The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jan 28, 2013

Walker West Music Academy youth jazz rnsemble at the University of Minnesota's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute

Posted by Valerie Nahmad

By Peter Leggett, Walker West Music Academy

The Academy's youth jazz ensembles have the privilege of performing throughout the Twin Cities on a regular basis. Student group performances have included events for Wells Fargo, General Mills, the City of Saint Paul, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival and the Twin Cities Jazz Festival to name a few.  Public performance is in fact a core component of the youth jazz ensemble program.  Academy jazz faculty believe that students need to learn more than just the technical and theoretical skills of improvising and soloing. Faculty believe they also need to get out in front of people to perform and learn group dynamics in real time as share with an audience.

One such opportunity came this January in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. On Sunday, January 20 the Walker West Music Academy Monday Youth Jazz Ensemble performed at the 2013 University of Minnesota's Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribute sponsored by the University's Office for Equity and Diversity and the School of Music.  The event was held at the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University's Minneapolis campus.

Led by Walker West jazz director Felix James, the youth performers at the event included John Blanda on piano, Victor Hafoka on keyboards, DeVante Jackson on tenor saxophone, Jack Breen on alto saxophone, Gavin Stark on bass and Edmund Catlin on drums.  Testing out some new material consisting of contemporary jazz standards with back-beat rhythm feels, the group soared through the performance.  Jazz director James said, “I was so proud of the group! They brought the house down... this new material is so hip!”

Felix James had recently been trying out a more contemporary repertoire in the jazz program. While still firmly rooted in the tradition of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, today James believes that youth jazz musicians are wanting more contemporary urban rhythms incorporated into their jazz music development.  Using new jazz standards by the likes of trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Kenny Garrett mixed with classics by Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, the groups now have one foot in the tradition and one foot in the contemporary scope of improvising.

For more information about the Academy's Youth Jazz Ensemble Program, go to


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