Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Guest Artist Feature: Christian Wiggs, Jazz Vocalist, Part 1

My Journey to Become a Professional Jazz Vocalist

            Hello! I am very honored to be writing to you all today. When Charles approached me to be a guest writer following the release of my first record, “Wonderful You Came By,” I was more than happy to be a part. After reading about a bit of his work, I became a fan! It really was a privilege to be asked. As we go a little bit deeper into my story, I’m excited to share with you the inspirations and experiences that have helped to shape me as a musician.

I was born and raised in Lake Jackson, Texas and started becoming familiar with the arts at a very early age. Growing up in a very musically active family, I began musical theatre at the age of four, quickly learning that I enjoyed singing and being on stage very much. With a community that avidly supported the arts, I found that I felt at home in whatever musical outlet was available.

As I progressed in school, I was introduced to the band program and it's wonderful educators. It’s funny, the audition process of finding the instrument that suits you was oddly similar to the sorting hat process you see in Harry Potter! Sometimes you get the instrument you wanted, other times not, but you always seem to end up with whatever instrument suits you. For myself, this instrument ended up being trumpet. For the first few years, I admittedly put trumpet on the back burner to focus further on being a vocalist. But, when the time came for high school at Brazoswood High, I realized that band program was very fruitful. I greatly looked up to the musicians that excelled from this program and went off to do great things. At that point, I would say my musical emphasis did a 180. I started focusing on trumpet much more intensely than my voice. Not that I enjoyed one more than the other, but I realized that my instrumental playing needed quite a bit of work.

My studies in trumpet started to be very productive, passing through all six bands that the program had to offer. There are so many educators who were incredibly vital to this process, but especially my band directors such as Amy Walden, Martin Montoya and my greatest mentor Brian Casey. Mr. Casey is a constant source of inspiration. He recognizes talent and hard work, and he supplies his students with every tool needed to be successful. When I began my last year of high school, Casey pitched the idea of performing as a vocalist with one of the jazz ensembles that I was also playing trumpet in at the time. Although I was new to jazz, especially vocally, I had always enjoyed that style of music, but never really explored it. The process was something that I very much enjoyed. After my first performance, I fell in love with big band jazz.

Soon after, Casey had let me know about a competition to be the opening act for jazz pianist/vocalist, Tony DeSare, paired with the Houston Symphony Orchestra at Jones Hall. I submitted the performance recording from a month prior, and to my surprise, I was selected! The whole experience was something special. With the help of Mr. Casey, we put together a jazz combo with some of Houston’s finest gigging musicians, as well as my best friend and outstanding trumpet player, Nathaniel McKay. Our three-night engagement with HSO set me on a path that would end up being my passion.

            Only two months later in March, Mr. Casey and I decided that what we had going on in that gig was something that we should make a regular thing. With the rising popularity in live music around our town, we figured it was the perfect time to start. I formed the group, “Christian & The Wiggs” and started gigging frequently. It only took a few gigs before we gained a residency at a local restaurant and began making a name for ourselves in the community. Even though I was finishing high school, my sights were set far beyond the next few months ahead of me.

Now, I may have been a bit ambitious, but within proper means, that ambition can be a great source of fuel and it was. Because of the fact that we had a residency, I knew there had to be something to entice people to come back and see us. So, that’s where the idea came from to have guest artists. The thought behind it was that we would have, for the most part, a consistent rhythm section [editor’s note: in a jazz group this consists of the drum, bass, with piano and/or guitar] and bring in guest horn [brass] players each week. Most of the time we just had one guest artist, but it was always more fun to have multiple, so occasionally we would bring in two horns such as a saxophone, trumpet and/or trombone as well. When any of the core rhythm section players were out, I started to expand the guest artist idea to those instruments as well.

Sure enough, it worked well! An aspect that I hadn’t first considered was that this was a great outlet to network. I was about as green as you can be starting out in the gigging scene, but certainly came to my advantage. With each guest artist that I worked with, I started to develop friendships with them and I networked through their contacts as well. Before I knew it, I had a contact list of players that was getting lengthy. These contacts lived in multiple cities as well, which made it easier when I wanted to book shows outside the limits of Lake Jackson. By June, I had expanded into Houston and played at a jazz club/bar near Downtown. I finally felt like I was fitting into a groove and getting the hang of both the performing and business side of gigs, so naturally, it came time for me to leave and pursue a music degree at a university.

            I wouldn’t say that I was reluctant to leave and begin college, but I definitely felt in my element when I was performing and managing gigs. I didn’t want to leave, but I knew that if I wanted to progress in my talent and in my networking, school was necessary. Although I loved playing my horn, I thought it would be the best idea to not play my first semester just to focus fully on vocal training, considering of course that I had no idea what awaited me. 

When I started at Texas State University, I dove in headfirst. I stacked classes and became involved in multiple ensembles. I had been in such a habit for years of wanting to be in over my head with my busy schedule. Stress seemed to feel like home, but in a positive way. Now, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t still engaged in planning shows and working a calendar to see my next available weekend to travel back home. When I wasn’t practicing or studying, my mind immediately was drawn to gigs. That can be dangerous if you let it interfere with your schoolwork as a full time student, but if anything it motivated me to complete my mental check off list.

The degree that I chose to pursue was a classical vocal emphasis, which I was fairly excited about. I very much enjoyed (and still do) the classical side of things. But, after my first semester I realized it was not where my heart lied. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy it and it doesn’t emotionally move me, because it does, it was just that jazz seemed to move me even more in an inexplainable way. It was my niche. This made coming home for the Christmas holidays especially exciting because we then had a good holiday run of gigs.

            After a quick rough patch coming back for my second semester, my love for music was rejuvenated, especially for jazz. A single performance brought me back from a dark couple of weeks of uncertainty and self-crippling doubt about my abilities. Seeing saxophonists Ralph Bowen & Russell Haight, drummer Butch Miles, lead trumpet Steve Hawk and other stellar musicians was a complete turnaround and inspiration. Before the previous semester ended, I decided that enough time had passed since playing my horn in an ensemble and this was the exact kick-start I needed to open up my case.

 I auditioned and ended up grabbing a spot in the Jazz Lab Band, which was directed by Steve Hawk. My studies were stacked up again, but there was more going on outside of the walls of the university as well. It wasn’t long after that when Christian & The Wiggs began getting calls for private events and offered gigs at other restaurants/clubs in the Houston & Lake Jackson area. School was great, really great. Gigs were great and to top it off, a life-long friend of mine, Zack Kibodeaux (Blue Water Highway Band) told me about an opportunity he might have for me and asked if I would send him my materials. I didn’t think much of it, especially only being eighteen years old at the time, I was certain that I wouldn’t be a strong contender... 

[Find out what happens next in Part 2]

In the mean time, here is track from Christian's fantastic new album, “Wonderful You Came By,” singing that great jazz standard: “They Can't Take That Away From Me.” Support this artist by purchasing a digital copy of his CD: 

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