At Jazz House Kids, music is a medium for empowerment

Students play different instruments, yet share the same passion for music, specifically jazz.

“We all just have like a great connection and it’s so fun. I just love it,” said student Jacquie Lee.

The musicians are part of Jazz House Kids, which is based in downtown Montclair.

“Jazz House Kids is an organization dedicated to lifting up young people through music, and specifically, through this home grown music called jazz,” said the organization’s founder and president Melissa Walker.

The story began about 17 years ago when a radio station asked Walker, a singer, to participate in their kids music series. Soon after, she was asked to bring the program into the Newark public schools. Walker says those experiences inspired her to create Jazz House Kids.

“Our entire mission is to really build community leaders and global citizens to be their best self, and we think that jazz is that vehicle to do it,” Walker said. “To do and play jazz really takes a lot of training and a lot of dedication, so those early fundamental building blocks that young people need to see — failing and getting up, working hard, preserving team work, having a voice but being part of a group — all of that happens naturally in the bandstand.”

The nonprofit, which offers 30% to 40% of their students scholarships, works with 8- to 18-year-olds in their studio, schools and throughout communities. They offer a number of different programs, including Chica Power.

“Chica Power is a program at Jazz House Kids that is attempting to close the gender gap in jazz,” said the program’s manager Allison Russo.

“If somebody were to say to you, ‘A jazz musician is coming in today,’ what comes to your mind?’ For most, that would be a male player, and Chica Power, we are trying to change that notion,” Walker added.

Chica Power is a free, year-round program that includes master classes by today’s top female performing artists and a seven-week spring residency on Saturday afternoons where 50 girls come together to play, learn about women in jazz and get mentored by professionals.

“When we started Jazz House Kids, only 7% of our student body were girls. Now we’re over 30, we’re getting close to 35%,” said Walker.

Fourteen-year-old Avery Eaton says she’s the only female drummer in her school.

“I love that the whole faculty. You’re working with amazing people, especially drummers who are all females, and they understand how it is to feel like you’re outnumbered in the jazz world, and they teach you how to get past that and do well,” said Eaton.

Eighteen-year-old Destiny Diggs-Pinto will attend Manhattan School of Music next year. She received a merit scholarship.

“I love the groove of it,” she said. “I love playing with a drummer, and like having that interconnection and just building off of that and making different tempos and rhythms.”

Walker is proud of Diggs-Pinto and all of her students.

“Jazz embodies, I think, what we seek in this world, which is a common language, which is a joy, which is a place where we can be our best self and tell our story,” Walker said.

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