Walker|West: Growing Through Music Since 1988
Walker|West is an out-of-school time music school that teaches instrumental and vocal music to students ages 5 to adult from its music center at 760 Selby Ave. in St. Paul. The non-profit community music school teaches all styles of music, including classical, but is especially well-known for teaching jazz, gospel and other styles of improvisational music. It is also noted for developing a caring community of music students and educators. The organization provides affordable, quality music instruction inspired by the African American cultural experience to young people and adults. All faculty members are working professional musicians.
Walker|West is thought to be the oldest community music school in the nation founded by African American musicians.
A generous scholarship fund keeps music education affordable and accessible. The founders’ vision has always been to make music education available to any student who wishes to learn. Their work has touched the lives of thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to study at top music conservatories and perform professionally.
The Walker|West Story
Walker|West was founded in 1988 when musicians Rev. Carl Walker and Grant West joined forces to provide piano instruction to children in the Summit University neighborhood of St. Paul. With one rented piano in the upstairs of a duplex, the founders pursued a vision that went beyond teaching music.
“The idea was to build a safe place on Selby Avenue where neighborhood children could pursue something positive and life-affirming,” said Rev. Walker. Grant West added, “We were teaching piano and building self-confidence in children who often didn’t have many people encouraging their success.”
Together, Walker and West developed a method of music instruction that emphasizes immediate success. Walker|West students walk out of their very first lesson knowing how to perform a simple melody.
In 1991, Walker|West moved into a building at 777 Selby Ave. Soon thereafter, St. Paul Schools band teacher and student counselor Felix James became a Walker|West faculty member. He launched the horn program, teaching brass and woodwind students.
Felix James also initiated Walker|West’s jazz ensemble program. For decades, Walker|West’s student jazz ensembles have performed on stages throughout the Twin Cities area, from community events to Orchestra Hall. Walker|West’s jazz ensembles continue to be the only youth ensembles to perform on the main stage at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. They are the only ensemble from a non-academic school to compete in the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, where in 2017 they took first place among more than 100 other competitors.
In addition to teaching piano, organ, brass, woodwinds, drum set, African drums, and voice, Walker|West supports a full string program. Students ages 5 and older can learn violin, viola, cello, bass, and guitar. These students routinely participate in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies (GTCYS) and the Minnesota Youth Symphonies (MYS), including the highly competitive MYS Symphony Orchestra that toured Cuba in 2017. String students also participate in the Artaria Chamber Music School and several have been invited to the Sphinx Performance Academy, a national full scholarship summer string program for students of African descent and Latinx. Last year, a group of students from Walker|West performed at the Ordway with internationally acclaimed hip hop duo, Black Violin.
Teaching Music, Changing Lives
Walker |West has made a difference in the lives of thousands of students. St. Paul Mayors Chris Coleman and Melvin Carter were both students. Dozens of professional musicians got their start at Walker|West. Many Walker|West students went on to receive degrees from some of the most prestigious music colleges in the country, including the Manhattan School of Music, Julliard and Berklee College of Music. Just as important are the Walker|West students who did not pursue a career in music, but developed a sense of confidence, a love of learning and the habit of hard work in the positive, supportive community that is Walker|West.
Overcoming Hard Times
The road has not always been easy for Walker|West. In 2009, for example, the organization faced a number of challenges, including the effects of the recession. Walker|West was in rough shape physically, too. Its home was a crumbling, century-old building that was in constant need of repair.
A hard-working executive director and a skilled board of directors worked tirelessly to turn the organization around. Thanks to their efforts and the support of a generous community of donors, Walker|West is on firm footing.
In 2014, Walker|West moved into a newly developed 6,000 square foot music learning and performance center at 760 Selby Ave. In May 2018, it dedicated its renovated exterior, which features joyous, music-themed artwork by renowned St. Paul artist Ta-coumba Aiken. Today, Walker|West is a vibrant space for music education and performance that is helping transform its Selby Ave. neighborhood. It is a place where people of different ages, races and backgrounds come together over their love of music.
To learn more about Walker|West’s history, please visit our timeline.
To schedule a free trial lesson with a Walker|West instructor, please call 651 224-2929 or contact us online.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.