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Billy Childs: Pushing Past Preconceptions

Billy Childs: Pushing Past Preconceptions
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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan
George Colligan
George Colligan
b.1969
keyboard
's blog, Jazztruth]

Billy Childs is simply one of the baddest musicians on the planet. He's a brilliant jazz pianist, having received much acclaim as a sideman with legends as well as from being a bandleader. His Windham Hill recordings—Take For Example, This....., His April Touch and Portrait Of A Player—were a big influence on my musical tendencies.

Childs has been busy for the past two decades as a composer, having been commissioned by major symphony orchestras as well as jazz stars. He has received three Grammy Awards and was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Still, I think Childs is somewhat underrated in the jazz world, partially due to the fact that he has lived in Los Angeles (as opposed to New York, arguably the jazz capital of the world....at least for the time being), and has also been touring with Chris Botti for the past few years. Hopefully, Childs will have much more visibility as a bandleader in the near future.

Childs is a very no-nonsense type of person; in our interview, he spoke frankly about his musical opinions and his view of the music scene. This kind of conversation is exactly why I started my blog; jazz musicians should be able to tell people their side of the story. It's rather lengthy, and we could have gone on longer.

George Colligan: I believe it relates to the state of creative music and the fact that there are all these opinions out there and now with the web, at least we can hear from musicians, but it's hard to have a clear idea of what the state of music is. I feel like if you're doing creative music in a sense you should probably get a pass because there's some really extremely commercial music that seems to get fawned over by writers, and then somebody who's trying to do something to be expressive will get ripped apart by a critic like that. What's your feeling about that?

Billy Childs: Well actually it's not just pop music. You're contending with other creative artists, you're contending with everybody and their mother who wants to put out a CD. I mean, there's a fucking glut of music out there right now that you have to wade through, that people have to wade through in order to get to music that's been really carefully thought out and put together and all of this shit. So my feeling is that I just continue to do what I do and the internet, while it's made everybody's music available to everybody, it also makes it possible to find your audience. Starting mailing lists, having ArtistShare or Kickstarter campaigns; Facebook is really important in that, I think.

We all know that America takes for granted the very music that is the crowned jewel of its musical contributions to the world. It takes it for granted because it requires an attention span. But you just keep going on, you know. Just keep doing it. I wanted to ask you, as an educator, don't you think it's kind of a problem when there's so many students and the demand for jazz is way low and there's all these students coming out of school who can play the shit out of jazz?

GC: To me it's actually an ethical dilemma. The fact that all these students are paying—I recently noticed in the grocery store, I think Time Magazine or Newsweek said something like "is a college degree a good investment?" I didn't read the article, I just noticed the headline. I should read the article to find out what the statistics are, but I think some people, when you look at the number of people in any field who graduate from college or have multiple degrees, even doctorates, aren't finding jobs in their field, and then when you consider the astronomical cost of education in this country, you've got to wonder. And it's not everybody, but it's enough people that will be crushed by debt and will maybe never be able to get a job. In terms of musicians, people who either don't play so well or do play really well are not having opportunities to become a musician or play, who will be frustrated for the rest of their lives. My first feeling is that, if you are going to make the decision to major in music or jazz, you're going to need to be serious about it.

BC: You have to make hard decisions about whether or not you are actually necessary to the world as a musician. Is the calling in you so strong that you just have to get this message out to everybody? If so, then yes, pursue it. But if not, if you're not that passionate about it, then get out, because there's enough.

GC: I say that to people—you kind of do this because you have to because you think it's kind of a cool idea to be a musician. For me I really had no other choice. I had good grades in school, but at a certain point everything that I was doing was about music. I think we all have those times where we think, "well what if I did something else, then I guess I could be driving a Lamborghini or something." I don't know, to me this is what I love to do and this is where my skills seem to lie. I've actually thought about the idea that anybody who majors in music should automatically be a double major.

BC: Yeah, maybe. Like in business or some other practical thing.

GC: Yeah. I mean some people say music education, which is what I did, but it's definitely a problem and it's only getting worse. You've got to be honest with people and not make it seem like there's going to be tons of opportunities, try to make sure that people know that it's competitive.

BC: Yeah, it's way more competitive than when I was coming up. I'm 55, so when I was 20 and making my mark, like 1977 or shit, there's a handful of piano players on the level. Now everybody is on that level, but back then it was the guys I knew, like Kenny Kirkland
Kenny Kirkland
Kenny Kirkland
1955 - 1998
piano
, Mulgrew Miller
Mulgrew Miller
Mulgrew Miller
1955 - 2013
piano
, James Williams
James Williams
James Williams
1951 - 2004
piano
, Donald Brown
Donald Brown
b.1954
, and a few others. But now it's fucking every kid! And there's the internet and YouTube and all these videos you can see of actually how the masters played that we didn't have. So they learn it really quickly. A lot of times they play like they learned it.

