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Billy Childs: The Perfect Picture

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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AAJ: Well, some still like to have the CD in their hands, to read the liner notes, find out who played, who produced, who wrote the songs—and even who the sound engineer was. And they are not so thrilled about downloads.

BC: Yes. That's exceptional. ... Maybe you are right at the edge of this transition of how things used to be. You are like one of the rare exceptions.

AAJ: Please tell us a little bit about that first recording in 1977 with Janice "Ms. JJ" Johnson.

BC: Oh, yes. I was 19 at the time when I got the call. I met this guy, Kevin Johnson, a drummer, and we hit it off immediately. We became best friends. I went over to his house—for a couple of years—every day, talking about music and that kind of stuff, and finally he said, "You know, my dad wants to take a group to Japan. do you want to go?" and I was, like, "Oh, okay." I had no idea his dad was JJ Johnson. So I went over to his house to rehearse, and it was JJ Johnson, so I almost had a heart attack! That's how I ended up there. You have to understand that I was a student at USC, a sophomore, and basically a "nobody," and I dressed like a clown. I had no regards for my appearance. Studying music was my whole existence.

So I was kinda like this invisible person on the campus of USC. I got some new clothes to go to Japan because we were going to do some concerts, and I stepped off the plane and immediately some Japanese people were coming on to me and taking pictures and asking for my autograph, and they are handing me programs with my picture in it like I'm a star; it was like a cultural shock! So we get off the plane, and we do a TV show immediately, and then that night I went to the hotel and saw myself on TV. So to a 19-year old guy, that was 1977, that was almost nerve wracking, which was great. We were there for like two weeks. We did the Yokohama concert—that CD. It was fun. I'll never forget it. I'm missing JJ.

AAJ: Freddie Hubbard.

BC: Well, Freddie Hubbard is the reason, in large part, why I am talking to you now. I regard him as a teacher and a mentor and a friend, and someone who gave me something that the only way I can repay him for what he's done for me is to do the same for someone else. He hired me and allowed me to learn from his genius, which is a rare gift. And he was, as we all know, a very flawed individual, but he had a huge heart; his soul was intact. There were a lot of times when I had no business on stage with him. I mean, he was so great and I was still learning; it was like I shouldn't even have been up there. But he was there trying a solo, and would tolerate my youthful coping decisions until he couldn't stand it anymore, sometimes, and he would just turn around and say, "Lay out." But still, he taught me what I should be doing, and he was never mean or abusive to me, and he was always nurturing and always, always genuinely interested in my development. To me he is like a hero.

AAJ: Tell us about the 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship Music Composition Award. It is a pretty big deal.

BC: In 2009, I applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship, and I won it. I was surprised. It is a big award. Chris Botti compared it to a Nobel Peace Prize, but I don't think so. [Laughs.] ... This is an award for a really, really great musical career, but, that being said, I was honored to get it. I applied for it and essentially it paid a large part for Autumn: In Moving Pictures. I think maybe a hundred people win it every year in all the different facets of the arts, but there are, like, tens of thousands of applicants, so it's a very select few—a very privileged honor. You can keep re-applying every year, and there are people who have been applying for it for, like, 20 years. I got it on my first try, so that was really an honor. So, it's an acknowledgment of your artistic importance in the scene of American Music; so it's quite an honor.

AAJ: Well, music is basically food for the soul, so maybe it is still okay to compare it with a Nobel Peace Prize after all.

BC: I think you are quite right— music is very necessary. To me, there are certain basic human needs: there's the need for food, for love, for water, for companionship, and then just as important as these needs, there is the need for self expression—to be able to say what is on your mind to someone who will listen to it. And that takes a lot of forms. Dancing, drawing ... even violence! Music is a form of expression, as well, that is crucial to our existence on this earth. I try not to look at myself as too important, so that's why I kind of feel a little uncomfortable with [it] being compared with a Nobel Peace Prize. I think that if you start viewing yourself as way important, you lose something.

AAJ: You also have two Grammy Awards, both in 2006: Best Instrumental Composition and Best Arrangement.

BC: That was a very good year. I won for "Into the Light," which was also on Lyric, and for a collaborative arrangement on a Chris Botti CD [To Love Again: The Duets (Sony 2005)] for "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" with Sting singing. So it was a really huge honor to get a Grammy. It's nice to be recognized by your peers that you do something well.


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