Talented musicians of all ages at Montclair Jazz Festival

Melissa Walker sings with the Christian McBride Big Band at the Montclair Jazz Festival.


Melissa Walker sings with the Christian McBride Big Band at the Montclair Jazz Festival.

On Saturday, the sixth annual Montclair Jazz Festival brought a considerable crowd and a diverse range of musical talent to Montclair. With cars extending blocks from the festival site and picnic blankets covering Nishaune Park, the festival reflected the increasingly eclectic nature of Montclair’s denizens, joining together young children, hipsters and seniors in pursuit of some high quality, and free, jazz.

Co-hosted by four-time Grammy award-winning bassist and festival artistic director Christian McBride and Golden Globe award-winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson, the event drew several internationally celebrated jazz icons, including José James, the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet and even McBride himself, accompanied by his wife, acclaimed vocalist Melissa Walker.

The festival originated as a concluding event for a summer camp run by the Montclair-based non-profit, Jazz House Kids. It soon evolved into a beloved Montclair tradition, and while it has enticed impressive headlining acts, Jazz House Kids’ student and faculty Big Band is one of the festival’s main attractions.

Deb DeSalvo, a Montclair jazz devotee, was dazzled by the band’s performance and the poise of many of its younger members.

“Seeing the young players up on a stage for the first time is quite magical,” she said. “You know some of them are terrified, but they get up there and they play their instruments and are part of something bigger than themselves. When they finish, you can feel how they have been empowered. What a spectacular way to end a summer camp experience. This will stay with them forever.”

Another standout performer was James, who featured songs famously recorded by Billie Holiday. James was accompanied by McBride and legendary drummer Billy Hart, along with Jazz House Kid’s faculty members Oscar Perez (piano) and Bruce Williams (saxophone).

“I enjoyed hearing José James for the first time,” said Montclair attorney and musician Bob Mellman, who has attended the event each year. “It was exciting to hear a major label jazz artist accompanied so brilliantly by Montclair-based jazz musicians, who are among the world’s elite.”

D’Rivera, a saxophonist and clarinetist, and winner of multiple Grammy awards, engaged the crowd with his stunning music. Susan Korones Gifford, a Jazz House Kids board member and festival organizer, said that he “absolutely cooked, and in keeping with the Jazz House Kids Mission, brought on an 8-year-old clarinetist who he’s been mentoring. He blew the crowd away.”

Next year’s organizers face the challenge of finding additional space for the crowd. Steve Kingston, president of Empire Broadcasting System, Inc., and radio station WRNR-FM (Annapolis, Md.), said “there wasn’t an empty seat in the park until Christian played the last note of his last jam. Melissa sang a Brazilian number where you could close your eyes and think you’re at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Great day capped off by a memorable night of music. And, of course, it’s all about the kids.”

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