Melissa Walker is a visionary, results-oriented leader and arts education advocate. In 2002, she was asked by WBGO Jazz 88 to conduct a workshop for Newark students and their parents to introduce them to jazz music. She asked the audience to strap on imaginary tool belts and together, “build a jazz house,” layering instrument by instrument. Since that first workshop, Walker has dedicated her life to making sure that every student receives a great arts education, crafting JAZZ HOUSE KiDS to bridge the gap in music instruction and place students on a level playing field with their peers from other communities.
Today, JAZZ HOUSE moves into its 3rd decade under Walker’s leadership as one of the foremost nationally-acclaimed jazz education and performance organizations transforming lives using the power and legacy of jazz. Through world-class education and hundreds of performances each year, JAZZ HOUSE creates avenues of access, learning, career development and community building and has worked with close to 55,000 students. The organization’s graduates, some of whom are rising stars of the jazz world and music industry, have gone on to become community leaders and global citizens, empowering to find their voices as both on and off the stage long after they leave the JAZZ HOUSE classrooms.
With Walker at the helm along with her husband, 8-time GRAMMY Award-winning bassist Christian McBride and Newport Jazz Festival artistic director serving as JAZZ HOUSE artistic director and board member, the organization fosters a strong community of award-winning students, dedicated teachers, and first-rate professional musicians. On the occasion of its 20th anniversary year, Walker ushered in an exciting new collaboration with Trinity Church Wall Street, opening the doors to the first JAZZ HOUSE in lower Manhattan, offering a free robust jazz education to NYC students, tripling the size and impact of its reach, while maintaining the organization’s mission-driven commitment to excellence.
In addition to more than 150 public performances produced each year including two concert series with Trinity, the organization’s far-reaching cultural signature program is the award-winning Montclair Jazz Festival produced by JAZZ HOUSE. The brainchild of Walker and now in its 15th year, the Montclair Jazz Fest is the largest free jazz festival in the NYC area, attracting more than 25,000 attendees to downtown Montclair each year. The festival, 12 miles from NYC, features multiple summer days, 50 musical acts, 150 professional musicians, 150 emerging musician performers, five downtown stages, and 200 food + artisan vendors. The main stage performances are also rebroadcasted on SiriusXM Real Jazz for 1.8 million listeners.
A Brown University graduate and GRAMMY Award-winning jazz vocalist, Walker has been recognized by NJBiz as one of New Jersey’s “Best 50 Women in Business,” and received the Jazz Journalists Association’s Jazz Hero Award. In 2023, Walker was awarded the prestigious Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award, one of 11 individuals who give back to the community — unsung heroes from around New Jersey who demonstrate their passion and unstoppable commitment to serve the most vulnerable.
An acclaimed jazz vocalist and recording artist, Melissa has performed internationally for close to 20 years. In addition to recording five solo albums and appearing as a guest artist on numerous CDs, she is the featured vocalist on bass virtuoso and band leader Christian McBride’s 2012 Grammy-winning album The Good Feeling.