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Billy Childs: Pushing Past Preconceptions

George Colligan By

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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 or Dave Douglas. People who are at the forefront of their shit. Even Robert Glasper, 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.

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