Interview with Billy Childs: Seriously? Video

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Jazz interview with jazz pianist and keyboardist Billy Childs. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Billy Childs: – I grew up in Los Angeles California during the late 50’s, the 60’s and 70’s.  I had great parents and two loving older sisters and the environment was one of great comfort, love, and support.  My parents had very eclectic tastes in music, so I was exposed at an early age to all kinds of music – from Bach to Jobim, from Handel to the Modern Jazz Quartet, from Mozart to Barbara Streisand.  Music was all around me, so I’ve always been interested in music.  What got me interested in becoming a musician professionally was listening to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (Tarkus) for the first time; something about the way that music impacted me made me decide that this was the journey I wanted my life to be about.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

BCH: – If by “sound” you mean my voice, musical language, or concept, I can’t really answer that.  It’s like asking someone to describe how they grew.  All you know is that all of the sudden you are bigger, better, taller, more fluent than you were years ago (or even months ago).  That is, provided you maintain good habits (practicing, being healthy, etc.).  What I did to develop my sound, I suppose, was to keep my focus on the artistic vision I was trying to formulate in my head, and then do mainly those things that moved me and my energy closer to that goal.  It wasn’t a premeditated and planned out “goal” per se – just a driven and persistent determination to realize those artistic visions in my head.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

BCH: – I don’t have a practice routine, especially regarding rhythm.  That is, I never set out with a consciously calculated system on how to improve rhythmically.  I would just try to play with drummers and rhythm section players who I greatly respected and whom I could learn from.  I listened to all kinds of music that was rife with rhythmic complexity – from Stravinsky to Frank Zappa, from Herbie Hancock’s interactions with Tony Williams in Miles’ great quintet of the 60s to Steve Coleman and MBASE.  Sometimes I would make a mental note of what was happening and then try to clap out the rhythms in my hands, in an effort to internalize them.  But none of this was a “routine” or “exercise” – it just happened naturally.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

BCH: – I frankly don’t see why you would want to prevent disparate elements from coloring your music.  You are the sum/total of everything that you’ve been influenced and inspired by, whatever direction the influence came from.  Why would you want to stop that process from happening?  It seems a bit like an egotistical pursuit to want to create music that is only about you and therefore is alien to any other outside influences.  To me, nothing worthwhile is created on an island or an isolated lab – the beauty of music is to demonstrate our connectedness, no matter what verbal language you speak, what country you’re from, what religion you practice, or what race you are.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

BCH: – The preparation occurs well before your performance: in individual practices, group rehearsals, basically your habits.  Your habits – how you practice, how you take care of your body, how you mentally challenge yourself – all figure into the success of a performance.  What I’m saying here is certainly not a new concept, but it is difficult for some people to remain vigilant in maintaining good habits (for a variety of legitimate and bogus reasons).  In my experience, I’ve found that being at my best physically as well as being mentally clear has helped me to become more spiritually open in my music.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

BCH: – Ism?  What is that?

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

BCH: – I think that they both serve and enhance each other.  By “intellect” I assume you mean the cerebral part of music – the part which involves questions of logic, math, problem solving, technique, etc.  And by “soul” you mean that which we are trying to express in the music: the message, the feeling, “experience” of listening to it, the healing aspect of it.  Without proper technique (that is to say, any technique which allows you to be fluent in illustrating your ideas – doesn’t have to be European based technique) I believe it is impossible to get to the spiritual truth of your message, at least with any clarity.  By the same token, I also believe that without a spiritual intent, music (and art for that matter) loses all potency.  Basically, the connection between music and spirituality for me is this: Music has provided me with tangible evidence of what I think of as “God”.  When things hook up without having to think about them, when you can second-guess what everyone else in the group is doing and is going to do, when the entire ensemble seems to be of one mind, when the music makes you experience an inexplicable state of consciousness – that’s when music takes on a spiritual dimension.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

