Gary Keller – Saxophone and Professor - Performer
BMHOF Class of 2014
Gary Keller has made a name for himself around the world as an extremely talented saxophonist and a highly respected music educator. He has performed and taught internationally and has toured with some of the biggest names in music, including Woody Herman, Frank Sinatra and Jaco Pastorius, to name a few. Though he now lives and works in Miami, Fla., it was the Buffalo area that gave Keller his start.
Keller grew up in East Aurora, where he had a rural/suburban upbringing. Although not from a particularly musical family, music was valued as there was a piano in the house and his mother sang in the church choir. Keller said he “was first attracted to the saxophone listening to rock and roll records and watching big bands on television, particularly the Tonight Show.” In a day when TV shows such as Jackie Gleason and Lawrence Welk boasted house bands, Keller was hooked.
Keller was given his first horn at the age of 10 so he could play in his elementary school band. His participation in school bands continued all the way through high school, and his interest in blues and jazz records grew.
“The first records that caught my attention as a youngster,” Keller said, “were Boots Randolph, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, and an old Duke Ellington 78 of Blue Skies featuring Cat Anderson. That’s what we had in the house, but I soon progressed to the blues-tinged jazz of Les McCann, Ramsey Lewis, and blues bands such as Freddie King and B.B. King. Then I started buying Downbeat magazine, which steered me towards Monk, Rollins, and Coltrane records."
Keller also recalled a school field trip to Kleinhan’s Music Hall where he heard the Count Basie Band play. The concert blew him away and solidified his love for jazz and big band swing music. To this day he can remember what songs Count Basie played and said that concert had a huge influence on him. Other influences from the time include his high school music teachers, Charlie Gange and John Hasselback, as well as Chuck Mangione and his saxophone player, Jerry Niewood.
As a teen, Keller played in a blues band, covering the music of Paul Butterfield, B.B. King, Van Morrison and the like. He learned scales and chords and would go to Buffalo to hear people like Johnny Gibson play, frequenting music venues such as the Anchor Bar, Melody Fair and the Peace Bridge Exhibition Center. When it came time to apply to colleges, Keller decided to attend the State University of New York at Fredonia and majored in music education, seeing himself has a future high school band director.
While a student at Fredonia, Keller studied classical saxophone. While he did not feel it was the best fit for him, he respected the tradition and took pride in performing at a high level. His real passion was for jazz. There was no formal jazz program at Fredonia when Keller attended, but he participated in the Fredonia Jazz Workshop, an extra-curricular organization with a rich history at the university. As a upperclassmen he played in the Fredonia Jazz Ensemble. The students made the workshop a fantastic opportunity, using student government funds to sponsor a yearly tour as well as bring in various big name guest artists.
Along with his formal studies, Keller was also busy playing in a rock band with a steady Wednesday night at the Caboose, and frequently drove to Buffalo to hear bands play. Accompanied by new-found friends from downstate he also made his first “grown-up” visit to New York City for the Newport Jazz Festival. Upon graduation in 1975, he left Western New York to attend the University of Miami in Florida, following in the footsteps of another Buffalo area saxophonist and Fredonia alum, Eric Traub. Founded by Jerry Coker in the late 1960s, Miami boasted one of the first jazz programs in the nation.
Overwhelmed by the caliber of talent and experience at the University of Miami, Keller decided after one semester to return to Western New York for further study and practice. He worked steadily with a local lounge act, where he became close friends with trumpeter Nelson Starr and was introduced to the Buffalo music scene. He returned to SUNY Fredonia during 1976-77 as a part-time grad student and continued to play with the jazz ensemble and a student quintet. Keller was awarded an outstanding soloist award at the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival. During this time he met his future wife, Linda Carson, a music therapy and music education major.
Over the next year Keller frequented the Buffalo music scene, where he taught, studied, and worked local jazz and commercial gigs with other recent Fredonia grads. Keller worked hard at improving his skills.
“During this period I studied clarinet and saxophone with John Sedola and Mickey Kipler, flute with Robert Moles, piano with Tom Sapienza, and made a few trips to Toronto for lessons with Pat Labarbara,” Keller said. “I also made a point of making all the local jam sessions and rehearsal bands, and taught steadily at U-Crest Music. I frequented the old basement Tralfamodore Cafe across form UB, as well as Bob Minicucci’s Ontario House in Niagara Falls, hearing all the major players when they came through town. I first met saxophonist Dave Liebman at the Tralf, commencing a life long friendship, and eventually played my first jazz gigs as a leader at both clubs."
After getting married in 1978, Keller found his friends leaving Buffalo to pursue careers in New York and Los Angeles. Keller and his wife decided to move back to Miami so he could finish his graduate studies and later move to one of the coasts. This time he was awarded a full scholarship and stipend as teaching assistant. While in school he also held down a steady gig with a top 40 cover band and played with the University of Miami Concert Jazz Band. The faculty at UM was a huge influence on Keller, particularly composer Ron Miller and saxophonist Whit Sidener. Other musicians who were playing in Miami at the time included Ira Sullivan and JacoPastorius, and there was a bustling commercial music scene.
Upon his graduation from the University of Miami in the spring of 1980, Keller joined the Woody Herman Orchestra, where he played third tenor, inheriting the book from the recently departed Joe Lovano. He toured the U.S. with the band multiple times over the course of 16 months, playing the major clubs, festivals and dances around the country. In the late summer of 1981, he left the band and moved back to Miami to be with his wife and contemplate the next career move. Coincidentally the saxophone professorship for what is now the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami became available, and Keller was offered the position. He remains there to this day.
“For whatever reason, I have always been sought out as a teacher,” said Keller, “and the high-level students, the talented and close-knit UM faculty, and the abundant work situation in Miami made it all too easy to stay put.” Along with his professorship, Keller has become a first-call professional in South Florida, staying busy with countless gigs of all stripes, from jazz to commercial to classical. He was the “saxophonist on call” for the Florida Philharmonic for 15 years until its closing in 2002, has also toured with such names as Frank Sinatra, Steve Lawrence and the JacoPastorius Word of Mouth Big Band, and recorded with Gloria Estefan and Natalie Cole.
For the past decade, Keller has been working on more personal projects, performing frequently at the University of Miami and with the Miami Saxophone Quartet, a group he founded in 2001. The Quartet has put out five CDs of impressive arrangements featuring the four saxophonists alongside major artists such as Arturo Sandoval, John Secada, Brian Lynch and Miami’s top rhythm section players.
In 1999 Keller made a critically acclaimed solo recording “Blues For An Old New Age,” and he has continued to tour internationally as a soloist, clinician and as a sideman with name performers. To date, Keller has performed on five continents and given master classes at over 24 colleges around the world. This past summer (2014) he performed at the Standard Bank International Jazz Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, leading the “Cape Town Sax Quartet,” as well as being featured in the festival’s All-Star Big Band, backing vocalist Tutu Puoane.
Keller’s career has focused primarily on teaching because of a natural talent he seems to have for imparting his musical knowledge and passion to others.
“As I enter my 33rd year on the Frost School of Music faculty, I feel incredibly blessed that I have been able to associate with so many fine players in such an interesting city,” said Keller, “not to mention the continual contact I have with the top student talent in the nation.”
The Saxophone Journal has called Keller “admired and respected as a virtuoso performer and world class educator” and he appeared appeared on the 2002 July/August cover of the trade publication.
Keller was recently awarded the Phillip Frost Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship, an award given yearly to a Frost faculty member for his or her achievement and service to the school. He states “my induction into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame is an honor of equal proportion, and one for which I feel both flattered and deeply honored."
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