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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.

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, Mulgrew Miller, James Williams, Donald Brown, 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 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 with Bitches Brew and all of the shit that that spawned, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul. Herbie Hancock 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 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, 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, Chick, Keith Jarrett.

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.
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