For nearly two decades, the music building at San Fernando High School belonged to the late Richard Gigger Jr.
“Gig,” as he was affectionately called, was the music teacher who directed the school band and inspired the musical talents of countless students.
Former students remember “Mr. Gig” — who died last year following a stroke —as being ‘strict, a perfectionist, a musical genius”, who would cut and rearrange the notes and bars in songs so they “wouldn’t sound so square.” He was also a friend and father figure for band members, pushing them to do their best and leading them to an unprecedented 11 consecutive Los Angeles Unified School District Band and Drill City Championships from 1987-1988 to 1998-1999.
Those accomplishments and dedication earned him respect and praise from former students, who this week honored Gig and his wife, Ellen Kaminer-Gigger — the drill team instructor for eight of those championships and “The Voice of San Fernando” for her distinctive introduction of the band at football games — by unveiling a mural and naming the music building at the school as The Gigger Building.
Gig and Ellen were both equally giving. Students said both would stop gang fights, take students into their office to feed them, and give rides home.
“He was pretty consistently full of energy,” said Esau Perez, a trombone player from 1993-1996, who spearheaded the Gigger Tribute Committee.
“He demanded the absolute best. He would move and talk very fast. You had to pay attention to not miss anything,” Perez said.
“Shuckin’ and Jivin’”
Colorful and creative to the point that his signature was done in a music scale, Gig expected his band students to behave at all times while in his classroom playing music or out in the hallways.
“If somebody was not behaving, he would call them out,” Perez said.
“‘You’re shuckin’ and jivin’ was his admonition — in other words “you’re messing around and not doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
“Mrs. G,” who survives her husband, was the same with the drill team, the choir and in the piano classes she taught at the school.
They formed an indelible partnership in and out of the school.
“They would go at it, but they always worked it out. They were equals,” Perez said, recalling how they would coordinate the steps between the band and the drill team.
The idea for the tribute, Perez said, came after he subbed for Sergio “Checo” Alonso, the current band and mariachi teacher at San Fernando High.
“[Teaching there felt] very nostalgic and I felt there was something missing,” Perez said. “There was no memory of those 11 championships, and I felt we needed to do something to change it.”
Perez was part of three band City championships.
Back then the band was known as “The Running Tigers,” for their routine that dashed onto the field to play high energy sets that uniquely combined traditional band songs with a bit of mariachi music.
“He (Gig) would tell us ‘we’re in a fight. We’re going to knock them out,’” said Perez, recalling the competitions. “Our shows were always action-packed.”
Even though the band was exceptional, Gig never rested on laurels and kept pushing the students to give their best at every performance.
The infamous 6:30 a.m. roll call is still remembered by band alumni, as well as the rehearsals during lunch and after school aside from the 6th period band class.
Besides music, Gig also put cultural touches on the band’s attire, sometimes adding Mexican costumes — playing on the introduction of Mariachi music to the routines.
Gig also put on his personal show, dancing to the music in his tiger robe.
“As a kid from Pacoima without much, I remember being so proud of being part of something special,” said Perez, becoming teary-eyed while remembering those championships.
But that was only part of what Gig gave his students.
He kept an account with donations and payments for the band performances and at the end of the school year, he would distribute the money to the graduating seniors in the band.
For Perez, that helped him cover tuition and books at USC. Gig also wrote plenty of recommendation letters that got him several scholarships, he said.
Mural and Lettering
New generations of band members and students at San Fernando High don’t know all the musical heritage and triumphs. They also didn’t know about Gig.
So Perez got together with other band alumni doing fundraising, getting the word out, and getting the permits from the school and everything else that was needed for the tribute.
The result is a vivid, 55-ft long mural in the back of the music building that depicts a banner for each of those 11 Band and Drill Team Championships, along with band members, a roaring tiger and Gig in his tiger robe.
“This is a piece of music history in the San Fernando Valley,” said Manny Velasquez, the muralist who donated his time to work on the colorful piece adorned at the top with big letters noting this building to be “The Gigger Building.”
Velasquez worked on the mural for three months with current students and band alumni. Some told stories about those championship wins, and of Gig’s antics and lessons while they painted with music blaring in the background and incense burning nearby.
“It just created a positive vibe,” Velasquez said. “That’s what we’re trying to capture in this mural, the impact he made on his students.”
The impact is clear when you talk to Perez.
“(Students) know about George Lopez and Ritchie Valens (two of San Fernando High School’s most famous alumni), but they don’t know about this period of time when we won 11 City Championships back-to-back. We want them to feel proud that they’re part of something great,” he said.
The mural and new name for the music building will let students know that they are in a special place where the bar can be raised and you can reach it if you don’t limit yourself and work hard together.
“Gig dedicated himself to the kids and he expected the same,” Perez said.
Richard “Gig” Gigger Jr. was born in East St. Louis, Illinois. At the age of 16 he enlisted in the United States Army, and after 25 years of service retired with the rank of Master Sergeant. He became only the third person to receive military certification to teach instrumental music in grades K-12.
In the early 1970s, he met his longtime partner and second wife, Ellen Kaminer-Gigger when both were teaching music at Memorial Junior High School in Willingboro New Jersey. They fell deeply in love during an era when interracial love and marriage was still rare in parts of the country. They faced significant adversity in their community and opted to leave the East Coast to settle in Los Angeles, along with Kaminer-Gigger’s two daughters from a prior marriage.
The Giggers worked as substitute teachers, briefly sold real estate and finally landed permanent positions as music teachers at San Fernando High School.
The rest, as they say, is (at least in this case) Band and Drill Team history.