From UNC's Jazz Fest to International Stages
April 18, 2023
University of Northern Colorado alumnus Julian Cary '19 never imagined that his pursuit of a career in music would lead him to the other side of the world. Now a successful musician in Bangkok, Thailand and an instructor of jazz voice at Silpakorn University, Cary’s journey began in Denver. He was raised by a family deeply steeped in music.
“My family, they are all gospel singers,” Cary said. “Naturally, when you’re born into that, you do a lot of singing.”
Cary’s passion for creating music and his interest in pursuing it as a career began during his time at East High School. His success in choir gave him the opportunity to perform in the UNC Greeley Jazz Festival his junior year.
This event is the largest of its kind in the United States. Musicians from around the world and hundreds of ensembles from colleges, high schools and middle schools across the country come together to perform at the event.
“I had a solo during that performance, and the judges decided to give me a scholarship to jazz camp, which is another really big deal for high school students because, especially in Colorado, they know something about UNC’s jazz program,” Cary said.
His positive experiences on campus compelled him to attend UNC.
"Getting to see the community of professors and how talented everyone is, how family-like the student body was, that made me feel pretty warm and fuzzy,” Cary said. “I already had good rapport with the people I would end up studying with. I felt that UNC would be the best fit.”
Cary majored in Jazz Studies. During his time at UNC, he had the opportunity to perform with many of his peers and even with some of his professors. One such performance was at UNC’s 34th Annual Performing and Visual Arts Gala where Cary performed as a featured soloist during his freshman year.
“As a PVA [Performing and Visual Arts] student, you have to do it every year,” Cary said. “I was really excited about where I was. It was a very rare thing for freshmen to be in the ensemble I was singing in, so with that comes a lot of responsibility.”
He believes students should recognize that each of their performances is an audition of sorts that can open doors for them.
“There’s no scouts in music. The secret is everyone’s a scout,” Cary said. “When you have student performances, professors are not just watching because they have to be there. They’re also looking because they’re like, ‘These could be our colleagues in the very immediate future.’ When it comes time for like, ‘Hey, we need a male vocalist for this song,’ people will look around and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I like that guy’s style.’”
Cary recorded his debut album, “Heaven? Indeed,” at UNC’s recording studio in Frasier Hall with Greg Heimbecker, the chief recording engineer for UNC’s School of Music.
Cary and Heimbecker have a connection that’s practically familial.
“From 1978 to 1988, I toured with a jazz vocal group called Rare Silk,” Heimbecker said. “In high school, Julian studied with one of the singers, MaryLynn Gillaspie. When I found out, I told him, 'Well, you're my nephew.' I made him part of the extended Rare Silk family.”
Cary collaborated with several fellow musicians in crafting the album. He credits Heimbecker as being “one of the most important wizards behind the album.”
“Heaven? Indeed” was released in January 2019. It is one of many albums that UNC students and faculty have recorded at UNC’s studio.
Heimbecker praises Cary for his wide worldview.
“He's probably the only other duduk player in town, which is a weird little Armenian woodwind instrument,” Heimbecker said. “He's a student of all music. Those are the sorts of folks that I really like working with more than someone who's really pigeonholed themselves.”
Heimbecker has been part of every annual Jazz Festival since 1976, either as a soundman for UNC or for Rare Silk when they performed there.
Cary not only gained experience at the Jazz Festival, but forged meaningful connections that would change his life forever. His journey overseas began when he met students from Silpakorn at the Jazz Festival. They invited Cary to Thailand to teach a workshop, which he did for two weeks in January 2019.
“I got to meet a lot of friends who would eventually become my students and colleagues. A couple of days before I flew back, I already had the job offer,” Cary said.
He moved to Thailand shortly after graduating in May 2019 and has been living there ever since.
Several of Cary’s students are famous Thai musicians. One of his students, Milli, became the first Thai solo artist to ever perform at Coachella in April 2022. His student, Wonderframe, performed a song for a Maybelline Thailand ad that Cary was the vocal director for.
Cary has also become a prominent artist in the Thai music scene. He helped create the score for the 2021 feature film, One for the Road. He got this opportunity after he met a Thai saxophone player who helped him perform his debut album in Thailand. He introduced Cary to the owner of Hualampong Riddim, a Thai record label. The owner, also being a film composer, invited them to collaborate with him on the creation of the score.
“I had to sing on the spot and that's the tape that we kept for the movie,” Cary said. “That was done in one take. I got to go to the prerelease and that was one of the craziest moments of my entire life, sitting at a movie theater and watching on the screen stuff happening, but the voice you hear is your own.”
Cary has also collaborated with The Photo Sticker Machine, a Thai indie band. The owner of Hualampong Riddim and the saxophone player Cary collaborated with are two of the band’s members.
“My first composition that I did with The Photo Sticker Machine made it to eight on the charts over here, which is crazy because they're so indie,” Cary said.
Cary was invited along with The Photo Sticker Machine to work on the Singing Bird Lifetime Soundtrack Concert for Thai artist Bird Thongchai, which premiered on Nov. 12, 2022. Thongchai is considered one the most successful singers in Thai history, having sold more than 20 million albums.
“In front of 30,000 people, it was said that, 'The background vocals for this gig were arranged by professor Julian,' and that's crazy,” Cary said.
While Cary never imagined himself becoming an educator, he enjoys the role and found it was a natural progression within his career in music.
“If you perform and people like it, people will want to study with you,” Cary said. “It was another opportunity that I never said no to. I'm still a working musician, so what I'm teaching isn't coming out of a book. It's coming out of life experience.”
Cary hopes to teach his students the value of real-world experience in their progression as musicians.
“When you get up on stage, no one really cares where you graduated from,” Cary said. “Nobody cares what grade you got. They want to know, ‘Can you play?’ So, experience is not only the best teacher, but it's the ultimate judge."
Cary is currently working on his second album. He also traveled with Milli to Manila and to Jakarta in December to perform with her.
“I owe so much of my success to God, to my family, to my friends, to my work colleagues, to my students, to everybody but myself,” Cary said. “Everyone I've met, whether they were encouraging or discouraging, I have to thank for everything.”
Cary thinks people should take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way to gain a new experience that could advance their career.
"Don't say no to anything. Especially, don't say no to yourself,” Cary said.
He also encourages people to jump at opportunities to help others.
“Trying to be the focus, trying to be the center of all of your work, there's not a lot of jobs in that, but everyone needs support,” Cary said. “Everybody needs a team. Definitely smile on other people and they will smile upon you, too. Be willing to give as much as you're willing to receive, and you might get it back tenfold,” Cary said.
– written by Alani Casiano, a senior English major at UNC