Michael Jackson, Django, and Freelancing - His primary instrument is guitar. His specialty, the renowned gypsy jazz of the two-fingered Django Reinhardt. His compositions are poly-stylistic, infusing Impressionist and Modern with mostly folk and popular music. His muse: Michael Jackson. That’s right, the King of Pop. In the mid-’80s, a jazz career was the last thing anyone would have pegged for Aaron Walker as the seven-year-old swept dramatically across the living room, gyrating and hee-heeing in step with the immortal Thriller album. But these days he plays three to four gigs a week around Denver.
After college, Aaron formed Elevation Jazz Orchestra, a 15-piece, pre-war big-band ensemble in which he’s director, arranger, and guitarist. Then he and other members formed Swing Je T’aime on the side, releasing a debut album in 2010. Earlier that same year, Elevation closed the main stage at Denver’s 5 Points Jazz Festival, the largest event of its kind in Colorado. Both groups are fronted by vocalist and fellow CCU alum Chelsea de la Cuadra and regularly feature other alumni and professors from the University.
Aaron is proof positive that you can make a good living as a freelance musician, and he’s met many others who do. But it takes more than virtuosic talent, he says. It requires a whole lot of diligence.
“No one is going to post an ad on Craigslist offering a freelance music job 40 hours a week,” he jokes. “You have to make your own work.” Each week, he rehearses for 20 hours to stay sharp and spends up to 40 more researching music, arranging charts, traveling and performing, and developing a list of on-call artists for future gigs. Then there’s maintaining his instruments, recording and mixing demos, and of course, drumming up business.
Aside from his home ensembles, Aaron’s often hired as a sit-in with other groups, sometimes next to musicians he’s never met before. Unlike in school, freelancers don’t get numerous rehearsals for several months before a show, yet everyone expects them to sound like they’ve been together for years. “You have to be able to read charts, play the style, interact musically, and nail it all,” he says, “or you won’t be called back.” In short, you’ve got to really, really know your craft. But Aaron embraces the challenge to do what he loves.
If you want a competitive leg up as a working musician and you don’t see a famous rock band in your future, Aaron stresses formal training. He’s played with music alumni from schools all over Colorado and thinks CCU produces quite a few fantastic technical players. What’s more, it’s the combination of musicianship and professional character taught at CCU that makes them stand out, lessons that weren’t as prominent even in his graduate school. “There are a lot of players much better than me, but I’ve been hired over many because people know I’m reliable and will come with a good attitude,” Aaron recalls. Musicians who stray from that code, no matter how talented, can end up blacklisted and out of work.
But Aaron’s prospects are fine. Going back to his Thriller days, one fateful afternoon his cassette player finally ate the well-worn tape. He cried all day at the loss. In the end, you could say, Michael was just prodding Aaron to make his own music. He took the suggestion to heart and it’s paying off, straight to the bank.