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Blugold grads earn spots among top U.S. young jazz composers

For two years straight, UW-Eau Claire music graduates have received one of the nation's highest honors for young jazz composers.

UW-Eau Claire alumnus Keith Karns, a trumpet player, composer and bandleader now living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, received a 2014 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award during the Jazz Wall of Fame event hosted in June by The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in New York City. Karns followed in the footsteps of UW-Eau Claire alumnus Aaron Hedenstrom, a saxophonist, composer and bandleader also living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, who received the honor in 2013.

A third UW-Eau Claire music alumnus, trumpet player, composer and bandleader Andrew Neesley, received the award (then called the ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Award) in 2004. Neesley, a 2003 UW-Eau Claire graduate, now lives and works in the New York City area.

"My hope is that successes like this will help UW-Eau Claire's music program to receive more recognition and help showcase the work that all of the faculty at UW-Eau Claire are putting in daily to help people like myself and Keith Karns to succeed in the real world," Hedenstrom said. "My hat's off to all of them."

The Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award is presented by ASCAP to recognize gifted jazz composers between the ages of 11 and 29 who are selected through a juried national competition. Previous winners have gone on to become leaders in the field of jazz and commercial composition and to receive Grammy awards. The awards program carries the name of famous trumpeter and ASCAP member Herb Alpert in recognition of The Herb Alpert Foundation's support for the program.

Both Karns and Hedenstrom said attending UW-Eau Claire was essential to the development of their musicianship and cited Robert Baca, UW-Eau Claire professor of music and director of jazz studies, as being integral to their success. Both musicians performed in Jazz Ensemble I, the top jazz ensemble at UW-Eau Claire. Baca directs the ensemble.

"In all honesty, I owe just about everything I have done to Mr. Baca," said Karns, who is from North Pole, Alaska, and graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in trumpet performance. "Not only did he work tirelessly to teach us the trumpet and jazz, but it seems to me that his main goal at UW-Eau Claire was to teach us hard work, love, compassion and honesty — all things that are very rare in most professional music circles today."

Karns went on to earn a master's degree in jazz studies from Indiana University's School of Music. He now teaches jazz performance fundamentals and directs the Six O'Clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas. He also performs throughout Texas and the Midwest with his quintet and the 17-piece Keith Karns Big Band.

Karns released his first album, "Thought and Memory," in 2012. He has worked with some of the most renowned artists in jazz, including Benny Golson, Jamey Aebersold, Joel Harrison, David Baker and the University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band. He also has composed and arranged music for many music programs across the country, including Indiana University, Eastern Washington University and the University of North Texas.

"Playing in Mr. Baca's big band taught me so much about music, and one of the best things about it was being able to bring in my own compositions to play with the band," said Hedenstrom, a St. Paul, Minnesota, native who received a bachelor's degree in music composition from UW-Eau Claire in 2011. "Mr. Baca has turned his jazz program into a real-world workshop for people wanting to make the jump to the professional world."

Hedenstrom also holds a master's degree in jazz arranging from the University of North Texas. He operates a large teaching studio in Denton, Texas, and frequently performs original compositions with his big band, the Aaron Hedenstrom Orchestra, and with various other renowned ensembles. He also is the winner of the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival Arranging Contest and a recipient of a 2013 DownBeat Award for a blues/pop/rock soloist.