GC: Well let's bring that to you, because to me you've kind of always had your own style. You were telling me about some of the first things that you listened to that inspire you. You said you're a real Return to Forever
Return to Forever
Return to Forever

band/orchestra
fan...

BC: Oh yeah. When I was 14, which is about when I started getting serious about music, that was about 1971. What was happening was this incredible confluence of styles coming together. I think I was really incredibly lucky to be at that impressionable age during that time because what was going on was that jazz was interested in trying to connect with rock, rock musicians were coming out of conservatories and trying to work classical music into it, like Keith Emerson. Then you had Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
with Bitches Brew and all of the shit that that spawned, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
, John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
b.1942
guitar
, Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
, Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
1932 - 2007
keyboard
. Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
and the Headhunters. All of this shit was happening, all these various styles.

Not just styles like genres of music but cultures of music. Like the Mahavishnu Orchestra
Mahavishnu Orchestra
Mahavishnu Orchestra
b.1971
band/orchestra
incorporated East Indian Music and those rhythms, and Herbie had this African influence in his music, so all these shit's going on. Leonard Bernstein wrote that Mass.... It had lyrics by Paul Simon
Paul Simon
Paul Simon
b.1941
composer/conductor
, drum sets, etc. All this informed my music and I guess the thing that I took from it was to try to incorporate all things that were influencing me and try to sift all of those genres into one form of music. And that's what those guys did and that's what I try to do. Emerson was hugely influential, besides the obvious ones—Herbie, McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
b.1938
piano
, Chick, Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
b.1945
piano
.

GC: What about 20th century classical music, or anything that falls under the category of European classical music, because I know you have a relationship with that. Can you talk about that a little bit?

BC: Sure. After high school I took a theory class and I took jazz piano, classical piano. Because I kind of excelled at theory in high school I was encouraged to go to try out for USC as a composition major. There were three places I applied—USC, Berklee, New England Conservatory. And Berklee and NEC accepted me as a jazz major or something, but USC accepted me as a composition major. And I wanted to explore European composition. I had heard "Mathis der Maler," by Hindemith and I fell in love with that piece. I wanted to know more about how shit like that was working.

And so I chose to go to USC to study composition. So my four years there were really...I just got indoctrinated with European thought in terms of music. Structure, orchestration, counterpoint, theory—that kind of thing. And really it was invaluable to shaping my concept now. One thing I dug about classical music is that because it had such command of a technical aspect of orchestration and all of these musical devices, it really lent itself to drama. You can really paint tonal pictures with it, with that command of orchestration and structure. You can create these cinemascapes, these tonal soundscapes, just by understanding how the masters did it. So that was really invaluable to me.

GC: When you're composing, do you think "I'm going to write a jazz thing," or a classical thing, or do you even think in those terms? Or does it just come out and you don't worry about the labels?

BC: Well when I write my music, for me, I don't think in those terms at all. Not at all. I feel, I won't say offended, but I feel like people are putting an unfair limitation on my music when they say "it's a classical piece" or "it's a jazz piece." Because it's everything that I've been influenced by. But that doesn't mean that if some singer wants me to do jazz arrangements, and she specifies some idiomatic preference, a stylistic preference, that she would like me to do, then I'll do that. Or if some orchestra or chamber group wants a straight-up classical piece, like a string quartet, then I'll do that. But when it's my music, then it's kind of like whatever I'm hearing. I'm more concerned with the story, the drama, the effect that I want to achieve. If jazz or classical isn't the quickest way to get to that, then I'll do that.

GC: What is your feeling about American jazz in Europe? Do you have any awareness of the European scene? Because I personally feel like it seems like there's more going on in Europe in terms of gigs, and I feel like there's sort of this idea that Europe wants to take ownership of jazz. I don't know if you have any thoughts about that.

BC: Well I mean, no one takes ownership of any form of music, in my opinion. We have to recognize the roots of the music, where it came from, who invented it, why. But once it's out there, it's out there. Just like democracy, you know. It started a certain way but now it's a living, breathing entity that has to reflect the times. Slavery was legal when the Constitution was written. That's kind of how jazz is. I call jazz a classical music. My definition of classical music is one that's so profoundly deep that it would last generations but each generation will put its own mark on it. The music will be strong enough to endure and change with each generation's interpretation. Now in terms of Europe owning jazz? That's....

GC: Well, to play Devil's Advocate, I read this book called Is Jazz Dead, or Has it Moved to a New Address?, by Stuart Nicholson. He talks about how the perception is that the jazz that comes out of America is very traditional, historic, and very repertoire-based, whereas the Europeans don't feel tied to those traditions in the same way, so they're moving the music forward.

