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Billy Childs: L.A. Contentment

Billy Childs: L.A. Contentment

Courtesy Raj Naik


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Whatever genre is at my disposal that I need to express—that feeling—I'll use it.
—Billy Childs
Billy Childs says taking formal piano lessons as a young child "didn't register" at the time. He didn't recoil from the instrument by any means, but it wasn't yet exciting. But he had a neighbor who also played. Childs looked up to him. It was that neighbor who showed him stuff—taught him to play " Cantaloupe Island" and other things.

"I consider those my first real piano lessons, actually," says Childs from his Los Angeles home. Good fortune. He continued his musical training in earnest and by the time he graduated from USC with a degree in composition, he was already making his mark on the L.A. jazz scene and was off on tour with Freddie Hubbard.

Decades later, Childs has five Grammys (13 nominations), has gigged with and been mentored by jazz luminaries such as trumpet icon Hubbard and trombone great J.J. Johnson, among others. He composes for symphony orchestras, writes arrangements for great singers and continues to perform as a solo artist. He heads his own razor sharp jazz combos. He is a musical Renaissance man, of sorts.

In his storied career, Childs has shown himself to be adept in most any musical situation. His orchestral and chamber commission credits include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Kronos Quartet, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the American Brass Quintet, the Ying Quartet and more. His record contract with Windham Hill in the 1980s thrust his name more into the forefront as a pianist and jazz artist.

Illustrative of his abilities as an arranger and openness as a collaborator is the 2014 release Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro (Sony, 2014), an album he did of the iconic Nyro's music that included a variety of singers from many genres. Among them were Esperanza Spalding, Rickie Lee Jones, Susan Tedeschi, Shawn Colvin and Alison Krauss. There were guest musicians as diverse as Chris Potter and Yo-Yo Ma. It won a Best Arrangement, Instruments And Vocals Grammy for "New York Tendaberry," with Renee Fleming singing.

"I had this idea to do this Laura Nyro thing and I wanted to do these particular tunes," says Childs. He worked with noted bassist and producer Larry Klein on the project. They had a longstanding relationship, as it was Klein who helped him get the gig with Hubbard years before.

"A big part of it was Larry Klein... So he and I worked out the tunes. I had three that had to be on it: 'Map To The Treasure,' 'New York Tendaberry' and 'Gibsom Street.' We kind of came to the conclusion of what would be the other tunes. When it came to casting, I considered: What is necessary to bring out the meaning of the song? For instance, 'And When I Die,' I wanted to put a bluesy spin on it, like a blues or a bluegrass type of thing. We thought of Alison Krauss.

"Laura Nyro is such an iconic figure and hero. And also, such an underrated hero to many female singers, that the singers wanted to do it, just because it was an interesting project. Renee Fleming was a fan of Laura Nyro. Rickie Lee Jones was highly influenced by Laura Nyro. It was a lot of big names, but it wasn't as hard as one would think to get these people. I credit Larry a lot with that. Larry organized that thing very well. Plotting out when we would record and what. Then I wrote the arrangements."

Childs' latest contribution, a Mack Avenue recording released this year, delves deep into his jazz bag. Acceptance is a superb disk with a top-shelf core quartet comprised of Steve Wilson on saxophone, Hans Glawischnig on bass and Eric Harland on drums. Added to that mix are singers, percussionists and the sweet flute of Elena Pinderhughes. It contains all original tunes by the pianist (some re-makes of songs recorded on earlier albums) and one standard, "It Never Entered My Mind." It was recorded in January.

The title, he says, is derived from his thoughts on dealing with difficulties and sadness in life and the need to reconcile and move on. "After you get older, you start reflecting on things. Friends pass away. Relationships end. Things in the natural course of life start happening. In order survive, you have to accept that these things will happen. It was kind of what was going on with me personally."

The album is a followup, in a sense, to his 2017 release Rebirth that featured the same core quartet and won Childs a Grammy. "It follows the same idea, the same pattern. Kind of a return to my output as a jazz pianist and writing in an exclusively jazz idiom. A lot of my other projects have been, like, jazz chamber or I get a commission to write a straight-up classical piece. Or with singers. When I was recording for Windham Hill back in the '80s and early '90s, it was pretty much like this. A focused small jazz group. In fact, on both Acceptance and Rebirth I re-make things I did for those Windham Hill Albums. ("Twilight is Upon Us" and "Quiet Girl" on Acceptance were first recorded for Windham Hill). Those recordings put me on the map, pretty much."

