Raising His Voice

Vaughn Faison gets in tune -- and a Grammy nomination -- as part of the group Kings Return.
Written by: 
Jessica DeLeĆ³n
Vaughn Faison
Vaughn Faison ('19 M.M.)

Vaughn Faison ('19 M.M.) used to be too shy to sing.

Now, as a member of the a cappella group Kings Return, he's a Grammy Award nominee.

The group is up for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella category at this year's awards ceremony, scheduled for Feb. 5, for their take on the Bee Gees' classic "How Deep is Your Love?" arranged by Matt Cusson. He credits the faculty and his time at UNT's College of Music for his career. After making a spontaneous decision to pursue singing after hiding it for so long, he's now enjoying his career.

"I just loved the fact that our instrument is our body," he says.

A "Wild" Decision

Faison has always loved music but, as a child, he would only sing when no one was around. He played trumpet in school bands in his native Lyons, New York, but didn't sing for others until high school. People told him he had a nice natural voice.

He went to college originally to pursue game design. When he was 20 years old, he made a decision.

"On a whim, I decided to go to music school," he says. "Looking back, that was a pretty wild decision."

And it clearly paid off. After he earned his bachelor's degree in the classical music program at State University of New York at Fredonia in 2015, Faison took a couple years off from academics. While at a jazz camp in New York, he met up with a couple of professors from different colleges -- including Rosana Eckert ('95, '99 M.M.), principal lecturer of vocal jazz at UNT -- who suggested Faison consider graduate school.

Faison selected UNT since he got a teaching fellowship, giving him hands-on experience working with others. He especially enjoyed his time with the late John Murphy ('84, '86 M.M.), Professor Emeritus of jazz history and former chair of the Division of Jazz Studies.

Faison also served as a teaching fellow in Eckert's songwriting class. He uses some of the techniques he learned from that class for songs that he has written, including "Beauty," on the group's debut album, Rove.

After leaving UNT, he stayed in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and worked on a variety of projects -- writing, teaching and performing. In September 2020, he got a message inviting him to audition for Kings Return.

One of the members, J.E. McKissic, knew Murphy and asked for recommendations. Murphy, Eckert and Jennifer Barnes, director of the vocal jazz program, suggested Faison for the group. He got the gig.

"I really enjoy the friendship and the kinship. It's like we're all brothers. That's a great thing to experience -- that and the musicianship."

The Power of Music
Kings Return is J.E. McKissic, Jamall Williams, Gabe Kunda and Vaughn Faison
From left to right, Kings Return is J.E. McKissic, Jamall Williams, Gabe Kunda and Vaughn Faison ('19 M.M.).

Founded in 2016, Kings Return has built a strong following through their videos, in which they sing as they sit in a stairwell. The Dallas-Fort Worth based band has toured around the country, opening for Jay Leno and conducting master classes.

The group likes to bend the genres in their music, incorporating R&B, gospel, jazz and pop -- which is what they did with "How Deep."

Kings Return submitted the song for a Grammy Award nomination and eagerly watched the livestream when the nominations were announced late last year.

"They read our names first," says Faison, who performs around the area and is worship lead at Grace Avenue United Methodist Church in Frisco. "What is going on!? You don't expect one of the first singles you put out to get a Grammy nomination."

It's not the only surreal feeling that he gets.

When they sing together, it can feel like they're singing in one voice, and the experience can almost be transcendental.

"We don't always recognize the power of it until we talk to people afterwards and people say how impactful the performance was to them. We're really doing something that means something to people."