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Billy Childs: Pushing Past Preconceptions

George Colligan By

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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.

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