A warm afternoon sun and the buzz of traffic on Selby Avenue passed through the front windows of Walker West Music Academy in equal measure. William Duncan was at the grand piano, showing 15-year-old Jaccob Williams how to spread his fingers and strike a series of chords.
“Yes sir, Yes SIR!” Duncan said, as the boy struck the keys to match the sounds his instructor was demonstrating.
Even in a short lesson, the love of the music and the passion for performance came through. And it’s that love and passion that is driving the biggest development in Walker West’s history since its founding in St. Paul 26 years ago.
Come June, the music school will move into a newly renovated 5,900-square foot space just across the street. The $550,000 project will boast a large performance space, multiple practice studios, a computerized music lab and offices — all on one level. Nearly 70 percent of the total budget — including all construction costs — has been raised through grants and donations, said Executive Director Peter Leggett.
Friends, fans and alumni say the move will allow an honored institution in the local black community to continue reaching, teaching and inspiring new generations of musicians.
Nikki Jean, a singer-songwriter who has toured with Kanye West and Rihanna, started taking lessons at Walker West when she was 7.
“It is just an amazing place. I would not be a professional musician today if not for them,” she said Wednesday. “I think Walker West being in the community is so crucial, so critical. It has been a place of refuge … and joy.”
Founded by the Rev. Carl Walker and Grant West, the academy quickly outgrew its humbler beginnings in a rented Hague Avenue duplex with a single piano. For the past 20-or-so years, it has called the onetime speakeasy-turned-liquor store-turned-barbecue shop at 777 Selby Av. home. More than 300 students pass through in a year, about 125 in any given week. All receive individual instruction in jazz, blues, classical, gospel or hip-hop.
Most students are school age — elementary through high school — but a growing segment are in their 50s or older, drawn to the idea of connecting or reconnecting with music.
During the past several years, Leggett acknowledged, the school encountered financial troubles. Under his direction, however, it has regained its footing, with support from the community and donors once again strong. So strong that when it was clear the current facility was straining to contain the program, the board began considering options.
A 2011 assessment showed the 1922 structure had “good bones,” Leggett said, but also revealed that it needed extensive work. The board was left with a decision: renovate or move.
“Do we really want to be in the business of rehabbing a nearly 100-year-old building?” Leggett said board members asked.
So, they decided to start looking around.
For two years, the school searched the area without success. Then the College of Visual Arts, which leased space in the Mytana building across the street, closed. Walker West made contact with the building owner and began fundraising last summer. Project supporters include the city of St. Paul’s Cultural STAR program, the 3M Co., the McKnight Foundation, the St. Paul Foundation, and the Cunningham Group. Funds remaining to be raised will pay for technology, furniture and moving costs, said Leggett, who has led the school for more than four years.
“Ultimately, this allows us to do what we have done for 26 years, only bigger and with a new beginning,” he said.
Solomon Jamal Parham, 41, is one of 13 instructors who work at the school. He has played trumpet professionally since he was 16. In 2008, he came to Minnesota and Walker West from Detroit. He said it didn’t take long to feel the impact this school and those who teach and learn here have had on St. Paul’s Summit-University neighborhood, and the Twin Cities as a whole.
The move, he said, will allow the school to transform from “a grass-roots community pillar into a world-class institution.
“We are looking at this beyond this space, with online tutorials and distance learning,” he said. “I am proud to be a part of this, a part of black history here.”