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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."

The event is held in Nishuane Park in Montclair on the second Saturday in August, one week after the Newport Jazz Festival. (This makes for an especially busy time for McBride, who not only serves as Jazz House's Artistic Chair, but also serves as Artistic Director at Newport.) Jazz House Kids carries out other related community outreach in connection with the festival, organizing related performances and events in the weeks leading up to the festival, partnering with the Montclair Public Library, the Montclair Art Museum, and Montclair State University. For the 2017 festival, the organization also produced live streaming video that reached twelve countries, thanks to some generous donors.

The spring program, Inside the Jazz Note, has featured a host of jazz luminaries over the years in addition to Marsalis, including Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Al Jarreau, David Sanborn, Dianne Reeves, and Esperanza Spalding, among others. "The first day is a master class for ten to twelve bands from across New Jersey, coming as far as Camden," says Walker. "They come in and they have workshops with these artists, who give them feedback and work with their instructors, and then there's an improv session, a Q and A, a mini-concert, and a conversation with the artist. It's a great close to the school year." The featured guest artists for the May 17, 2018 program are Bruce Hornsby and Jack DeJohnette.

Another important part of the organization's outreach is through "giglets"—performances of student bands at various community locations. "I would say that early on, it became clear to me that there was both an opportunity and a necessity that needed to be filled," says Walker. "The opportunity was to show young people the joy of being civic minded and to give our emerging musicians an opportunity to use their talent to enrich a community and in many instances serve as their first paying gig. That became our community concert series. In the beginning, it just kind of happened, as most great things do. It just evolved. Our kids would go to nursing homes, other schools, community centers, and play. And it has now become a real part of the Jazz House. We do 60 to 80 of those a year. It's kind of a tall order for the students. They've got to learn a certain amount of music, be able to play at a high level of engagement, enter into a new situation, be prepared, and be professional.

"There's no better way to see what our students can do than to see them in action. Almost without exception, our audiences are totally surprised. Here, we'll have 12-year-olds playing for them, and if you weren't looking at them, you'd never believe they were 12 years old. The kids bring Jazz House out in the community, and they learn essential skills to help them have a bright future. It works on so many different levels. That young person can move their life forward, we can put something into the community as an investment, and we can move the organization forward for someone else. That's kind of Jazz House in a nutshell."

Awards and accolades

Performing opportunities for a number of the organizations' students go far beyond local venues. Jazz House Kids big bands and small ensembles have consistently been selected as finalists and won several honors at the annual Mingus Competition organized by the Charles Mingus Institute and the Essentially Ellington competition at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Jazz House Kids students have also won spots on bands at the annual GRAMMY Camp Jazz Session, a highly select group of 32 students from all over the country, as well as All-State and regional jazz bands. The organization's students have received many other forms of recognition, including several YoungArts awards from the National YoungArts Foundation, and a number of DownBeat magazine Student Jazz Awards. And Jazz House Kids students have won more than $1.5 million in scholarships and other awards.

Among Jazz House Kids alumni is saxophonist Julian Lee, a recent graduate of the Juilliard School, who hosts the weekly Thursday and Saturday Late Night Sessions at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola and has performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Pianist Isaiah J. Thompson, another Jazz House alumnus, is currently studying with Kenny Barron at Juilliard, has toured with Wynton Marsalis in the south of France, and appears with him and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on a live album released in 2017, Handful of Keys. (Lee and Thompson are both winners of the Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists—Lee in 2017 and Thompson in 2018.) Another alumnus, trombonist Coleman Hughes, was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar, has performed and recorded with the Mingus Big Band, and is now attending Columbia University. Another Jazz House student, Matthew Whitaker, a 16-year-old pianist and organist, is a winner of Amateur Night at the Apollo and has appeared on The Today Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Showtime at the Apollo on Fox, and has already toured widely in the U.S. and abroad. Saxophonist Zoe Obadia, another current Juilliard student, recently joined Marsalis and Jon Batiste's Stay Human Band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Walker credits Obadia with inspiring her to embark on a special Jazz House initiative, Chica Power, to bring more young girls to jazz, especially instrumentalists.

