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Community Heroes: Melissa Walker helping kids find their voice through jazz in Montclair, N.J.

By JOHN DIAS

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    MONTCLAIR, New Jersey (WCBS) — As we continue to highlight community heroes under our #BetterTogether campaign, we introduce a New Jersey woman who is paving the path for future jazz artists.

“It just makes this journey worthwhile,” said Melissa Walker, founder of the performance organization Jazz House Kids. “The reality is, arts are just this rich place for you to grow as a young person.”

Jazz House Kids is the only community arts group in New Jersey — and now in New York City — exclusively dedicated to educating children through jazz.

Walker founded it 20 years ago. Since its inception, Walker says it has positively impacted more than 50,000 kids, offering students dozens of weekly instrumental and vocal lessons available at all levels.

She also works with local schools to start up musical programs.

“Jazz harnesses empathy, it harnesses creativity, improvisation,” said Walker. “Quite frankly, I think jazz really harnesses the things that kids need in the 21st century.”

From the classroom to the stage, students get to learn and grow in front of one another.

The community also reaps the benefits, as Jazz House produces the town’s annual Montclair Jazz Festival every August.

“It’s the largest free jazz festival in the region,” said Walker.

But it’s always the classroom Walker keeps in mind, and the kids who pass through it, like 19-year-old Ellah Brown.

“I would definitely say she is like a jazz mom,” said Brown.

The former Jazz House student is now going to Howard University studying music therapy and thanks Walker for her success.

“Every artist wants to figure out a way that they are going to give back to the community,” said Brown “I think she has made a great impact.”

Walker says the studio is a home-away-from-home for many of these students. It gives them a creative location to go when they may not have one.

“To deny, young people access to the arts, for me, it’s a social justice issue,” said Walker. “The quality of your arts program, the breath of your arts programing, your access to it, in many ways, still has to do with your zip code.”

Many of her classes are free or tuition is on a sliding scale.

Walker says 100% of her students graduate from high school and go on to college.

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