The Extraordinary Journey of Saxophonist Aidan McKeon


You hear it time and time again – the playing level of young musicians entering the scene nowadays is higher than it’s ever been. One of the players who exemplifies this trend and starting to build a name for himself is Aidan McKeon.

I had not heard of Aidan until running into some videos of him performing at Chris’ Jazz Cafe, sharing the stage with the likes of guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.

After seeing this amazing display of artistry, I knew I needed to find out more how Aidan got so much under his belt at such a young age. I reached out to him, and he was nice enough to sit down with me and share his story. For those of you not familiar with Aidan McKeon, here’s a brief bio to get you up to speed.


  • Aidan McKeon is a saxophonist, composer, arranger, woodwind specialist, educator, and above all, an artist who puts his best work on the stage every time he plays.
  • Aidan began his playing career at a young age in the Philadelphia area, studying at the historical Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz, before beginning studies at the Juilliard School in Manhattan.
  • ​In the Philly music scene, Aidan played as a sideman and a leader for years before landing in New York City, playing alongside Kurt Rosenwinkel, Alex Claffy, Anwar Marshall, Joe Farnsworth, Larry McKenna, Nazir Ebo, Richard Hill Jr., and Joe Block, at venues such as the Village Vanguard, Dizzy’s Club, and Chris’ Jazz Cafe. He’s also had many gigs as a leader with quartets, big bands, and other ensembles with his original music.
  • Along with performing, Aidan has composed and arranged many pieces for various ensemble types including big band work for the Philadelphia Ambassadors Big Band led by Joe Block and with Kurt Rosenwinkel among other writing and arranging jobs.
  • Aidan’s music is largely inspired by jazz legends such as Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Sun Ra in addition to modern greats such as Chris Potter, Immanuel Wilkins, Bobby Zankel, along with European classical music, among a rich array of other artists as well.


ZS: What got you interested you in playing the saxophone? Why tenor?

AM: At a young age, I was always interested in music. I didn’t always have an instrument in the house and neither of my parents were musicians, but I remember by grandfather got me a keyboard when I was five or six, and I was always messing around with it, not knowing much about the different sounds and why I liked certain sounds, but I really enjoyed it.

When I reached middle school and everyone joined the school band, I decided on the saxophone because my grandfather played the alto saxophone for sixty-five years and gave me his alto. I chose the saxophone because of him and started out on alto saxophone while I was in middle school. I played the alto for about a year or so before I started taking private lessons with saxophonist Chris Wells which he really helped me get my technique together and by then I was more serious about it and wanted to put more effort into my playing.

I remember taking the school’s tenor because I thought the tenor was more of a jazz instrument and wanted to experiment at that time. I used that tenor when my grandfather brought me out to this place in South Jersey called Geets Diner & Bar. That was the first time I ever played jazz. We played “Blues in The Closet” and “Satin Doll” and that was the first time I played the tenor publicly. The organist in that band was a teacher at this school called Philadelphia Clef Club which is in South Philly near Center City and that was the main place where I started learning about this music and how to play and surrounding myself with these great musicians. Players like Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco, Justin Faulkner, and Immanuel Wilkins attended the Clef Club.

Those private lessons with Chris and my time at the Clef Club ended up leading me to taking lessons with Larry McKenna, and he was a big teacher in South Jersey as well as Philly. He was my mentor for three or four years from middle school to high school before Covid, and that solidified me forever for wanting to pursue music. Larry was the first player that sat me down and really taught me the jazz language over changes. Larry was a bebop kind of player, and I really didn’t develop that style at first and Larry would teach me tunes and then hand write very quickly a solo or soli over the tune and then we would play it together and I would play it myself over the changes. It was pretty incredible, and I don’t think there are many players who can handwrite something out of thin air in five minutes.

Larry would write arrangements while I was playing in a quarter or quintet and just hand it out mid-tune and it would be all harmonized and sound great. Foundations of language and phrasing is what I learned from Larry, and he was really one of the best ballad players.

While studying with Chris and Larry, I met a lot of great teachers and players at the Clef Club. I met alto saxophonist Bobby Zankel, who is from the Ornette tree of players and was a huge influence on me. I studied with Bobby for three or four years and he ran an ensemble where we played his music which was incredible.

Marcell Bellinger, who is a professor at Temple, was giving us college level theory and ear training lessons when I was thirteen or fourteen. He inspired me to compose and start writing, which I have been really serious about since then. Lovett Hines, who is the artistic director and co-founder created a sense of community that is unlike anything that I have ever seen.

There have been probably four generations of jazz musicians that have come out of Philadelphia through him, and he has been a great educator there for so long, and the magic behind the Clef club. You see these students that were just there such as Joe Block, Dylan Band, Immanuel Wilkins, and Nazir Ebo that are all playing in New York and touring and are some of the best young musicians in the world. Seeing them when they were eighteen and I was thirteen was the biggest source of inspiration I could get because I wanted to be them.

When it came to college, I decided to go to Julliard because I wanted to be in New York because it’s so competitive and there is so much to learn. Julliard is a great place because the students are unique and it’s a really small program, so you get to know everyone. The environment at Julliard is different because the Clef Club the environment is very positive but kind of chaotic and you learn on your own with the people around you while at Julliard its very strict with a heavy workload, pressure, performances, etcetera. I wanted to get a different perspective on learning and hear what people have to say that are more of what you’d describe as traditionalists.

