Posted on 12/7/2010at 8:48 PM
Meet the husband and wife team behind Jazz House Kids, a Montclair-based organization dedicated to jazz education. Melissa Walker, an internationally recognized jazz vocalist, is president and executive director of Jazz House Kids. Christian McBride, a Grammy Award-winning bassist, co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and board member for the New York Chapter of the Grammy Awards, also serves as Jazz House Kids’ creative director.

Where did you grow up, Melissa?

I grew up in Alberta, Canada, which is western Canada, about 400 miles north of the American border. My father played professional football — both my parents are American who grew up in New York and Michigan — and they met at the University of Michigan. From there, my father decided to play for the Canadian League and he moved us to Edmonton. I graduated high school in Edmonton and went to college in the United States and have been here ever since.

How did you get into Jazz?

A funny route. I was always singing as a child. In high school, I started working with a classical instructor. I was playing the bassoon in middle school and high school. When I went into University, I continued to take music classes and study privately. It was in high school when somebody had given me a book on Billie Holiday — I really hadn’t heard Jazz before that. When I went on to college I started picking up these cassettes at the college bookstore. The first cassettes I picked up were Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan — it opened up a whole new world that I didn’t know about. Then it all fell into place. I kept meeting all these jazz musicians.

Were you a music major?

I was a business major, planning to go to law school and I moved to Washington D.C., which had an amazing professional jazz scene. You would sing in and go wherever you could to play and go listen to all this great music—they had a lot of clubs in D.C. From there, I found myself with my first jazz instructor/coach and she really opened the door for me, meeting all these players, listening to all this music that would come through the clubs. That really changed my life.

What does Jazz mean to you?

I always like the saying, “You know it when you hear and feel it.” I think it’s more a feeling than anything for me. I just find it the most interesting and exhilarating music—it just frees you to travel so many places in your mind. Jazz just really changed my life and outlook of what I can offer as I stay on earth, in terms of making it available to a lot of other kids.

When did you move to Montclair?

This is our fifth year here. When I moved to New Jersey, the place I wanted to be was in Montclair. I knew there were a lot of artists and it was close to New York.

How do you like Montclair?

The audience of Montclair and the surrounding communities have been really wonderful to Jazz House Kids. They have come in and supported what we’re doing. They allowed our kids a place to play. Montclair has really been wonderful to us and made a really fertile home for so much to happen. I can’t think of a better place to have started to get some roots than Montclair. Here, we have great thinkers and visionaries.

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