Walker West music school gets a new home without missing a beat

Walker West
Thirteen-year-old McKinley West practices piano with his grandfather Grant West Thursday, Mar. 20, 2014 during a lesson at Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul. More than 20 years ago, Grant West and the Rev. Carl Walker founded the music school, regarded as one of the premier jazz education institutions in Minnesota.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

The sweetest sound at St. Paul's Walker West Music Academy last week didn't come from a piano or a trumpet. A sledgehammer made the prettiest noise.

School founders Grant West and Carl Walker broke open one of the walls in the old College of Visual Arts classrooms on Selby Avenue to make way for a renovation for the school they started 26 years ago across the street in a former barbeque joint and liquor store.

The new school building, a former printing plant, is the next progression for Walker West, a Twin Cities cultural institution with roots deep in jazz, gospel and the blues, with a story that sets itself apart from better known and traditional institutions like the MacPhail Center for Music or the St. Paul Conservatory.

West and Walker were teaching music along Selby Avenue back in the 1980s, but not together. They knew each other's work, though.

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"Occasionally I would be out somewhere, and I would hear, probably at a church function or something, I would hear some student playing, and I would know automatically that was one of Carl's students," West said.

Walker West
James Franken, left, a Central High School senior, practices saxophone during a lesson with teacher Felix James on Thursday, Mar. 20, 2014 at Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

That was enough to bring them together. They threw in and soon bought what was once a Selby Avenue speakeasy and began teaching music grounded in the African-American experience.

"It's really music education for the community, for Selby."

"This is a community pillar, two gentlemen that's African-American that wanted to provide music for a community that couldn't afford music lessons," said Solomon Parham, who teaches trumpet at Walker West and compares it to Hitsville U.S.A., the Detroit house where Barry Gordy founded Motown. "That's what the noble purpose is about when you have the word community," Parham said.

That's what you'll see evenings and weekends at Walker West. About 125 students a week take lessons there.

Walker West, though, nearly went silent during the recession.

Grant West
Grant West is one of the founders of Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul.
Tim Nelson / MPR News

The school owed tens of thousands of dollars in back payroll taxes lost its focus and was nearly out of money. Like many non-profits, it outgrew its founders. West said he and Walker "ran the place as long as we were able, and then it kind of got too big. We were doing too many things."

Enter Peter Leggett, who took over as executive director. He's better known as the drummer for the Heiruspecs, the St. Paul-based hip hop group. He pared back the mission and pushed for a new start. When the St. Paul-based College of Visual Arts went out of business last year, he saw the chance to get a home with a better fit and a fresh vision.

"It will definitely provide more program space," Leggett said. "The heart of the new space however, is performance space that will seat between 75 and 100 individuals, and we want to use that for not only our programs and be able to use it for recitals, and clinics and other performance events, but we really want to see that be open to the community and allow other non-profit programs to use it."

The city's Cultural STAR program, the McKnight Foundation, the St. Paul Foundation and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, among others, are helping fund the move, which is just across the street, but a world away from where it started.

The relocation means Walker West is making a big evolutionary step beyond a couple a guys with a piano, without leaving its roots, said Doneka Scott, a Walker West parent and vice chair of the school's board.

"It's really music education for the community, for Selby," Scott said. "We were fortunate enough to be able to relocate right across the street and still remain on Selby. It's been nice because we can provide education to the neighborhood, where they likely would not have been able to have that education."

Walker West leaders hope to have their new space built out by June.