Jazz House at the American Pianists Awards

Melissa Walker, founder and president of Jazz House Kids, beams with pride considering the extraordinary growth of musicians who have been part of her acclaimed arts education program since their early days. 2023 American Pianists Awards finalists Caelan Cardello, Esteban Castro and Isaiah J. Thompson are all former students at the Jazz House and represent the fostering environment of the program.

We spoke with Melissa, Caelan, Esteban and Isaiah about that experience.


Transcript below edited for clarity: 

Melissa Walker, Founder & President, Jazz House Kids

I'm over the moon, just welled up with emotion and joy. I have great respect and admiration. I'm excited. I've known these young people since they were young children: nine or ten. And so to see them on the big stage in the beautiful Dizzy’s Club, it's just a dream come true to see it all come together and the love that they have for one another.

Jazz House Kids is now in their 20th year. I started it as just happenstance. WBGO asked me one day to come in and do a program. I'm a jazz singer and I thought I would come in and sing a concert. And they said, “that's okay, but we'd like you to do something a little more. Talk to them about jazz.”

And I said, Well, who's the audience? And they said, it'll be kids from 2 to 14 years old and all of their parents. And I thought, what am I going to do with that? And the truth of the matter is, the week before, I thought I got laryngitis. You know, I had the flu. I mean, I did everything to get out of this moment.

But I showed up and I decided to kind of distill what I really love about this music and that it just brings people together in this conversation. But we can really come at it from different places.

So we built a jazz house that day, and unbeknownst to me, that would turn into my life's work. And some 20 years later, I think our young people are soloing and singing the greatness and taking this music forward. And, you know, they're community leaders and global citizens is what I say we're about.


Isaiah J. Thompson, American Pianists Awards finalist

I joined Jazz House, I think I was also in middle school and, you know, that was definitely a big part of why I came to love the music. You know, when I got there, there were already so many students that could play at such an extraordinary level that you had no choice but to learn and learn very quickly.




Well, first of all, to know Isaiah is to know that this young man has been here before, and he's an old soul. When he walks into the room, people pay attention to him and they listen to him. He's got wisdom. He's got empathy, and he has virtuosity on his instrument. He's a serious musician, but he also enjoys life, and he's so encouraging of other young people.

What I really remember is when he first came into the Jazz House, we had a number of very, very talented students. When you have that, they bring along other students because they're just attracted to what they have achieved. And that's a wonderful inspiration for others.

And so my husband, Christian McBride, was at camp one day. We do it every summer. And he said, I know you're looking around at all these wonderful students because we had so many knockout rising stars. He said, “You guys need to pay attention to that young man with the hat on the piano because he's got it.”


Caelan Cardello, American Pianists Awards finalist

Jazz House. My dad found out about Jazz House, I believe, online or through a friend. It was 2012, and I joined their summer camp. I was 12 years old, and I had no idea. At this point, I still didn't know that I was going to be a pianist. I was into it, but it was more like a hobby because I was into other things.

And so I had no idea who Christian McBride was. I had no idea who Joe Lovano was--all these guest artists they had. It was just another summer camp. And I was I was looking at is like a recreational camp or whatever to go and have fun and be around kids my age.

But through the next seven years of my life, it turned into one of the biggest inspirations and motivations for me. Along with like I said, Fred Hersch was really that turning point. But Jazz House nurtured that for the next seven years. Jazz House is the reason that I am the musician that I am and the reason that I really am still playing piano.



You know, Caelan is an outstanding young man, you know, And that's something that I think is so important that you're outstanding on stage and off stage, right? It matters the human being that you are. The character really matters for all of us and the humanity that you express.

Well, Caelan is a joy. One of the things I can say and one of the fun special trips we just took with Caelan is we brought them to the Middle East and we went to Bahrain and to see this young person again, soak up the culture, be so warm and so giving. Every moment he was just interested in exploring, interested in talking to people, interested in sharing his music.

The consummate professional. He was prepared on stage. You know, he could handle all aspects. I mean, he's going to be a great road warrior, okay? And he just brings so much to bear with his music. I've watched him grow. This young man has been part of the program since about 11. He comes back and plays with us and works with our students. And again, you know, just another incredible young person with great virtuosity.