As for the band, "Eric's my favorite drummer, he and Brian Blade," he says. "Steve is like a brother to me. Elena is remarkable. Amazing. We did a gig at the Jazz Standard about nine years ago. I said, 'I've got to record with this group at some point.' It's a group I put together for that particular gig. Me, Steve, Eric and Hans. When we did the gig, it was like, 'Oh man. This is incredible.'"

The album kicks off with a driving Latin groove,"For Dori," that is infectious and entices ears toward the rest of the disc. "Acceptance" shows Childs' soft, melodic side and moves to "Leimert Park," an intense, driving composition that never loses it way. There are no bumps in the road on the disk.

"For Dori" is named after Dori Caymmi, the Brazilian musician and son of an icon from that country, Dorival Caymmi. "If Jobim was Duke Ellington of Brazil, then Dorival Caymmi was Count Basie. They were these two towering figures. He lived in LA for awhile and he and I became very good friends. I wrote this Brazilian-based tune and I thought of him. Even though it's kind of opposite of how he actually composes. He writes these soaring melodies, almost ballad type. And these lush changes and lush harmonies and orchestrations. The way I did it was as a very fast, samba-ish, visceral tune."

Childs laments the fact that a tour in support of the music is not possible during the pandemic. "We had a whole bunch of stuff planned. We had a big album release concert planned for September at the Jazz Standard. We had tours we were getting together. Now it's a thing of the past until next year, hopefully. As soon as it's safe and as soon as people will dare to go out. I'd love to do it."

One of the things that does occupy Childs during these trying times is writing music.

"I always saw myself as a composer as well as pianist. Maybe a composer more than a pianist. I studied it in college. I got a degree in composition from USC. I studied it very seriously," he says. "While I was playing with J.J. Johnson and Freddie Hubbard, I was still at USC studying composition. Even though I was a jazz artist, very rooted in jazz with those iconic artists, I was still very much a student of composition. I thought of myself as that. That's never changed. Even when I was in Freddie's group—I loved playing with Freddie and got an education from him that you can't buy. Even still, I knew I wasn't only going to be a jazz pianist. I felt like it was too limiting for me."

"Now I do it because I have commissions. I have classical assignments where people are expecting the commission to be finished by a certain deadline. But even if I didn't, I would be writing. I have all kinds of ideas," Childs says.

"I compose music that is within my ability to compose. If I had to write an Indian raga or something like that, I would have to do research and study and all of that. But I like music that's within my ability to write. Whatever genre is at my disposal that I need to express—that feeling—I'll use it. I don't want to only be limited to the language and the history of jazz. I don't want to only be limited to the legacy and history of European classical music. I want to be able to do what needs to be done in order to get out what I'm trying to say."

His jazz leanings came from his upbringing. His parents always had eclectic taste and albums found in the house ranged "from Barbara Streisand to the Modern Jazz Quartet to Nat King Cole, to Jobim, to Bach, to Handel and Haydn. All kinds of things. Music was all around me. My oldest sister, Joy, really loved jazz. I listened to a lot of the records she brought home. My next door neighbor, who gave me lessons, was also into jazz and I listened to records with him. I was saturated with music and with jazz," Childs says.

After those lessons with his neighbor, and some public performances as a child, Childs went where he could continue to study music. At USC Community School of the Performing Arts, Childs found a piano and played it every chance he got. Outside the jazz idiom, he heard Emerson, Lake & Palmer, which stoked his imagination and he learned some of those tunes.

In the jazz world, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner were the first that captivated Childs. "I loved Time for Tyner (Blue Note, 1969) and I loved Empyrean Isles (Blue Note, 1964) by Herbie Hancock. I heard One Flight Up (Blue Note, 1965) by Dexter Gordon, I heard Inner Space (Atlantic Records, 1973) by Chick Corea. Those are the main ones. Herbie, Chick, McCoy. Keith Jarrett was later. I first heard Keith Jarrett on Sky Dive (CTI, 1972) by Freddie Hubbard.

Hubert Laws was a also big influence, he notes. "I knew I wasn't going to be a flautist but I just loved hearing him play. I think he's one of the great American improvisers. I heard Afro-Classic on CTI (1970). That was a big influence on me."

It was at the boarding school that he met Larry Klein. They took a music theory class together and played casual gigs around town. When he moved on to USC, he was doing more gigs but put his main focus was studying composition. In the midst of it, there was an unexpected surprise.

