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Jazz House Kids: The House that Jazz Built

Bob Kenselaar By

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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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