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Jazz House Kids: The House that Jazz Built

Bob Kenselaar By

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Jazz House Kids uses this home-grown music called jazz as a teaching tool for young people. We use it to build global citizens and community leaders . . . to move young people’s lives forward. —Melissa Walker, Founder and President, Jazz House Kids
When we think of jazz education, we might first think about what's developed at the college level and at music conservatories over the last fifty years or so, and then maybe consider how jazz instruction and jazz bands have flourished at the high school and middle school levels a little more recently. But beyond these settings, jazz education has advanced thanks to a select number of other, smaller, independent organizations that have had a strong impact on their local communities.

One such organization is Jazz House Kids, of Montclair, New Jersey, which has flourished this New York Metro area suburb since it was founded in 2002 and has served more than 50,000 students. It has made its presence known nationally, as well. Its ensembles have consistently placed in the top three for many years in competitions for high-school age students such as the Charles Mingus Institute's Mingus Competition and Jazz at Lincoln Center's Essentially Ellington. Students from Jazz House Kids have won Downbeat magazine student awards and been chosen for the highly selective GRAMMY high school bands. And Jazz House Kids practically serves as a feeder school for the jazz program at Juilliard—a number of students have won full scholarships there in recent years—in addition to sending students to other well-known jazz programs, such as those at Berklee, the New School, Northwestern, and Oberlin, not to mention a couple of Ivy League schools, as well.

Melissa Walker, the Founder afnd President of Jazz House Kids and its guiding force, is quick to point out that the impact of the organization goes far beyond the accomplishments of its top students, impressive as they are. In fact, you almost have to pull that information out of her. She's proud of the students who are on their way in making careers as jazz performers, but she seems prouder still of the fact that nearly 100% of Jazz House Kids students go on to college, studying a wide variety of subjects—and many of them the first in their family to do so.

Walker sees the mission of the non-profit organization in very broad terms. "Jazz House Kids uses this home-grown music called jazz as a teaching tool for young people. We use it to build global citizens and community leaders. That's really what the heart of this is—to use this music that is so engaging, that is such a place for self-expression and collective participation—in order to move young people's lives forward."

In addition to Walker, leadership at Jazz House Kids also includes Christian McBride, who serves as Artistic Chair of the organization—and also happens to be Walker's husband—along with an active board. There are about 150 faculty, including accomplished, experienced musicians who play regularly on their own in the New York metro area, and there's also a small, dedicated staff.

An independent, non-profit organization, Jazz House Kids has a 4,500-square-foot space with three studios in Montclair on Bloomfield Avenue, the town's main thoroughfare, with classes offered six days a week, and it operates in-school music programs at eight different New Jersey locations in Newark, Elizabeth, Orange, and Union. Community engagement is another central element of the organization; Jazz House Kids organizes the annual Montclair Jazz Festival, a full-day free event that drew 10,000 attendees last August and featured such artists as Dee Dee Bridgewater, John Scofield, Paquito D'Rivera, Cyrus Chestnut, and Christian McBride, along with ensembles of Jazz House students and faculty.

An accidental start

Walker's involvement with jazz education and Jazz House Kids came about almost accidentally. She had long experience working as a jazz vocalist—which she continues today, appearing on two tracks of McBride's 2017 GRAMMY-winning big-band album Bringin' It.

WBGO, the New York Metro area's primary jazz radio station, based in Newark, was organizing an afternoon jazz program for children, and Gary Walker and Dorthaan Kirk from the station approached Walker for some help. The singer agreed, but remembers being very reluctant about it. That one program was the start of a new whole career for her, though. "But for that, I just know I wouldn't be here. It's just wild to think that 15 years of my life, in essence, started with that one moment. I guess it's that lesson where preparation meets your opportunity. That one moment. Every once in a while when I see Dorthaan and Gary, and I say I can't believe it. And Gary will say, 'Look, I just asked you to do one program. Not 20 bands and thousands of kids.'"

Walker has found her work with the organization rewarding and considers its successes surprising. "To be standing after 15 years, I think, is a real feat for an organization dedicated to jazz. That is all we do, and we try to do our very best to be as authentic and as high caliber that we can be. It's really important that all the people who come in contact with the organization feel that they are welcome, feel that they are imbued with this music, and feel that we take their lives somewhere."

In local schools

Ask her what JHK is about and the first thing she mentions is the in-school programs. "That was the first area where we started, in under-resourced schools, in communities that didn't have their own school music programs. We worked in communities that had pull-out classes for students and didn't have a band, or in a school that really wanted to offer music but didn't have the expertise, and in schools where students might not have the resources to get private lessons. We offer deeper engagement with music for the students through after-school or in-school jazz music clubs, with programs anywhere between 60 minutes to two hours, depending on the particular school. We're usually there one to two days a week."

Most of the in-school programs—covering both instrumental and vocal music—target middle-school students, although there are also programs at Science Park High School, as well as the John F. Kennedy School for special needs students, both in Newark. The Jazz House Kids serves about a thousand students a year in the in-school programs. Instructors typically serve as year-long artists-in-residents at the schools. "We place two artists, a lead instructor and a teaching assistant, in the schools. And we also do other things, such as a shorter three-month residency, or a concert. But primarily, we do these year-long residencies. It's no longer simply about 'enrichment.' That's not what we're trying to do. We're aiming to give long, sustained access to music to advance student learning. At some of the schools, we're going in where there is an existing music program and rounding it out. But in others, we offer their students their only access to music."
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