"All of a sudden I got a gig to go to Japan for two weeks with J.J. Johnson in my junior year. I took that opportunity. My teachers were very understanding and flexible with that," he says. "Things timed out perfectly, because in the summer between my junior and senior year, I started playing with Freddie Hubbard. Montreal was my first gig with him. That whole summer we did a European tour. It was great. Then, when school started up again I quit Freddie's band to finish my senior year at USC. And right when I finished, the pianist that he (Freddie) used to replace me, was fired. The week that I graduated. Just coincidentally. And he asked if I could re-join the band. So right after I graduated, I was back in Freddie's band."

"The Freddie thing" he says, "changed my life."

Hubbard's reputation was that, while a genius on his instrument, he could be hard to deal with at times and had his occasional struggles with sobriety. But for Childs, "Freddie was very patient. I would even go so far as to say he was protective of me. Sometimes I got the feeling he was protecting me from himself, in that he would curb his behavior sometimes. He was a flawed person. He liked to indulge in various things. Sometimes when he indulged in alcohol it meant that he could get mean. But he tried to keep from doing that with me. When we'd be talking about music—obviously, he was a genius—if he had a suggestion, I would just do it. I was all ears. I wouldn't ask why or anything. I would just do it.

"He was very patient, like a teacher, when he was seriously telling me something musically. I was learning how to play jazz in his band. For instance, if I'm comping and get all in his way and messing up his solo, he'd still bear with it until I figured out what I was doing. If he couldn't stand it anymore, he'd just turn around and say, 'Lay out.' A lot of times he would just let me do that, then (in his playing) he'd react to me."

Playing with the great vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson was also important to Childs' growth. "I had a great connection with him. And Joe Henderson. I played four days with Art Farmer and I remember that being a great gig. I played with Benny Golson where he was here. That was really fun. I played a gig with Johnny Griffin. I had a great connection with Roy Haynes when I played a trio gig with him."

Most jazz musicians take up a New York City residency, for at least a segment of their young lives, to make and secure a reputation that can sustain a career. Childs never uprooted to New York, but for a three years he did maintain an apartment there and got involved in the scene. But during that time, he bounced back and forth from the Big Apple to California.

"My career didn't take me to living in New York," says Childs. "I didn't think I should be required to live there in order to be deemed as a credible jazz musician with a message to say. If everybody says, 'You should do this,' then I'm the person who says, 'I don't think I'm going to do that.' I was happy and comfortable in Los Angeles. I didn't like the lack of space in New York. I love the scene. I love the people. But I like how I live here (LA). Why should I have to live in a cramped place that was cold, where I'm one insignificant drop in a sea of jazz musicians when I'm cool living here? That's the bottom line."

To this day, in LA Childs has "my crew of musicians who I play with who are extraordinary. Plus, I might have become a different composer, but I like the composer that I have become from living out here. That's directly tied to the fact that things are easier to do here. Studio time was cheaper. I could go into a studio and afford to experiment with my compositions. I could rehearse at my place, because people could simply get in their car and bring their instruments to my place to rehearse. Rather than me renting a rehearsal space in New York and people getting on the subway."

There is also a presence with regard to New York City that he preferred to avoid. Says Childs, "there isn't as much legacy and history of music here in Los Angeles as there is in New York. That's obvious. On the other side of that, you're not weighted down by the baggage of that legacy. If you're a jazz musician, (in LA) you're not saying, 'That's too classical.' If you're classical, you're not saying, 'We only do classical.' There is more segregation of the art forms on the east coast than there was on the west coast."

He adds, "The film industry requires that string players be in the studio with drum sets and click tracks. So the people who are studying with Jasha Heifetz at USC, studying violin in the most serious of environments, also had to work and the most prominent work was studio work. So you have this mentality of classical musicians being OK with mixing it up with jazz musicians, and vice versa. Whereas on the east coast, it might be harder to get people to cross genres like that. Especially during the '80s. Because of that, I can write my half classical/half jazz stuff" and have it be performed by top classical musicians where needed, and strong jazz musician when called upon.

He says he can take people like the Schoenfeld sisters who studied serious classical composition at USC and grab brass players who did gigs with the Gerald Wilson big band, "and put them all in the same thing."

Therein lies the prosperous career Childs, a superior pianist with a mind and passion for exploring the possibilities of composition in any direction the spirit moves him.

For now, amid the pandemic, he teaches some students at the University at California, Berkley, via Zoom. He also has commission, including a chamber piece for a string quartet and a piece he is writing for the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Add to that a violin concerto he recently completed that he hopes to premier next year.

But like all musicians, Childs pines to get out and bring his music to the people—a people that is starved to hear live music. "A lot of musicians are hurting from not playing," he says, "but there is also the problem of hurting from not being able to experience it."

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