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Billy Childs: Pushing Past Preconceptions

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan'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.

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