President and Founder, Jazz House Kids
An acclaimed jazz vocalist and recording artist, Melissa Walker is recognized as a visionary leader and passionate advocate for education through the arts. She is the president & founder of Jazz House Kids, a nationally-renowned arts education and performance organization that uses jazz as an effective teaching tool to help young people gain an “artistic edge” through programs in schools, at the Jazz House in Montclair, NJ, and in the community. JazzTimes calls Jazz House Kids, “one of the most successful and respected jazz education programs in the country.”
Jazz House Kids has become a rich gathering place of musical talent and shared promise providing year-round musical, educational, and cultural programs to students in grades K-12, teachers, adults, and families from diverse backgrounds. The organization fosters a strong community of award-winning students, dedicated teachers, and first-rate professional musicians.
With Walker at the helm along with her husband, 5-time GRAMMY Award-winning bassist Christian McBride and recently named artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, serving as artistic chair and board member, Jazz House Kids offers tremendous value, well beyond music education. Jazz House Kids exists to help young people find their ‘voice’ in jazz and provide the tools they need to become global citizens and community leaders. More than 800 young people study with Jazz House Kids each week.
Wynton Marsalis says of Walker and McBride’s work, “Through Jazz House Kids, they are developing some of the country’s most promising young musicians by providing them with world class educational and performance opportunities. Their students consistently impress, not only because of their musical abilities, but also because of their focus, presence and commitment to quality. Jazz House Kids, besides having a great name, is doing much more than educating musicians – they are developing cultural leaders. Something we desperately need at this time.”
Walker has dedicated herself to making sure that every student receives a great arts education and has crafted Jazz House Kids to bridge the gap in music instruction and place students on a level playing field with their peers from other communities. She leads a dynamic team that has created transformative music, mentoring, education and apprenticeship programs that open doors and put instruments in the hands of students ages 8 to 20.
In the Schools – Jazz House Kids leads classroom-based music programs that serve 665 students in 10 underserved schools in Newark, Orange, Union and Elizabeth. Programs include the Let’s Build a Jazz House Workshop Series®, the Jazz House Music Club®, year-long instrumental and vocal residencies, and a Vocal Summit Jazz Choir for students with special needs. Delivering on the mission to serve families in need, in 2010 Walker launched the Give an Instrument Fund to provide free rental instruments to students who would otherwise be sitting on the sidelines.
At the Jazz House – Nearly 150 students who hail from 45 school districts study with 18 Jazz House Kids teaching artists in 21 ensembles that include three big bands, a vocal academy and three adult groups. Walker is proud of the Chica Power® program, a free month-long residency during Women’s History Month that encourages more young women instrumentalists to study jazz. Each year, Christian McBride hosts the acclaimed Inside the Jazz Note®, an afternoon masterclass for 200+ high school band and vocal students plus an evening benefit with a special guest artist. The Jazz House Summer Workshop serves 160 students from four states and 62 communities each August. No student is turned away regardless of financial means — more than 40% of the families pay significantly reduced sliding-scale tuition for the Jazz House Summer Workshop and classes at the Jazz House.
In the Community – At the heart of the mission is building community through the rich legacy of jazz. Jazz House Kids uplifts its community with more than 75 Emerging Musician Community Concerts (EMC2) each year, with students performing for over half a million people and counting! In 2010, Walker launched the first Montclair Jazz Festival. This annual, “no tickets required” summer festival has grown exponentially and has become one of the region’s largest music festivals attended by 10,000 people. Directed by Christian McBride, all 160 students from the Jazz House Summer Workshop perform on the same stage as international headliners.
Jazz House Kids has many special friends who champion the efforts of this dynamic and visionary leader, including: Sonny Rollins, Harry Belafonte, Wynton Marsalis, Angelique Kidjo, Al Jarreau, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Jon Faddis, Curtis Fuller, Sheila E., Pat Metheny, Dianne Reeves, Chick Corea, Maceo Parker, Joe Lovano and Esperanza Spalding.
Walker has been the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions over her illustrious career. In 2012, she was honored with her husband Christian McBride by the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College, New Jersey Chapter with the African American Classical Music Award. In 2011, she received the Red Cross Award from the Montclair, Glen Ridge and Nutley, New Jersey Chapter for “significant impact on the quality of life through volunteer and humanitarian efforts” and the Community Service Award for BlueWaveNJ. Honored with the Jazz Journalists Association’s Jazz Hero Award in 2013, Walker also was named one of New Jersey’s Best 50 Women in Business by NJBiz magazine in 2014. She and her husband share the honor of being awarded the 2016 Champion of the People Award from Family Connections.
Walker continues to be in demand as a jazz vocalist, and has performed internationally for 20 years, with five solo albums and guest appearances on numerous CDs, including Christian McBride’s 2012 GRAMMY-winning album The Good Feeling.