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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."

A regional and global draw

For the classes offered on site, after school and on weekends at the Jazz House headquarters, students come from a wide geographic radius. "They come from about 50 school districts," says Walker. "Some people travel up to two hours to get here—one way. And that really speaks to how unique the Jazz House is—and how there is really a dearth of programs that engage young people around this music. We've got over 20 ensembles. We have three big bands, and many, many small ensembles. Those two formats are at the heart of jazz—playing in a big band and working together, and having your individual voice very much in the forefront in a small group."

Classes range from pre-college college programs to those targeted for students as young as eight years old. "We have a vocal academy that meets on Saturday, very advanced in terms of what they are learning both as solo singers and as ensemble singers. And we have a pre-college instrumental academy on Sunday. These are extended periods of time where students are coming for three to five hours on the weekend. Perfect, really solid training for young people who are going to continue on with music. We also have an Armstrong track—those are our youngest beboppers, kids who are new to jazz, and some are actually new to music. The typical student is at least a year on their instrument. Some have been playing a little longer but haven't been introduced to jazz."

For the pre-college students, the organization hosts "Jazz House Goes to College" events, which brings in representatives from colleges and conservatories, to help Jazz House students entering the college application process. Other current offerings include classes for adults, and Walker is hoping to expand programming to include a dedicated jazz strings class. "More and more young people are coming to our doors who are playing strings who want to be able to improvise," she says. "It's really a fascinating and essential aspect of music."

Jazz House Kids also draws students from around the world for its two-week-long summer workshop held at Montclair State University, with students ages 12 to 18 residing on campus or commuting. Run by trumpeter Ted Chubb with Christian McBride, together with a faculty of active professional jazz musicians, the summer program takes a full-immersion approach, with small group and big band rehearsals; sessions on theory, improvisation, composition, and film scoring; private lessons; and master classes that have included guest instructors such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Anat Cohen, Louis Hayes, and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Student performance opportunities include a night at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, as well the Montclair Jazz Festival. (Registration for the 2018 summer workshop, which begins July 30, opened in March.) Between the summer workshop and the school-year classes at the Jazz House, enrollment approaches 500 students for the year.

Reaching out

In addition to the classes offered throughout the year and the work in nearby schools, Walker sees Jazz House Kids as having a third major component to its work: community outreach. The organization produces two signature programs as part of this—the Montclair Jazz Festival, which began in 2010 as an outgrowth out of the summer workshop, and Inside the Jazz Note, a two-day event held in May that includes master classes and a concluding concert and conversation, which in 2017 featured Wynton Marsalis.

"In many ways, the Montclair Jazz Festival has almost become the face of Jazz House Kids—it's our most public event," says Walker. "As with most things at Jazz House, it came about organically. The first year it was just the summer campers, their parents, and their families. We had Monty Alexander and Christian performing, along with the faculty and the students. It started with an audience of about 300 people. Probably only 200 were family members, and then there were people walking by who stopped in to enjoy everything. And the year after it was a thousand people. And it just grew. Now it has about 30 vendors, sponsors, and two tents. There are no tickets required, no barrier to access, and it's very family-friendly. It's what we're about: hear live music, see live music, be live music."
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