BC: I don't know about that. I wouldn't read that quote to someone like Jason Moran
Jason Moran
Jason Moran
b.1975
piano
or Dave Douglas
Dave Douglas
Dave Douglas
b.1963
trumpet
. People who are at the forefront of their shit. Even Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper
b.1978
piano
, you've got to mention him. He's combining jazz with hip hop in an interesting way. It's significant, what he's doing. There is innovative stuff. I think, being from America and us being co-opted and run amok by labels and critics and divided and conquered and all of this bullshit, I think that they don't even know what the fuck American jazz is now.

Back when bebop was coming out, everyone knew what that was. It was one form of music and it kind of evolved naturally into hard bop and modern jazz and so forth and so on, but it's kind of branched out into all these different things and put into all these different categories and shit. And then you have shit like smooth jazz and commercial whatever. Maybe in Europe it's a little more, maybe they're like "you know what? We got this shit now." I don't know, I haven't been to Europe enough. I'll say this: I haven't been to Europe enough with my own group, but one thing I do know is that, from the audience perspective, there's a much more acute awareness of what jazz is and much greater ability to actually appreciate it. Do you feel that?

GC: Yeah. Well for me, I actually feel like one of the big advantages that Europeans have—and I hate to just lump Europe into just one category, because it's many different cultures within one continent—in general, it seems like people in Europe go out. They go out and they to either hang out at the pub or to listen to music, or just to be outside of their house not at home on the internet or watching TV. I mean, I'm sure there's some of that, but just to give you an example: you go to say, Cleveland, on a Tuesday, and it seems almost like a ghost town.

BC: Los Angeles.

GC: Right! And then when you go to Europe it seems like people are just out, hanging out, going to hear music. In Japan, people like to go out.

BC: I know. And, man, Prague is the shit. I was in Prague and people were out walking around, it's a beautiful night in a beautiful city, you could just stumble into a jazz club and somebody's really trying to deal with some stuff, you know? Yeah, I know. America is the most developed country in the world but that may be the leading us to some bullshit music or something. I don't know.

GC: In terms of you bringing your band to Europe, do you have the desire to be out there more as a leader? It seems like it's really about that time.

BC: [Laughs] It's about that time! I'm 55...well, I did a European tour about a year ago. It was one of the most rewarding tours I've ever done, one of the most rewarding things as a leader I've ever done. Mostly because of what we were just talking about. We played a gig in Austria, in Vienna. Big-ass 1,400 seat place—which was packed! Sold out! And I played whatever the fuck I wanted. My songs. I took a piano solo here, didn't take one there, then a harp solo, Brian Blade
Brian Blade
Brian Blade
b.1970
drums
was playing on the gig. It was like a standing ovation, encores, the promoter took us out to dinner after. When we walked into the restaurant, people got up and starting applauding. That's what they think of what we did. And then we'd play at a club here, and have to catch a cab home, you know...we played at the Duc De Lombards in Paris and it was the same thing! Such a warm acceptance. When you're playing, really playing, it's like life food for them, like it's essential to their life that they hear art on that level. And it's really rewarding to provide that art. And I got that sense every gig that we did in Europe. I'm with Myles Weinstein and he's working with me on a quartet thing that I'm trying to put together to do a European tour next summer. And we'll see where it ends up.

GC: I certainly think in terms of your piano playing and your writing, to me you should be out there as much as any of these other cats. One thing I wanted to ask you...you're from LA, and I know you were kind of going back and forth...was that a hard decision not to go back to New York?

BC: I think it really had an effect in terms of my profile in the jazz world. For two reasons—one, the connection to Europe is a lot longer. Promoters find it more difficult to fly me out from LA than New York, for obvious reasons. Number two—New York is perceived as the jazz center of the world. If you're from anywhere else—especially LA which is perceived as an industry, a commercial town—then you're incapable of putting out anything of any depth. Combine that with the fact that I was on a jazz label when I was making a name for myself back in the late '80s, with really great distribution, the problem was that it was called Windham Hill Jazz. Some genius in marketing thought that they would have a jazz label called Windham Hill Jazz; which, of course, Windham Hill was the poster boy for New Age music which is the antithesis of jazz. And so a lot of people would look at the label and go "Windham Hill? Nah this is bullshit, I don't want to hear this." Or they'd hear it, but the Windham Hill image would be so strong that they would still call it New Age.

GC: I could see that. I don't know if you ever heard some of Dave Holland
Dave Holland
Dave Holland
b.1946
bass
}'s ECM records, there's one I'm thinking of with Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman
b.1956
saxophone
and Marvin "Smitty" Smith
Marvin
Marvin "Smitty" Smith
b.1961
drums
, and it really doesn't sound anything like what you'd typically hear from ECM. I could see people being confused, if they buy into that. That's interesting.

Did you ever want to live in New York full-time?

