For anyone who attends local music concerts fairly regularly, chances are you’ve heard saxophonist and flutist Aaron Gardner. These days, he’s not usually the front-and-center guy, but his talent and signature style of playing have contributed greatly to a variety of local bands and musicians.
Gardner, who currently teaches at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, also spent time living in New York City and touring with national acts at one point in his life, too, but these days, he’s happy to be working and living in Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee.com: How did you get interested in music?
Aaron Gardner: When I was in third grade, my family took a vacation to colonial Williamsburg. I was intrigued by the tin whistles that they used in the marching bands there and picked one up with a book teaching you how to play it. I started learning it in the car during that trip and eventually started learning some Irish jigs on the tin whistle. In fourth grade, when we started band instruments, I picked the flute. Now I play the flute, the saxophone and a small amount of clarinet.
OMC: So you weren’t one of those kids whose parents had to nag him to practice his instrument?
AG: I guess I was pretty self motivated. My parents got me a private teacher from the very beginning in fourth grade so that definitely helped. They encouraged me to practice at least a half hour a day but soon after that I was doing it on my own plus more.
OMC: Where did you grow up?
AG: I was born in Eugene, Ore. When I turned 7, I moved to Manhattan, Kan., and then moved to Milwaukee in fifth grade. When I was younger my family traveled to Europe several times and my father introduced me to a lot of different types of arts. He was an architect. When I got a little older my dad would take me to bars to see blues musicians that I liked when I was under age. Nobody in my immediate family is musical but my great grandfather was the director of the Dutch Army band.
OMC: Where have you studied music?
AG: All my studying post college has been on the bandstand. Just recently I have started "going back to school again" by trying to learn all kinds of new things to use in my playing. When I have time I would love to take lessons from several people here in Milwaukee to get different perspectives of all kinds. There are tons of great musicians here in Milwaukee.
OMC: When I was in high school I started my first band. It was called Mood Groove. It was a reggae band where I was a singer and flute player. Several people from that band are professional musicians today.
During college I had the opportunity to play with a Milwaukee band called Wild Kingdom. They would fly me back from college on weekends to do shows.
After college at Berklee College of Music, I moved back to Milwaukee for a while and played with a band called Jasmine Road Affair.
After a few years I moved to New York and started a band with some musicians there called Ulu. I got to tour the country and play all kinds of great shows with this band for about eight or nine years. We got to open for people such as John Scofield, the Derek Trucks Band, De La Soul, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Soul Live.
When that band finished, I moved back to Milwaukee and started teaching at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Now I play with a bunch of local bands. They include De La Buena, Willy Porter, Milwaukee Hot Club, Choir Fight, Jason Seed, Kyle Feerick, Tristan Royalty Squad, The Erotic Adventures of the Static Chicken, Soul Trio and The Broken Bottle Band. Other than that I play in various jazz combos and record on many local artists' projects.
OMC: Do you support yourself solely on your music?
AG: I support myself through a combination of teaching, playing and recording. I teach at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and at MATC.
OMC: Which musicians or bands have inspired you the most?
AG: Some of my main saxophone influences are Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Joe Lovano and George Garzone, who was my teacher at Berkelee. I listen to all kinds of music. Lately I've been getting into a lot of electronica music.
OMC: How much do you practice now?
AG: I have never been an eight-hour-a-day practicer. Lately I have started practicing a lot more and it is amazing. I'm learning all kinds of new things now recommitting myself to regular practice.
OMC: Do you have any upcoming gigs?
AG: The Erotic Adventures of the Static Chicken will be playing on WMSE local live on Tuesday, Jan. 21. On Thursday, Jan. 23, De La Buena will be playing at the Jazz Estate.
OMC: Is Milwaukee a good place for musicians?
AG: Milwaukee is a great place for musicians. The cost of living is relatively low, so unlike a place like New York City you have much more free time to work on your craft. There are tons of great musicians in Milwaukee. Nowadays with the Internet you can find out almost any information you want and you don't have to necessarily live in a big city to collaborate with other musicians.
If there is one drawback about Milwaukee it would be that we need some more music venues. I hope that somebody who is interested in keeping jazz alive buys the Jazz Estate which is currently for sale.
OMC: You have a daughter, right? Is she interested in music?
AG: Yes, I have a 9-year-old named Summer Blue. I just recently discovered that she has amazing musical talents. I cannot wait to see what is to come in her future.
OMC: Any final words for Milwaukeeans?
AG: The last thing I'd like to say is that there is a great crop of young musicians coming up right now in Milwaukee. Everyone should be on the lookout for these great up and comer jazz musicians.
I am really enjoying watching some of my students grow from grade schoolers to taking music as a major in college. Some of them are out there working as professional musicians already. That makes me very proud.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.