective like 10 years ago, which was all the women in Tomorrow’s Warriors and extended family who came for a jam session. To see 25 or 30 women of ages up to like maybe mid-20s was just like, “Wow.” I knew most of them, but I’d never seen them in one room. That was really powerful and encouraging. From that I was put in a smaller group of all women that built the beginnings of the septet Nérija.

In terms of the industry did you see many women on your way up?
Not loads. There were very influential women, like, the teacher I mentioned, Nikki Yeoh, and a few others, but, there weren’t a lot. There was a lot more women in my generation. I think it had to do with the things put in place when we were young, i.e. access to instruments, tuition, support, etc. I value having those groups that made me feel like I was one of many. It wasn’t women heavy, but I’ve been building my team for a while and have had choices and opportunities to work with people I want to work with. My management team is two women, Barbara Sealy and Marina Garvey-Birch, and it’s been incredible and very organic and natural.

I started working ages ago with Marina, not as a manager, but as an assistant. Then I met Barbara who my very good friend Moses Boyd, I will forever be thankful to, introduced me to. We started talking about a specific project and within a year, I was just like, “I really love working with you both in the context that we are, I’d love to call this something else, will you be my management team?” And it’s been incredible. I’m very grateful to both of them for everything they do. It feels incredible to have that sort of protection in the music industry.

Who else is on your team?
Maria Gonzales is my tour manager for the U.S., Latin America and well, everywhere right now basically. My agents are Karl Morse at Arrival and James Wright at UTA in the U.K. My label team at Concord is incredible. And Judy Miller Silverman at Motormouth Media is the best.

What are you seeing in terms of racial parity in the industry?
I’m hoping people are finally waking up, specifically the white sections of the music industry are really waking up to how all teams on all fronts can be more diverse and reflective of the countries we live in. I’ve heard of a couple of labels where an artist says, “Hey, I want ten young black people or people of color to be shadowing so and so as part of my team.” Do you know Nao? She’s an amazing singer from the UK. I saw she started a kind of music business academy, training tour managers and engineers and stuff like that. So it’s also not just on the industry and business side. I was really inspired by Nao and want to see more women and women of color in the touring industry, the business board rooms and all of that.

It’s almost like you have to have Tomorrow’s Warriors for the industry.
100%, exactly.

What can we look forward to from you?
The rest of this tour, I can’t wait. Then we hit summer and the festivals start happening and more music, which I can’t say anything about, but I’m sure you will know soon enough. Promise.