BCH: – I like to look at it as giving the people what they didn’t realize they wanted.  As an artist, I think that ultimately the listener wants to be surprised with the truth, and also wants to feel, to experience.  The listener wants to be transported to look at life through a new lens.  In my music, I try to remain focused on creating works that have depth, layers, and certain element of complexity – I try to create music that engenders “active” listening.  The type of listening where the mind/spirit of the listener is actively stimulated – by the music – to imagine environments and landscapes of his/her own invention.  A sort of dialogue between the listener and the performance – a dance.  I try not to pander to the listener.  I don’t underestimate the intelligence, flexibility, or openness of the listener by spoon feeding them easily digestible, one-dimensional music scientifically aimed at generating maximum popularity and financial gain.  I want my music to be a healing force.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

BCH: – Probably my favorite audience experience was in 2005 at Disney Concert Hall – I wasn’t a performer but my composition was being performed.  It was a piece I wrote for the Los Angeles Master Chorale called The Voices of Angels.  The text is six poems from children in the Terezen concentration camp, written around 1942.  The poetry deals with the harrowing experience of being in the camp (most of the children died of typhus) and I found it incredibly moving and felt that I had to set it to music.  So I composed a 45-minute piece for chorus, orchestra, and two vocal soloists (Luciana Souza and Catherine Leech).  The chorus and orchestra (led by Grant Gershon) rehearsed a lot of times and by the time the premiere night came, they were more than ready.  Before the first note was played, you could hear a pin drop; the anticipation of the piece was really high (the concert was well publicized).  The performance was profoundly moving, soulful, and note-perfect.  After the last note rang out, the piece got a ten-minute standing ovation and four curtain calls!  When I got to the stage to take a bow, the applause became deafening.  Afterward, people came to me with tears in their eyes, shaking my hand so hard that it hurt.  That was the most rewarding audience experience I’ve ever had.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

BCH: – It doesn’t matter how old a song is, it’s what you do with it and what the song means.  Half a century old is only 1970, when some of the best music ever created was happening.  Without the music of the 70s, there would be no Billy Childs, the composer.  Besides, it’s really not up to us to get young people interested in jazz so much as young people getting THEMSELVES to be interested.  And it goes to follow that the more interested a person you are, the more interesting a person you are.  So this question should not be so much directed at me, but instead directed at young people: “How can you be more self motivated to be interested in jazz?”, even with song standards that are seemingly “too old” (they’re not).  This is a two way street – young musicians must respect and try to learn from the past and from people who are older with way more experience.  By the same token, older musicians need to respect younger musicians as the new torch bearers of this legacy of jazz; they have new voices, new approaches which often are as valid as the tried and true devices we’ve been falling back on for decades in jazz.  There are geniuses, gifted, pretty good, mediocre, and very bad musicians in every generation.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

BCH: – Seriously?  You’re asking me the meaning of life?

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

BCH: – Nothing.  Music must be representative of humanity and the progress and regressions we have collectively made.  There are certain music genres and trends that I absolutely love; there are other genres and trends I absolutely loathe.  But the same is true for how I feel about individual people – there are certain ones I love and certain ones I loathe.  Music has to accurately depict that.  If nothing else, art is a barometer for where society is at morally, spiritually, ethically, politically, etc.  I would change our behavior as a species before I would change anything about music.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

BCH: – Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Samuel Barber, George Walker, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea – too many to list…

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

BCH: – Many different messages – whatever I feel needs to be said at the time.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

BCH: – I’m good with living in the present, even with all the good and the (mostly) bad of 2020.  But if I could spend a week in the past, then New York City around 1943/44 or so.  Be-bop was being created by Dizzy, Bird, Monk, Bud – and Bartok was in New York City, having escaped from Nazi-era Hungary.  52nd street was happening and Miles just moved to NYC.  A really happening period!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

The Frame | Audio: How LA shaped Billy Childs and his hybrid jazz | 89.3 KPCC

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