Spring Jazz Concert: The 'Wig' Festival

The beauty of Santa Monica College includes the education, the opportunities and the music. This year especially, talented speakers, groundbreaking productions and exceptional concerts have made SMC's 75th anniversary spectacular.

Staying within a tradition of going all out, the school in conjunction with the SMC Spring Jazz Series presents "Wig's Impromptu: The 'Wig' Festival," celebrating Gerald Wiggins' birthday and contribution to the jazz program at SMC. With Alvin Lyles, a retired SMC music professor, as the director of the show, the night can't finish until a whole cast of great jazz musicians take the stage.

Performing in the concert, among others, will be pianist John Beasley, bassist Nedra Wheeler, vocalist Lisa Terry, pianist Jon Meyer and tenor sax Herman Riley. All are local Los Angeles artists and each musician in this free concert is a force in jazz. With techniques, bands and plenty of talent, the celebration promises a night of all out getting down.

Eighty-three-year-old Wiggins will be there on the listening side this time as he digs the scene for his birthday. Lyles, who still teaches a class in jazz appreciation, remembers how Wiggins was essential in developing SMC's Jazz Vocal program. He was a teacher for the program as a jazz accompanist, said Lyles.

Asking Wiggins about Lyles, he said, "I met him through Santa Monica College. I went down to do two concerts for the kids. He's quite a guy. It's hard to tell how much he's done for the program - he's done so much. He's a brilliant man."

Starting way back when he was "really young," as Wiggins said, he played for such greats as Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and singer Helen Hughes, each distinguished in the jazz community for defining certain styles.

"It was crazy back then with Art Tatum playing and I remember how I was chasing Tatum, trying to play the way he played, but I realized I couldn't play that way, because then people say, 'Hey, you sound like Art Tatum,'" said Wiggins, laughing lightly. "It's good for a career to get your own style."

Digging around for information on him like a jazz fanatic digs for old records, a connection at Amoeba Records gave the low-down on who the man really is when it comes to jazz.

"He's a real West Coast guy, a contemporary with Hampton Hawes and Art Tatum. He's definitely a legend," said Anson King, an employee at Amoeba who works in the jazz department. "When I was working at Tower [Records in Westwood] his wife called the store asking me if we carried any of his CDs since she was buying them for his birthday party and I mentioned the ones we had off the top of my head. She seemed surprised and asked me if I liked him and if I knew his music, and I said, 'Yeah, he's a legend,' and then she mentioned she was his wife and I was stunned."

For a man who saw the era of jazz almost in its entirety and who played with some of the greatest artists of all time, Wiggins counts some of his biggest influences as Barry Green, Bernard Shaw and Bill Cunningham, but he refuses to believe that any one musician is the greatest.

"There's no such thing as the best. They all have something to say, but you can't say that one is better than the other," said Wiggins.

The man still listens to jazz, thinks of hip-hop as jazz and believes with all music, the good comes with the bad.

For the concert Lyles said that Wiggins might even take the stage for a song or two, and he was very excited and pleased with the musicians showing up for the celebration.

"Some of the finest musicians in the world will be playing," said Lyles.

The "Wig" Celebration, "Wig's Impromptu," in honor of Gerald Wiggins, Friday, May 13, 8 p.m., Concert Hall, Main Campus, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. For info, call (310) 434-4323 or (310) 434-3000. Free.