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.
How did Jazz House Kids start?
So many things just kind of happen. This happened when the great radio station, WBGO, in Newark, called me to do a kid’s program. Thinking about that — despite performing a lot and playing all over the place — this idea of working with all these kids from two to 12 years old, I was incredibly nervous with this experience.
So I started thinking about how I was going to convey this message about Jazz and make it something that was interactive and something that really shared the joy that I felt in this music when I was singing and listening and playing with all these young people and parents.
So I really thought that Jazz is like building a house. And that became the foundation of the Jazz House Kids. My very first program was called, “Let’s Build a Jazz House.” I felt that all the members in the band helped to make this house and this house tells a story of the people who live in it and that house lives in a community of jazz clubs, players, composers and audiences in a neighborhood and that neighborhood is a global world. At the time, I was doing a lot of traveling and what struck me was that how we could travel anywhere and that music has its own vocabulary. So we don’t have to have a common language we speak, but we have that through music and that became the essence of Jazz House Kids.
Why is important that children and young adults know specifically about Jazz?
It’s America’s music, first and foremost. To know about cultural heritage and to have access to that is something that should be everybody’s job. That hasn’t really been done. A lot of musicians will talk about how they go around the world and there their music is embraced. Then you get to America and it’s not really embraced or appreciated, but it was born in this country. It’s America’s music and America’s gift to the world. It really tells the story of America, too. Jazz forms so much of the music we listen to today.
It really speaks to these kids and when they have access to it, they love it. They gravitate to it and they’ll work hard at it. They tend to be better students because of it.
What advice would you give to young people who want to be professional musicians?
Young people should follow their hearts. To be a professional musician, you must dedicate your whole life to that and you must be completely prepared to make it your life’s work.
The great singer, Betty Carter, said to me, “You must focus on music completely.” That’s really a tall order in today’s world for a variety of reasons. I don’t think you do it lightly—you follow your heart and when you make that step, you know that’s what you’re doing. Duke Ellington said music was his mistress.
The other piece is that you’ll do music without real regard to what it will bring back to you. You don’t go into it thinking, “I’m going to be a millionaire or a celebrity.” You do it for personal reasons and it will unfold.
Melissa: Through the music. Christian was well-along in this career and I used to go to a couple of clubs where he was playing.
Christian: There were, like, three levels of how we met. 1993, 1998 and then we came together for good in 2003.
Melissa: I was in his audience in the beginning of ’93. We were both performing for festivals and a boat cruise and those became really funny times for us because, musically, we had some strife on those occasions.
Christian: No, you had strife. I had no strife.
Melissa: I had strife because his band was so loud, you could not hear my band. He wouldn’t get off the stage one time and wouldn’t let my band on. Early on there was always this joke when I would see him like, “Gosh, it’s you again!”
Christian: It wasn’t our fault.
Melissa: It wasn’t. They do these festivals and they have these grand ideas that they can have 10 bands playing at the same time.
Where did you grow up, Christian?
In Philadelphia, which is one of the great major historic cities in the history of Jazz. So many legendary musicians have come from this town and have become pillars in the history of the music, from McCoy Tyner, Betty Colson, Lee Morgan to Joey DeFrancesco, Kurt Rosenwinkel or Questlove from The Roots.
Even had I not had a father and great uncle who were professional musicians, chances are I still would have experienced something that would have led me to the music because of what Philadelphia was like growing up.
One of the most world-renowned symphony orchestras—Philadelphia Orchestra. Many great jazz clubs; many great venues; a lot of great soul and gospel music, so it was a great city to grow up in.
Did you start playing the bass because your father and great uncle played the bass?
I saw my father perform quite a number of times as a kid. Three was one particular show—I don’t know why that one stuck—I just became fascinated with the bass. At that time it was the electric bass. So I asked my mother for an electric bass. She didn’t even hesitate, she said, “Yeah okay; sure.”
I feel very fortunate that I found what I love in life so early. I was nine years old and I knew I wanted to be a professional musician. Something about the electric bass felt extremely natural — it felt like that was what I was supposed to do…
Then my mother saw I was becoming very dedicated and serious about music, in general. At that time, there were a number of middle and junior high schools that had really good music programs. There was a place called George Wharton Pepper Middle School and they had one of the most celebrated music programs in the City for middle schools. So that was where I was enrolled and that’s when I started playing acoustic bass.
So you switched to the acoustic bass.
That’s where my great uncle comes into the picture. When he found out I was taking acoustic bass lessons, he got so excited. He saw this opportunity as, “I got a young convert on my hands.” He called me up and asked me to come over to the house.
He had this library full of jazz albums. I stayed at that house for about 12 hours. And for 12 hours straight— Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Arnett Coleman, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. The entire gamut of jazz and when I left his house, I was completely converted one thousand percent.
