Christian McBride & JAZZ HOUSE KiDS Celebrate 'Most Influential Year in Jazz'

Anna Webber
Christian McBride

Ledisi & Ravi Coltrane are among spring gala's special guests raising awareness for jazz education.

Noted jazz education organization JAZZ HOUSE KiDS is presenting its 2019 Spring Gala on Wednesday, where Ledisi, Ravi Coltrane, Ingrid Jensen, the Bill Charlap Trio and Christian McBride’s New Jawn are among the special guests who will perform at the City Winery in New York City. The dinner and concert will be hosted by NBC News anchor Lester Holt.

This year’s gala celebrates "The 60th Anniversary of the Most Influential Year in Jazz,” with the aforementioned artists and other acts performing selections from six seminal 1959 albums chosen by JAZZ HOUSE KiDS artistic chair and musical director McBride. Those recordings include Ray Charles’ The Genius of Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Sings the Gershwin Songbook, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. The selections will, in turn, feature a collaboration between the special guests, JAZZ HOUSE KiDS alumni and the JAZZ HOUSE BiG BAND, under the direction of Abraham Burton. To round out the celebration, drummer and NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb, who played on Davis' Kind of Blue, will be presented with the JAZZ HOUSE KiDS’ Jazz Luminary Award.

Proceeds from the gala will benefit JAZZ HOUSE KiDS’ year-round music education and performance programs. Founded 16 years ago by McBride’s wife and jazz vocalist Melissa Walker, the organization has served more than 50,000 young people.

In the following interview, Walker and six-time Grammy Award winner McBride talk about jazz’s game-changing year and the organization’s JAZZ HOUSE Music Club, a new partnership with City Winery.

Billboard: What sparked the tie-in between the gala and the most influential year in jazz?

McBride: The year 1959 is a marker in jazz history because new and innovative styles were emerging. The genre could no longer be defined by one sound or style as it had been in the ‘30s, ‘40s or even the early ‘50s. That year’s seminal recordings—including Kind of BlueMingus Ah Um (Charles Mingus); Time OutThe Shape of Jazz to ComeandGiant Steps— transformed jazz forever because these artists were influenced and inspired by each other, ultimately changing perceptions of the genre as a whole. We’ve always paired the JAZZ HOUSE KiDS’ alumni and the JAZZ HOUSE BiG BAND with acclaimed artists. So I thought about the magic we could make recreating some of the most important music in the history of jazz.

Walker: Creating opportunities to highlight these talented students and their hard work is always foremost in our minds. Every one of these seminal recordings is a branch on the tree of jazz and that means that those recordings laid the foundation for which JAZZ HOUSE KiDS executes its mission. These artists are our Beethovens. Our Mozarts. Our Picassos. 

What are you most proud of having accomplished thus far through the organization?

McBride: Many of the young leading musicians today like Julian Lee, Isaiah Thompson, Matthew Whittaker, Coleman Hughes, Zoe Obadia and Esteban Castro, to name a few, are all part of our JAZZ HOUSE KiDS family. They’re successful professional musicians and it's really gratifying to know that we've had some hand in their development. As we look toward the future, it is our hope to create more opportunities for young people to learn about and play jazz, America’s original artform.

Walker: We recently announced a new partnership with City Winery and its founder Michael Dorf to launch the JAZZ HOUSE Music Club in New York City. The inaugural program will support a thriving music program at the Grand Street Campus public high schools in Brooklyn, New York, providing private lessons, mentoring and top-notch instruction to help students develop key skills while enhancing their knowledge of music fundamentals and the art of performance. The campus includes the High School of Enterprise, Business and Technology; East Williamsburg Scholars Academy and Progress High School for Professional Careers—all of which serve a population of at-risk, high-need students. The organization and our students are the recipients of over 100 awards, and we’re coming up on close to $2 million in scholarship support for our graduate students who have gone on to Oberlin, Northwestern, Columbia, Manhattan School of Music, Berkeley, Juilliard and other top institutions. 

Any other key JAZZ HOUSE projects being planned for the remainder of the year?

McBride: Our two biggest programs are the JAZZ HOUSE SUMMER workshop that happens at the beginning of August, attended by kids from 10 states and a handful of countries. We’re also celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Montclair Jazz Festival produced by JAZZ HOUSE KiDS. The festival will kick off with a bang between the great Bettye LaVette and living legend Eddie Palmieri. I'm bringing in my childhood friend Joey DeFrancesco, who also happens to be the greatest living organ player on the planet, along with guitarist Mark Whitfield and drummer Quincy Phillips. And the Jazz House Collective will also be there, comprised of 
JAZZ HOUSE KiDS faculty that come together every year to celebrate the music of a jazz icon. This year they will honor Art Blakey.

Walker: The Montclair Jazz Festival started out as a culminating event of the summer workshop. And it’s grown from 300 to more than 10,000 people attending two jam-packed weeks overflowing with 250+ jazz musicians, 30+ musical acts, two marquee stages, seven venues and 20+ concerts and events from July 26- August 10. It’s sponsored by The Bravitas Group/Silver Family Foundation.

Back to the spring gala, what lasting audience takeaways are you hoping for tomorrow?

McBride: What I hope is that, at the very least, people who come to support us will say, "Wow, look at these young musicians up there playing with established artists” And that they’ll see firsthand how this organization is trying to nurture young talent. 

Walker: Christian knew right from the start that he wanted to have our alumni in every single band. To have members who were part of JAZZ HOUSE KiDS from when they were in middle school and high school is going to be very special. People will see that the future of jazz is in very good hands.