I am studying with Kenny Washington right now and he is filling in the gaps I have with the language and has been encouraging me to listen to players I haven’t listened to before like Hank Mobley, Lucky Thompson, and Bud Johnson. Kenny has inspired me to go outside of the school and get more education from players such as George Coleman who I have been studying with right now and has been a huge help and changed my playing completely in a couple months.

ZS: As you progressed and continue to develop your technique and original sound, who did you try to emulate the most and what was your process? What methods did you find most beneficial?

AM: On saxophone the biggest inspiration at an early age was probably Coltrane. Trane to me is the master inventor and no one was as innovative as much as Trane the way he approached music more habitually and spiritually than just about anyone I’ve been exposed to.

I was inspired by composers like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Mingus who opened up a different side of my musical brain and inspired me to become a composer. I think because they are so unique in their compositions and their musical conception was so developed that it comes out in their improvisation, and that really helps create a unique sound as an improviser and musician in general.

Starting around high school, I wanted to develop my own individual sound in terms of tone, language, and the way I approach the instrument. I started really working on my altissimo register a lot because I wanted to play the entire range of my instrument, then started playing just in the low octave to see if I could leverage the low notes in a linear way before moving to intervallic playing and experimenting with that, and giving myself limitations for what I could work with. This help me slowly develop my own sound because before I was copying players such as Chris Potter, Trane, Brecker, etcetera.

Once I developed my own sound, I developed a way to play within other styles that utilizes language that is already constructed while still sounding authentic which George Coleman has been helping me with. This year, Kurt Rosenwinkel has really opened my eyes to a lot of things as an improviser as well as composer because he has achieved that himself. He has an entire body of work dedicated to his sound and it comes out in his playing which is something I am working towards.

 ZS: Who were your specifically saxophone influences growing up, and have they changed over time or stayed the same? If they’ve changed, why do you think that is?

AM: I stared out with Trane, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Rouse, and Michael Brecker when I was twelve or thirteen. I then was checking out Chris Potter, Mark Turner, and Immanuel Wilkins to listen to more modern language. I had a Joe Henderson period at one point and then I decided to go all the way back and listen to players like Frankie Trumbauer, Charlie Ventura, Don Byas, and Coleman Hawkins – who has slowly become my favorite tenor player. Recently, I have been trying to fill the gaps since then such as listening to Johnny Griffin, Lester Young, Hank Mobley, and always Bird.  

ZS: When it comes to practicing, what is your process?

AM: I had a very loose process practicing when I was younger and trying to find my sound but now it’s more regimented than it used to be. I have certain goals that anytime I walk into a practice room I try and get time with the instrument. If I have a gig, I run over all the tunes I need to learn and get into the harmony, learn the melody, listen to multiple versions, and learn all the ways that someone has started and ended that song.

Preparing for gigs is a very practical way to learn and develop your sound and image. If there is no gig, generally I try to learn tunes a lot which is good for my ear. Playing a tune on piano and working out substitutions over tunes. I have recently been trying to work on my time with the metronome because when I am learning tunes, I put on a record and just play with the record and grab lines and that was the only form of practicing I used to do. It’s good to put on the metronome and work through scales and patterns, not necessarily for playing in improvisation, but more for technique.

Composing is also a form of practicing for me. I will play 45 minutes of saxophone than 15 minutes of piano so that when I go back to saxophone, my mind opens up harmonically.   

ZS: Is there something you would like to share that you believe people don’t know about you?

AM: People don’t know how much of a composer I am yet because I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to play my music. Pretty soon I’ll have a quartet that I play more regularly with to play a full set of my music. I am working on compositions and ready to put them out there with a body of songs that I can release one day.

ZS: When it comes to playing and teaching music, why do you think some players just want to play versus others who much more enjoy the teaching aspect?

AM: I teach a little bit. Some players are more natural or inclined to teach and maybe it’s the way they learned to play music. It’s really hard to vary your teaching methods based on the skill level of the students. I was a mentor at the Clef Club for the last couple years and I’ll work, for example with sone one kids who just started playing the instrument last week and another who has been playing for three years, so it can be tough to share something that will resonate with both of them.

Other players enjoy it as a way to give back to the world of music education, which is such a necessary part of overall education. It’s a different way of thinking and it’s good for young people to learn music. It gives teachers and musicians a lot of gratitude when they can impart knowledge on others and continue the lifecycle of musicians.  Some of the best musicians are not as cohesive or direct when it comes to what a student should work on next. I am not a great teacher in a lot of ways but am trying to work on that.

ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?

AM: Equipment is really important and it’s a big part of your sound and developing a relationship with your instrument. I have a lot of problems with it because I have a Conn 10m which is old and fragile which besides having such a great sound it creates problems with frequent repairs and little nagging things that linger. It’s just really important to have good working equipment. I would like to get a modern horn like one of John Leadbetter’s horns as a back-up tenor because I love the Conn, but I need something I can travel with that I won’t be afraid will fall apart in the plane cabin.





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