Before the pandemic hit, Tianna Hall had been working as a jazz musician full-time for some 16 years, making consistent money thanks to a steady stream of gigs, anywhere from six to nine a week. Come April, that number had dwindled down to one as shows and events were cancelled, bars and nightclubs shuttered and social gatherings discouraged in an attempt to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.
As of August, Hall has already faced several months without a stable income. With most venues still closed, there’s no end in sight and Hall is staring down several more weeks, if not months in limbo, unable to perform full-time.
In an effort to support herself amid the uncertainty, Hall has taken up an unusual part-time occupation meant to bring herself and others a spark of joy amid a tumultuous year. The Grammy-recognized musician is now serenading for hire, performing in character and costume as Princess Corona, Queen COVID or one of several other kooky characters she’s concocted.
Hall took the time to talk with us about her new singing telegram business Quarantinigrams as well as her experiences weathering the pandemic as a musician.
Q: How has the public reacted to your unusual, albeit, timely singing telegrams?
A: The slogan we’ve kind of been running with has been “spreading some joy, instead of the virus.” It’s been fun. And I think that’s exactly the point. Everyone is struggling so much to find some ligheartendess right now and I think that has been a good option and a good outlet for a lot of people. Because there are so many different options with regards to the characters, it’s been fun to utilize this both for little kids especially but also for adults, you know, just some silly fun.
Q: Have the singing telegrams brought you some joy amid this tumultuous year?
A: Oh, absolutely. I’m a full-time musician and for my day-to-day life that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 16 years. I was doing six to nine gigs a week as a jazz vocalist. And before I was in jazz, I was working professionally in musical theater and opera so it’s been very difficult to not be able to work my gigs like I had been. It’s the only career path I’ve ever known. So, to have an outlet creatively, albeit completely different than doing the signing and jazz, to see people light up when we’re in such a tumultuous and dark time has been really rewarding. Especially with the children. I know they’re all really struggling with not being able to see their friends and not having these little sparks of joy that you want children to be able to experience. Just being able to provide some little spark of joy and some light has been so rewarding because I know for my own children, this has been so difficult.
My kids are seven and nine. They both have autism. My son is severely affected and nonverbal but my daughter is mildly affected and she’s having a very difficult time not being able to socialize and see her friends.
Q: How has the pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
A: It’s hard for us to really grasp how broad sweeping this is for our community and not just in this initial little bubble that’s immediate to ourselves. It’s just so mind-boggling and my God, the impact it’s had on everyone so differently in a financial sense. I’m a single mother and this was my only source of income, working my shows. And of course, no one’s having parties. That was my bread and butter was playing balls and galas and special events. That’s gone. And I was also playing bars and jazz clubs and those are not open. To say that I’m petrified of what the future holds is an understatement. And of course, pandemic unemployment has now come to and end and there’s no real solution in sight. It’s very, very, very, very frightening. I’m not sure what’s going to happen so this has been a decidedly helpful outlet to be able to bring some silliness and joy to other people and also a little cathartic for me as well, to be able to put on a costume and play a different character and not be myself for the day.
Q: How did you come up with the characters you now use for your singing telegrams?
A: There’s a number of characters. There’s Princess Corona. There’s Queen COVID. There’s also an evil queen character. Princess Corona is the most popular one because she’s lighthearted, she likes a Barbie doll character and she puts on a blonde wig. So that’s the one I end up doing the most because she’s adaptable and she dresses like a princess.
Q: You’re a big fan with the kids that see you perform your singing telegrams. What do your kids think about your characters and performances?
A: My daughter specifically cannot stand it when I perform. She says “Mommy, stop signing. You’re too loud.” She’s a performer of sorts herself so any attention that’s taken away from her, she’s having none of it. My little girl is quite the diva. She’s been that way since she was a little girl. And my son has sensory processing disorder along with his autism so any sort of deviation sound-wise is really intense to him so no, they’re not so keen on seeing mommy perform.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about your background in the music industry?
A: I’ve been performing since I was. I’ve been performing full-time as a jazz vocalist for the last 16 years. When I say, full-time, I mean six to nine shows a week for 16 years so this has quite literally been my sole source of income my entire life. I’m a voting member of the Grammys. I’m a very serious professional.
Q: How have you seen the pandemic impact Houston’s music scene?
A: You know, it’s been heartbreaking. I’ve seen so many of my peers completely lose everything they’ve worked for in their careers because there’s no means of income. I’ve always been very fortunate in that I’m one of the few here in town that works consistently full-time. Now, I know if unfortunate but that’s a rarity so, for me, as a top-tier in that regard on the ladder with regard to working, for me, to be a barometer of the scene, to only have one gig a week at present, I’m working every Friday night at Artisans, that to me is indicative of how everyone else in doing generally. And that’s always sort of been the case. So wherever the scene is, it’s generally indicated by however our top-tier players are doing. It’s really frightening to me because I care so much about my colleagues. And to see that none of us are working, none of us, and that we’re all trying to come up with a solution but the fact of the matter is our venues aren’t able to support us. We’ve been so, so grateful to a few of the organizations nationally and locally that have reached out to support us.
Q: What are some of the venues around town that you enjoy performing at?
A: Artisans, it’s a French restaurant here in Houston. They have supported us even when they couldn’t open at capacity. They were having us come in and do live streams from their venue just so that we could have some sort of income coming in. They supported us when they didn’t have any customers. They have been so wonderful and so kind to us. The owner’s name is Jacques Fox. and I think that’s all part of it. He’s French, He loves jazz, he loves the arts and he understands how essential it is for a community to support the arts and the artists within it.
The Glade in the Woodlands has been amazing in supporting Cezanne, a jazz club that I help run. They have kept us afloat through the pandemic by doing livestream and by helping us do socially distanced concerts because our new venue can’t be open yet.
Q: Who are some of your favorite Houston musicians?
A: Oh, gosh, there are so many. Some of my favorite Houston musicians would definitely be Greg Petito, he’s a guitarist here in town, David Caceres, a saxophonist, Woody Witt, Dennis Dotson, Paul English.
Q: What’s kept you here in Houston all these years?
A: What’s kept me here is the art scene and the support that we’ve always had here in the Houston area. It’s remarkable. I’ve almost wanted to keep it a secret from my friends throughout the country because I don’t want it to get invaded because, my God, we are so fortunate. The remarkable support we’ve always had for the arts here in Houston is second to none in my opinion. I love this town. I love the camaraderie and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Q: What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Houston?
Q: What are you looking forward to this year?
A: Normalcy. I’m looking forward to normalcy. Isn’t that awful? That’s where we are. What I wouldn’t give for normalcy at this point.
Click here for more information about Hall’s singing telegrams. Hall recently released a new live recording titled Tianna Hall & the Houston Jazz Band. Purchase it here.
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