The one thing I love about my great uncle was that he never told me that I had to stop listening to Michael Jackson or James Brown or Prince or pop music. He said that’s all part of the fabric of black culture — Louis Armstrong to Michael Jackson — there’s a thread there. I always admired the fact that my great uncle looked at Jazz as a major root of the big tree known as Black music.
What was your Dad’s view of music?
I never had those types of conversations with my Dad. He was one of those two- or three-word answer type of guys. I suppose we could have an intellectual conversation about the music, but my great uncle was so much fun in talking about the music, I never thought I had to go to another source in those early years.
What were your parents’ reactions when they learned you wanted to be a professional musician?
I think they were thrilled. I think I progressed a little faster than my Dad probably expected because the time I was a junior in high school, I was getting calls to sub jobs he couldn’t make.
How did your father feel about this. Was there any competition?
To this day, I still don’t really know. I thought it was cool. It’s like me and my Dad are working the same jobs around town. My mother was completely thrilled.
A major thing that happened to me was meeting Wynton Marsalis in high school. Wynton came to Philadelphia to give a workshop at our high school’s arch rival high school. I had all of Wynton’s albums up to that point.
He is so culturally significant now and at that time he was almost like a pop star. When Wynton came to town, all the guys in the jazz bands were like, “Oh my God!” I got to know him a little bit, he heard me play. He took me under his wing, he looked out for me — he looked out for a lot of people. He became my mentor. When certain musicians came through Philadelphia, Wynton would tell them, “There’s a little 15-year-old bass player in Philly, look out for him.” I met his brother, Branford, about three or four months later.
Where did you attend college?
I went to Julliard — before they had a Jazz program. I was also studying classical music as intensely as Jazz throughout high school. My lofty goal was to play both classical and jazz music, but I didn’t know that you don’t freelance as a bassist with classical music. First of all, there isn’t much chamber music written for bass. Even to be a substitute for a symphony orchestra, you have to audition and be accepted into an orchestra as if you were going to be a regular member. When I realized that was the case, I became a full-time jazz musician, which I think was what I wanted deep in my heart.
What does Jazz mean to you?
Melissa and I are on the same page — you know it when you feel it. I don’t think anybody can quite articulate what Jazz is or means because you look at that entire tree called music and you look at the roots — gospel, blues and jazz — and how everything has come out of this. It could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If you hear us perform that answer might become clearer.
What was it like to work with your hero, James Brown?
Working with James Brown was a whole odyssey. The concert we did together at the Hollywood Bowl was the end of a decade-long story. When we worked together at the Hollywood Bowl, it was quite surreal. He’s been such a part of my DNA since I was a kid. I wasn’t scared. I probably should have been, but I knew him so well, there was no curve ball I couldn’t hit. I knew so much about him onstage and off stage — was ready. In retrospect, I think he knew I already loved him, so he didn’t throw me any curve balls because he figured, “He already knows all this stuff.”
Where do you see Jazz going?
The beauty of Jazz (and life) is you don’t know where it’s going. You can prepare, you can have your game plan in order and find out, wait; that’s not where we’re going.
There will always be the musicians and listeners who will always push the envelope; there will always be the musicians and listeners who will uphold the tradition and somehow balance the scale between the two, and I like to think I am a part of that little group.
Are you still the same person despite the incredible level of success that you have achieved? Have you become more protective of your privacy?
I’ve set a personal precedent where it might be too late to change. I’m everybody’s fun guy…”Christian is so cool, you can hang with him anytime.” But I realize as things progress, I do need to become a little more protective of my personal space.
Melissa: There’s a great quote from Roy Haynes in Downbeat Magazine where he says of Christian, ” He plays like his personality — big, gregarious, loving and all of that.”
What did it mean to you to win two Grammy Awards?
The first one I didn’t even know I won—I got it in the mail. They don’t come for about four to six months and I got this box in the mail from a recording academy. Because the first Grammy I got was from McCoy Tyner, I didn’t realize it was for a collaborative effort….I was pleasantly surprised.
The second Grammy — the same thing — a collaborative effort with the Five Peace Band with Chick Corea and John McLaughlin — two more icons.
To get a call from Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea or McCoy Tyner—that’s the real award. For James Brown to put his arm around me and say, “Yeah, son, you know what you’re doing” — who needs a Grammy.
What is your advice to young people who want to play music professionally?
Dedication — same thing Melissa said. Be as creative as you possibly can. But you also need to gain as much information as you can. There’s a school of thought that learning things can extinguish the imagination, but that is not the case at all.
To learn about history, chords, theory, harmony, rhythm — the science of things — should in no way inhibit your imagination.