"They're all out there playing," says Walker, "but they all come back to the Jazz House, thankfully, because I miss them, we all miss them. We hire about 20 or 25 alums as teaching assistants for the Jazz House Summer Workshop, and we see others at our holiday party and throughout the year. We kicked off the Jazz House Alumni Big Band at our 15th anniversary which we're going to see more of. You know, once you're at Jazz House, you're kind of here for life. That's why we call it Jazz House. Being in the House and being part of the family is really sacred ground. It's really, really great."

Building the House

Looking back, Walker marvels at how far Jazz House Kids has come from its very modest beginnings. Its focus was on work in schools for about the first half of its existence, with Walker organizing things out of her home.

"The truth is, for eight years, Jazz House was in our guest room," says Walker. "It had a pull-out couch, and I put a little sign of Jazz House on the door. Every once in a while I'd say to Christian, we've got somebody coming over, just make sure you get dressed." Walker held off on opening an office location until Jazz House Kids could also have a place to offer its own programming.

Ultimately, Walker's prayers were answered through a connection made by a special friend and generous Jazz House donor, Rose Cali, wife of the late John J. Cali, whose philanthropy established the music school named in his honor at Montclair State University. "Rose is a networker and a real community advocate," says Walker. "Rose said, 'Listen, I think I know where you could start. Sharon Miller, a friend of mine, a great dancer, who danced for Alvin Ailey, has a little bit of a space. She's going to convert her dance shop. Her store is going to be your space.' And, sure enough, Sharon moved her tutus out and we moved in, sharing her space. It was 323 square feet; it was so tiny. And that was the Jazz House. We first started with one class taught by Mike Lee, and the students had to take their shoes off because they were going into her dance studio, and she had a special floor.

"Then we made a partners with a great organization in town, the Salvation Army Montclair Citadel. They had a lot more room for classes. And we got a pushcart. We started with, I think, three nights of classes, and each night, some of our students would come over and pack up the cart with our music stands, a drum kit, whatever we needed, registration and check-in materials. We'd set Jazz House Kids up in the foyer and in the classrooms; it was mobile. We'd go over there from our office space with the cart—in snow and rain—but we could walk there.

"We did that for a number of years before, once again, Rose helped us find another opportunity—our own dedicated space. She introduced me to Steven Plofker, one of the major real estate developers in Montclair. Steve said, 'let me keep an eye out for space for you.' We had no money. Everything was too small. We decided that we would rent the space, but still, it was a significant investment. And Steve brought me to the space where we are now." But it needed a lot of work. "It was awful. It had a dirt floor. There was an old board spray-painted 'Do Not Enter' leaning up on the outside. Dark, no windows. Steve says, 'Here's your new spot!' I said, 'here's our new spot?' I'm pretty good with seeing a space. It was hard to see this space. But thanks to Rose and John Cali—they really helped us out—and our Board was great and really dug in to get it done. I asked John Reimnitz, a great architect, to do me a favor. I had no idea what I was asking, but 150 hours later—of donated time—he designed the most beautiful, flexible space.

"Even as we've grown, it's still working. There's a living room, a café, studios, and we can put on some public programming here. It's sunnier than we thought; it's colorful, and it works. We found out that we had interior exposed brick walls; we had big tall ceilings; and we put in a beautiful floor. It kind of has a New York-loft-like feel. When we opened it up in 2013, we couldn't believe that this was going to be the Jazz House. My mom, who was our very first donor, came and picked up a broom to help get it ready. In just a few short years, we went from sitting in our guest room, worrying about Christian getting dressed, and Sharon Miller, going in the sleet and snow to have classes—to this space. So it was really cool. And what we realized was that, then, we really could dig in and bring in the community. So that's kind of the story of the Jazz House. We don't have a sign on the outside—never got around to it. People know where we are somehow. And they're welcome. It's working, and there have been a huge amount of donors, foundations like Victoria and Dodge, and Board members, who alongside our amazing staff and faculty have helped us get here, swinging doors open for 15 years. I'm still humbled, because a lot of people have made it possible. We're just embarking on the next 15 and maybe we'll have another 15 more beyond that."

Photo credit: Richard Conde
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