Music, coding and photographing the stars — Greg Aker can do it all.

December 11, 2022

Photos by Sterling Sewell

Dishes clattered and horns began playing a few notes. Off Broadway, down a flight of stairs and through the doors a band was setting up at Broadway Brewery. The atmosphere was laid-back, slowed down. The Columbia Jazz Orchestra, colloquially known as COJO, was preparing to play its monthly gig. COJO has been playing in the area for many years, and so has its lead tenor saxophonist, Greg Aker.

With his standard thick, black-framed glasses, a button-down — usually flannel — blue jeans and dress boots, Aker has lived and played music in Columbia for 16 years. He has a distinctly modern playing style, favoring the upper end of the horn while improvising. His tone on the horn is dark, big and clear, but not piercing.

Aker’s day job is, unexpectedly, coding. He currently works remotely as a vice president of engineering for a fleet management startup based out of Dallas called Vinli. Aker would call himself an “ear player” in software engineering. “Ear players” in music are people who do not have technical training in music. They may not know how to read music, but they can hear something and be able to play it back verbatim.

While coding keeps the lights on, Aker has spent much less time coding than playing music. Aker was born in Topeka, Kansas, but moved around as a kid. Playing music has been a constant throughout his life, Aker’s 37 years playing music began at age 5. Like many musicians, Aker began his musical journey on the piano. During the first two years of lessons, Aker never learned how to read music. He could only play back what his teacher had played. Eventually, Aker moved and got a new piano teacher who quickly deduced that Aker could not read music.

“She leans in [to my parents] and says, ‘Your son has no idea how to read music,’” Aker said.

Aker’s least favorite band class was always the marching band portion. Despite this, his coolest music experience was participating in the Disney All-American College Band at Disney World, where he marched in the nighttime parade through the park. On the Fourth of July, Aker said the crowd was estimated at nearly a million along the parade route.

“It was fun and people were super into it,” Aker said. “Did I get sick of playing the same Disney music every day? Absolutely.”

Aker has a bachelor’s degree in music with a minor in jazz from the University of Northern Iowa. While in college, Aker helped run the Tallcorn Jazz Festival and helped coordinate the Iowa City Jazz Festival. The experience allowed him to get a job as an event coordinator at the Kansas Expo Center in Topeka.

“It was a blast because I would probably do 200 events a year,” Aker said. “Between monster trucks, to weddings, to quinceañeras, to gun shows, to farm shows, to random meetings, to concerts, to rodeos, everything.”

After a few years of working around the clock at the expo center, he was burnt out. An opportunity for a fresh start came from his friend, Matt Wilson. Wilson is a critically acclaimed drummer who Aker met at the Iowa City Jazz Festival. Wilson informed Aker of a job opening in Columbia under Jon Poses, executive director of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series. The Jazz Series hosts national jazz artists at venues across Columbia. Aker took the position and has been in Columbia ever since.

According to Poses, Aker soon established himself as one of the “mainstays” in the Columbia jazz community. Poses described Aker as a problem-solver and someone generous to his fellow musicians. This characteristic of Aker came into play during one of the Jazz Series’ shows this September. Organist Pat Bianchi’s trio had travel delays on its way to Columbia, so the Jazz Series reached out to Aker to fill time before the Bianchi show.

“Turned out, he and his colleagues played for 80 minutes — which bordered on the heroic,” Poses said.

Aker had run community jam sessions at Cafe Berlin prior to the pandemic with drummer Andrew Sieff. The sessions attracted several local high school players. Aker tried to get to know the kids and be supportive of them while demanding more of them.

“I thought it was cool; we’d have high schoolers from Hallsville, or Hickman and Rockbridge kids come,” Aker said. “I think it provided a good learning opportunity for them.”

The jam sessions stopped when the pandemic began, and Aker said he is trying to start them again.

Outside his career, Aker has had a list of hobbies from astronomy to reading detective novels to welding. On his website, you can find a list of things that he has “taken apart and put back together again” for fun. Aker has gone through the process with mouthpieces, clocks, speakers and multiple Hammond B-3 organs. His current project is building a new desk for himself.

“There is never a time when I look at Greg and think, ‘Man he’s bored,” said Aker’s wife, Katie Madden-Aker. “He is always doing something.”

Aker has been married for 14 years, and in that time Madden-Aker said she hasn’t missed a single public concert he has played in. Through all those years and all those performances, she said she has learned a lot about Aker’s playing.

Recently the bulk of Aker’s time is outside with a telescope at night, taking photographs of the night sky. Aker said a nebula can take hours of exposure over multiple nights to capture. He then compiles the photos through software to develop a single image of the nebula. Aker described the process as maddening. He said taking the photos from his light-polluted backyard in Columbia can be difficult. Aker believes astrophotography is the closest humans can get to time travel, as the light we see from stars takes upwards of millions of years to reach us.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, Aker went through a “midlife crisis” on saxophone. Many great musicians from around the country started offering Zoom lessons while stuck at home andAker ended up taking lessons from saxophonists Melissa Aldana and Dick Oatts. During this time Aker joined the Bob Reynolds Virtual Studio, which he said has many practice resources available.

“The cool thing was I would just talk to people about ‘How do you practice, what do you practice?’” Aker said. “Most of it was realizing that they (Aldana and Oatts) all deal with the same things, but they’re much more effective practicers.”

Aker said he began frequently listening, transcribing and practicing rudimentary things he hadn’t practiced since high school. That’s when he reached out to Kansas City saxophonist Matt Otto, associate professor of jazz studies at the University of Kansas.

Aker said the first Zoom lesson began with Otto asking him to play something fast, something slow, and finally to sing the base notes. Singing the base notes was a struggle for Aker.

Otto said Aker had lost touch with his ears since college, with musical phrases stuck under his fingers that he had been repeating for twenty years.

“Everything he was saying finally put into words how I felt,” Aker said.

Following their meeting, Aker went into a self-described “Marine boot camp for saxophone.” Otto helped Aker get back to the singing and hearing aspects of music.

“Most of my lessons and most of my practice was putting on a backing track and singing along with the backing track,” said Aker said. “Then learning to play on my horn, the solo I sang.”

Aker said Otto’s whole point is that if you are not playing the horn, then what you sing over a backing track is who you actually are. It isn’t licks and phrases that your hands have memorized, and it isn’t limited by your technical ability.

“Matt Otto kind of broke me down to a shell of my former self, and then helped me to build up.”

Coming out of the pandemic, Aker finds himself optimistic as people are coming back to the live music scene. He is looking forward to showcasing what he learned over the lockdowns to his audience.

“They want to be around music-making in public, which I think is pretty awesome.” Aker said.

Edited by Egan Ward |
Copy edited by Shirin Xavier and Jacob Richey

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