You’ve come a long way baby.

Montclair Jazz Festival, returning this year bigger and better, has grown every year along with the organization that started it all, Jazz House Kids. Both are here in Montclair, thanks to the vision of founder Montclair jazz vocalist and recording artist Melissa Walker, with creative direction from her husband, Christian McBride—a four-time GRAMMY Award-winning bassist, composer and arranger.

Photo: Neil Grabowsky
Rhonda and Bob Silver, presenting sponsors, join Christian McBride, Melissa Walker and S.Epatha Merkerson at launch party for the 2015 Montclair Jazz Festival. Photo: Neil Grabowsky

Jazz House Kids celebrated the official launch of the 2015 Montclair Jazz Festival with its first Sponsor/Artist/Media Mixer on Wednesday evening.

The event, a way to celebrate the generosity of sponsors who ensure the Montclair Jazz Festival remains a “No Tickets Required!” event, was held at Hillside Square, courtesy of The Bravitas Group/Silver Family Foundation, the Festival’s presenting sponsor.

Jazz House Kids students perform at launch party for 2015 Montclair Jazz Festival.
Jazz House Kids students perform at launch party for 2015 Montclair Jazz Festival.

Walker explained how Jazz House Kids started with humble beginnings. Inspired after mentoring youth at a WGBO event, she began working out of her kitchen to follow through on her vision to build a Jazz House.

“The reason it’s called Jazz House Kids, it’s about jazz, it’s about our future which is our kids, and it’s about a house that exists in the community. It’s also about creating global citizens and community leaders,” says Jazz House Kids founder Melissa Walker. “When you step into this year’s festival, you will see 150 students on stage with some of the greatest acts.”

Those acts include this year’s headliners — dynamic vocalist José James, the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet, and the Christian McBride Big Band featuring Melissa Walker. The world-class artists perform on the same stage with more than 150 multi-generational performers including festival favorites Radam Schwartz Organized, the Jazz House Faculty Collective directed by Ed Palermo, and Jazz House Kids award-winning student ensembles and vocal groups. S.Epatha Merkerson returns as mistress of ceremonies.

And when you are enjoying incredible live jazz – no tickets required – on Saturday, August 15, you can also imagine the future. “This festival will be a three-day weekend festival as soon as this hotel can get up,” says Walker, mentioning the hotel coming to Montclair from The Hampshire Companies, one of the festival’s sponsors. Next year, the Festival will remain at Nishuane Park, but its footprint will grow to incorporate more of the Montclair Center area.

Changing The Lives Of Students and Building Community

Bravitas Group’s Bob Silver spoke of his commitment to Jazz House Kids not only because of what the organization does in Montclair, but for the entire state of New Jersey, adding “You see the kids performing, you see a big jazz festival. What you don’t see is what Jazz House Kids does in bridging the gap for children in under-served communities.

Walker detailed the impact of Jazz House Kids. “We have worked with 45,000 kids, students have benefitted from $800,000 in music merit scholarships and Jazz House Kids has had more students who go on to study at Juilliard than any other institution in the world. We just got back from Peru, invited by the U.S. Embassy, we took 13 students, see 25 ensembles each and every week, from students with special needs to the students who are tomorrow’s rising stars and professionals and out their playing, and everything in between. We are in 16 schools, and we are now going to Orange to do a five year program in the district there.”

Walker thanked Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson, saying how it was a fabulous time for the arts in Montclair and how the town has blossomed under Jackson’s leadership. She also thanked the entire town council and specifically 4th Ward councilor Renee Baskerville, “for letting us right in your backyard.”

Jackson also spoke, adding that both the festival and Jazz House Kids have put Montclair on the map. “When we have that many people show up on a Saturday in August to enjoy music, [there were 6,000 attendees last year] it’s great for our community.”

McBride expressed how happy he was to be bringing his 17-piece big band to the festival this year and shared more about the growth of the Jazz House Kids’ two-week summer camp. “It got so big, we moved it this year from the Salvation Army to Montclair State University. McBride mentioned mid-day August concerts every weekday leading up to the festival including special guests drum legend Billy Hart, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Tia Fuller, who will also be mentoring as part of the Chica Power initiative Jazz House Kids implemented this last year, resulting in a 28% increase in female participation.

What’s New This Year
This year’s festival has expanded in its footprint – and new this year, is Macy’s who will sponsor the Family Jazz Discovery Zone, a family friendly designated area within the festival grounds featuring healthy snacks, story time featuring music-themed books read by festival musicians and plenty of art activities for kids and their parents. Another big first is the festival goes global with live-streaming of the event. Jazz lovers around the globe can tune in to watch the festival live at on August 15, between noon and 9 p.m.

Leading into the Montclair Jazz Festival, is the launch of the Mid-day Summer Concert Series, curated by festival artistic director Christian McBride and featuring artists including Billy Hart, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Geoff Keezer, Rqadam Schwartz and the Jazz House Faculty Collective. Held at Montclair State University’s outdoor amphitheater, the afternoon concerts are open to the public with no tickets required.

The festival weekend kicks off with the North Coast Brewmaster Festival Kickoff, a four course dinner accompanied by ale pairings, on Thursday, August 13 at Montclair’s Pig & Prince restaurant. Tickets are $100 per person.

Following the festival, there’s an after party at Egan & Sons West Orange, walking distance from Nishuane Park, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. The post-Festival Jam Session party has a $10 cover charge — 100% of the proceeds from this party and the Brewmaster event support Jazz House Kids full mission.

Montclair Jazz Festival will be held at Nishuane Park on August 15 from noon to 9 p.m.