I met Caelan. Yeah, I can't even remember exactly when I met him. I just feel like I remember seeing him and he always sounded great, you know? And there was always sort of a love about it, about Jazz House, you know what I'm saying? Even seeing Esteban--I don't know how old he was when he came!



In at the audition. I remember I was after Esteban, who at the time was maybe seven years old. He was like this little bundle of energy. And I just remember going in and sitting down outside the room and hearing this kid playing like this, all this like crazy stuff. And I thought it was like a college student or someone in high school.

And this little dude walks out and I'm like, Oh, okay. Like, this is what this is what's going on here.


Esteban Castro, American Pianists Awards finalist

I met both Caelan and Isaiah my first year at Jazz House. Caelan and I were in the same big band and Isaiah was a little older so he was in the higher level big band. Both of them were definitely leagues above me. I was a little kid.

I remember really looking up to Isaiah because he was about 15 or 16 and I was like nine. And so he was kind of like my elder quote unquote. And he was always really nice and always really welcoming to me. And of course, you know, you don't have to do that to a nine-year-old. A lot of 15, 16-year-olds would kind of shrug that off. But he was always really kind. And so I really looked up to Isaiah a lot

Caelan and I just very much gelled because we were kind of more similar in age—like two years apart and there was a lot of us younger kids at Jazz House at the time, so we became pretty close friends throughout, throughout the years. And yeah, he was he was always he was great. He introduced me to my long-time teacher, Fred Hersch, for example, and he's just always been really great. We’ve been good friends and I'm glad we're getting to reconnect a little soon through the APA.


Lee Clifford, American Pianists Awards Director of Marketing

So I spent some time with Caelan and he told me a story of when he was trying out for Jazz House Kids. He was in the waiting room and hearing this music coming from the audition room, and he's like really vibing to it. It's really good! And he's like, wow, you know? Then out comes this little dude and it’s...



It's Esteban. Yes. Well, and I think that's what's so wonderful. I mean, one of the things about Jazz House is we put students where they place themselves. And so with Esteban, he was always in the top group and he started at the Jazz House when he was nine years old. And we were kind of joking today, and he was saying, you know, I was a bit of a troublemaker, wasn’t I?

Well, he was just a bit of a smarty pants, you know. And we loved him immediately because, again, there was this young child just so talented, so committed to his music, playing everything, playing in all keys. You know, it's this strong classical background that he came from. And then, you know, just wowing everyone.

One of the things that I remember is that we worked with the New Jersey Ballet and we had arranged a number of pieces of music, and there was a piece by Scott Joplin and it was going to be stride piano and solo. And here he was at 11 or 12 playing this stride piano, and the dancers could barely concentrate because they were just staring at this young child play this music.

There's our trips to Peru. You know, we've been around the world with each and every one of these young people, and they're just generous. They're generous musicians and people. And it's pure joy to see them together and to see the artists that they're becoming, the human beings and the friendships that that I know will be lifelong.



It was never competitive. It wasn't like that, you know, and it never will be like that.



Another thing that I remember Isaiah saying once is that he found out early on that, if I practice 10 minutes I got a little better. And he came to Dizzy's, as a matter of fact, a few years ago. He was talking to the young people here at the Jazz House who were performing, and he said, I just knew if I put in a little extra every single day, I got a little better and, you can see with Caelan, Esteban and Isaiah that they've put in a lot of extra.

This is wonderful and I think is one of the young men said today, you know, it's really good that you are here for them to bring this opportunity a rigorous and exciting schedule for them, support that they're going to need as artists, and a platform with the Cole Porter Fellowship.

That level of seriousness meeting the level of seriousness of these young people means that they are going to have what they need to pursue this at an even higher level.

To see Sullivan Fortner and Aaron Diehl and Emmet Cohen. We're going to be here standing beside you. We've got some other really fantastic pianists. So they'll be there in four years. They'll be knocking on your door again!




Sign up for our Newsletter
Our diverse world shapes our music, the artistic language of our contestants. It delights, informs, and inspires us all. It is in this spirit that the American Pianists Association welcomes people of any race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and gender identity, as well as people with disabilities. We commit to learn from diverse talents, ideas, and voices. We pledge to create an environment for our artists, audiences, community partners, board, and staff that is based on the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Further, we commit to enacting strategic and annual plans that provide focused, measurable strategies for living out these values every day.