BC: I had a place there, it wasn't full-time though. By the time I had the place I had a family and everyone was used to being here. I kind of did, but I'm in New York so much now. I've kind of established myself in this particular direction, like I have this jazz chamber group, and I'm kind of cool with not having been in New York, but do I wonder how shit might have turned out? Yes, I do. I think as a jazz pianist, I think I'd be way more out there and touring every summer and that thing. But being in LA has given me a minute to reflect and become more of a skilled composer. Which to me is much more rewarding and important. Because I've developed this thing here, LA's kind of a studio town, so when I have some heavily orchestrated thing, or some chambers type thing, it's not difficult to call people to rehearse it and hear what it sounds like. Everyone has a car, and you have your garage to rehearse in.

In New York, you've got to get everybody into a practice room in the city and people have to worry about parking—it just wouldn't work. So I've learned a lot just about getting together with people about composing. And that's contributed to who I am right now. One thing that New York critics don't like about me is that I don't apologize about being from LA, you know? I don't defer to New York. They listen to my music and they have that geographical chauvinism that nothing of depth can come from anywhere other than New York. That's a pet peeve I have with critics, and that's why when that cat jumped on you, I was like "who the fuck are you to say that?"

GC: Well it seems like a lot of times there's an agenda or there's preconceived notions not based on anything that has to do with the sound of the music. Because if I was listening to your music I wouldn't think, "Oh, this is an LA vibe." I would just hear it as some killing stuff.

BC: Well, I appreciate that.

GC: Yeah. I don't like to think of things in that way, because certainly there's a lot of things that come out of New York that don't have the "New York sound," whatever that is. Your music certainly has as much intensity if not more than a lot of stuff that comes out of there.

BC: You know I have to say—a lot of times I use a New York rhythm section because it's still hard for me to find drummers and bassists that are playing like the ones in New York. In LA you're not going to find any Antonio Sanchez
Antonio Sanchez
Antonio Sanchez
b.1971
drums
es or Clarence Penn
Clarence Penn
Clarence Penn
b.1968
drums
s or Brian Blades. Actually you would—he lives there, doesn't he?

GC: You know, I keep hearing that, I saw him last year and he seemed to imply that he wasn't really here that much. But there's Brian Blade sightings once in a while. So I'm not really sure. He's not on the scene at all. But you never know. Portland seems like it's getting a good reputation as a good place to live, I'm sort of wondering if more cats are going to move out here.

BC: Hey, you ever play with Ron Steen?

GC: Yeah, he does a bunch of jam sessions.

BC: Tell him I said hello when you see him. I used to see him with Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson
1937 - 2001
sax, tenor
, Tom Grant
Tom Grant
b.1950
, and Patrick O'Hearn.

GC: That's amazing! Tom Grant's still around too. Hey Billy, I should wrap it up, but I really appreciate this. Good to talk to you, always.

BC: I appreciate you interviewing me for your blog! Your blog is much better than most blogs concerning jazz. You know, I've always thought that musicians should critique the critics! There should be some sort of thing, 4 stars, on what we feel the guy knows. How sound he is on history, his grammar, his fucking punctuation...

GC: I hear you. It's a touchy subject, I certainly wouldn't want to alienate all critics, but we should hold them to as high of a standard as they seem to like to hold us to.

BC: There should be more rebuttals. A lot of musicians, including myself, tend to think, "Well, I'll just let the music speak for itself, I'm above that, I'm not going to lower myself to get into a battle of words over music." The time for that is getting old. They're just fucking writing what they want, and giving that impression to thousands of people.

GC: I think creative music is not in a great position now and these critics are people that claim to love this music, yet nitpick something. I've paid out of my pocket to do some of these records, and then to be crushed by some dude who didn't even listen to it, is an insult. They don't realize what we're up against.

BC: Yeah! Or maybe he listened to it but didn't like it for some reason. Instead of saying "this guy is obviously great, I just didn't get it" they'll say "this sucks" in a very declarative, definitive way, like it's an empirical truth that you suck.

GC: But then you have a bunch of reviews like that, and you wonder why nobody likes jazz. The stuff that's really good will fall by the wayside, the people who are already doing well in the industry—they're always going to get a good review. So the people one or two tiers below have to really struggle just to be mentioned. And then when it's a bad or unclear mention...it just feels unfair to me.

BC: I'm with you. I don't think I've ever—and I've been doing this for 35 years—I don't think I've ever gotten a good review from a New York critic about anything that I've ever done. Which, to me, is upsetting.

GC: I would think they would dig your stuff the most. I don't get that.

BC: I think I got one good review from the Wall Street Journal on my last record. Chick Corea tells me I'm good, Herbie...I think I must be good.

GC: Yeah, they should know!

BC: I'm glad that you called me. Hope we can hang soon.

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Unlimited Myles Publicity

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