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Jazz alum quickly makes name for himself in music world

At just age 26, Aaron Hedenstrom already has accomplished what many musicians might hope to achieve in a lifetime.

The 2011 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire music composition graduate has earned prestigious awards for his compositions and arrangements, including the Herb Alpert ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award, one of the nation's highest honors for young jazz composers. He's also a winner of the Detroit Jazz Festival Arranging Contest, a DownBeat Award for a blues/pop/rock soloist, and most recently, the BMI Future Jazz Masters scholarship.

The saxophonist, composer and bandleader operates a teaching studio in Texas, and frequently performs original compositions with his big band, the Aaron Hedenstrom Orchestra, and with various other renowned ensembles and artists, including fellow Blugold alum Sean Carey.

Hedenstrom also earned a master's degree in jazz arranging from the University of North Texas, where he now is working on a doctoral in jazz studies. 

The secret to Hedenstrom's quick success in the music industry? The many opportunities he had as a Blugold that gave him the foundation — and the confidence — he needed to push himself as a musician and composer and to chase his dreams, Hedenstrom says. 

"UW-Eau Claire has a small school environment, but at the same time, an excellent program with excellent faculty and teachers," Hedenstrom says. "Because of that, they're able to achieve a higher level of performance with a lot less." 

The university's smaller size also means there are more opportunities for younger students than are available at similarly rigorous music programs at larger schools, Hedenstrom says. 

"If you want the opportunities, they're there," says Hedenstrom, who played in UW-Eau Claire's nationally known Jazz Ensemble I, the university's top jazz ensemble. "They're not easy, but they're accessible to first- and second-year students who are hard working." 

Robert Baca, who leads UW-Eau Claire's jazz program, looks for ways to give jazz students new opportunities that involve them in musically challenging situations, says Hedenstrom. 

"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," says Hedenstrom. "Mr. Baca has turned his jazz program into a real-world workshop for people wanting to make the jump to the professional world.

"One of the most helpful things about playing in Jazz Ensemble I was that Mr. Baca was constantly putting different types of challenging music in front of us. He really pushed the limits in terms of what we were able to do, and that was really big for me." 

The opportunity to as a student be part of Eau Claire's popular Jazz Fest was one of those experiences that made a lasting impact on him, says Hedenstrom, 

"In Jazz Fest, you play with really well-known, established artists," Hedenstrom says. "That was so impactful — to sit next to the people we see as the best in jazz and then to actually get to play with them meant a lot to me." 

The 2015 Eau Claire Jazz Fest — which will take place April 17-18 at various locations in Eau Claire — will again bring UW-Eau Claire student musicians together with some of the country's most acclaimed jazz artists, as well as top college, middle and high school jazz students.

Now in its 48th year, the two-day music festival, which was started at UW-Eau Claire nearly five decades ago, includes clinics, competitions, and performances by local jazz artists and nationally celebrated headliners. UW-Eau Claire partners with Eau Claire Jazz Festival to create the annual event, which is one of the oldest and largest jazz festivals in the country. 

Students learn from talented and successful musicians through clinics and master classes, compete against other accomplished student ensembles while gaining valuable performance experience, and have opportunities to play alongside celebrated musicians who join the festival every year.

In addition to providing opportunities to develop his skills as a musician and a composer, Hedenstrom says Baca and other professors at UW-Eau Claire also helped him understand that to make it in jazz today, musicians must be entrepreneurial. To be successful, musicians must understand how to effectively market themselves and their music, he says. 

That entrepreneurial lesson was top of mind as he recently released his first solo album, says Hedenstrom. The album, titled "A Moment of Clarity," includes six original compositions by Hedenstrom, which he and other musicians from the University of North Texas perform. He recorded the album during the summer of 2014 with Shifting Paradigm Records, a new jazz label based in Minneapolis. 

While he encourages student musicians to embrace the many opportunities for them at UW-Eau Claire, Hedenstrom says they also must be looking ahead to future opportunities. 

"Student musicians should expand their horizons beyond Eau Claire," Hedenstrom says. "Start thinking now about your next steps because while UW-Eau Claire, of course, has a great program, we all need to grow." Eau Claire's upcoming Jazz Fest is the kind of event that all UW-Eau Claire students — whether they are studying jazz or business or nursing — should appreciate and enjoy, Hedenstrom says. 

"I'd tell all the students to not take anything available to them for granted," Hedenstrom says. "Go see the concerts. It's not everywhere that you get such a high-quality music program at the undergrad level."